Archive for April 19th, 2009
Hardliners win N Cyprus election
Turkish Cypriot nationalists have swept to victory in a parliamentary election in northern Cyprus that could hamper peace talks with Greek Cypriots.
The right-wing National Unity Party (UBP), which favours closer links with Turkey rather than EU membership, has won 44% of the vote.
That leaves the ruling Republican Turkish Party (CTP) of leader Mehmet Ali Talat with only 29%.
Mr Talat retains his position, but his hands will now be tied at peace talks.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded the island in response to an attempt by Greek Cypriots to make it part of Greece.
Frustration at the slow progress of talks aimed at reuniting the island appears to have been a key element in this latest poll, the BBC’s Tabitha Morgan reports from Cyprus.
When Turkish Cypriot leader Mr Talat began talks with the Greek Cypriot leader, President Dimitris Christofias, over a year ago, he predicted a deal within months.
As part of the package, the breakaway Turkish Cypriot republic – which is only recognised by Turkey – would have gained automatic membership of the EU.
None of this has happened.
The leader of the nationalist UBP party, Dervis Eroglu, has said he will be pressing for international recognition for the breakaway state.
Supporters of the UBP Party celebrate the election win
The UBP wants the island to remain divided and has its sights on a two-state model.
Mr Eroglu has said that he would be appointing his own representative to accompany Mr Talat to future negotiations – a complication which is likely to make the search for a solution to the Cyprus problem considerably more difficult, our correspondent says.
The last attempt at a negotiated solution to the Cypriot problem – in 2004 – collapsed when Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of a UN settlement plan which was rejected by Greek Cypriot voters.
As a result, Cyprus – or the southern part ruled by Greek Cypriots – joined the European Union that year, while the north remained effectively excluded.
Just under 162,000 people were eligible to participate in Sunday’s vote. The provisional election results were released by the Turkish Cypriot administration with 89% of the votes counted.
Madonna injured in horse tumble
Pop star Madonna has suffered “minor injuries” and bruises after falling from a startled horse on New York’s Long Island on Saturday.
According to her spokeswoman, the 50-year-old singer fell when her horse was “startled by paparazzi who jumped out of the bushes” to photograph her.
Madonna was treated at a hospital in Southampton and was later released.
A previous horse-riding accident in 2005 left her with three cracked ribs, a broken collarbone and a broken hand.
She got back on a horse a couple of months later for an appearance on David Letterman’s US talk show.
Madonna was visiting friends in the Hamptons when the accident occurred, her spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg said in a statement.
The singer would be having further tests and remained under observation by doctors, she added.
According to a local newspaper report, Madonna had been performing jumps and wearing a helmet when the accident occurred.
The entertainer recently returned from Malawi after her bid to adopt a second child from the country, three-year-old Chifundo James, failed.
Her lawyer has lodged an appeal against the judge’s ruling.
Pancreatic cancer therapy ‘hope’
Promising early results for a drug for pancreatic cancer have been reported by a team of UK and US scientists.
The drug, which targets a molecule called PKD involved in tumour growth, also seemed effective in animal tests on lung cancer, the researchers said.
The findings are especially encouraging because there are few treatments available and survival is poor.
Human trials should start within 18 months, the American Association for Cancer Research conference was told.
PKD is a family of molecules called kinases which provide a signalling function between the outside and inside of the cell.
Also involved in cell survival and the formation of new blood vessels, PKD was discovered to be potentially key target in tumours by UK researchers some years ago.
A team at Cancer Research Technology Ltd – a company owned by Cancer Research UK – then developed molecules which would inhibit the effects of PKD.
The latest results on the resulting drug, known as CRT0066101, show it inhibits the growth of pancreatic tumours in mice and works in lung cancer models.
It is thought that future studies may show the drug to be effective on a wider range of cancers.
Human trials should be starting after safety studies have been completed, they researchers said.
CRT’s discovery laboratories director Dr Hamish Ryder said the team focused on pancreatic and lung cancer tumours because they are cancers with a “significant unmet medical need”.
Dr Sushovan Guha, who leads the laboratory at MD Anderson Cancer Center and collaborated in the project, added he was optimistic about the drug’s potential.
In addition to killing cancer cells, it is hoped the drug will stop tumours growing and spreading by blocking blood vessel growth.
“This would mean it offers a double action treatment but this needs to be proved through further work.”
Sue Ballard, the founder of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said the disease caused 5% of cancer deaths but only received 1% of disease funding.
“There is a great lack of really effective treatments, surgery gives the best chance if done early but even in that situation it can recur or spread.
“This research is in the very early stages but anything that’s starting to show promising results is vitally needed.”
China looks to its own consumers
China is rebalancing its economy to focus more on domestic consumption than exports in order to achieve its growth target, Premier Wen Jiabao has said.
Addressing an Asian regional forum in southern China, he announced a 10bn (6.7bn) fund for infrastructure projects in south-east Asia.
The Boao Forum for Asia has been dubbed the Oriental Davos.
Politicians, business leaders and academics are discussing Asia’s response to the global downturn.
China’s economic performance and its influence abroad have become the focus of attention at the annual conference in Hainan Province, says the BBC’s China Editor, Shirong Chen.
Mr Wen has tried to inspire confidence in neighbours hit badly by the global economic crisis, our correspondent reports.
More foreign dignitaries have attended this year than before, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung, as well as ex-US President George W Bush.
Nearly two dozen Chinese government ministers are also in Boao to debate with other delegates on how to manage beyond the crisis and what role the emerging markets can play in reforming the international financial system.
Mr Wen told more than 1,600 delegates at the convention centre that China’s stimulus package was “already paying off” and that the situation was “better than expected”.
“Investment growth has accelerated, consumption has increased quite rapidly and domestic demand continues to rise,” he said in his keynote speech, which was broadcast live on China’s state TV.
But the Chinese premier warned that there were still challenges ahead:
“The main ones are: external demand continues to shrink, there has been a large drop in exports… there is overcapacity in some industries, the pick-up in industries is sluggish, economic efficiency continues to drop.”
The concept of a Forum for Asia was born out of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s.
It has served as a platform for China to push for closer integration with its Asian neighbours on the one hand and continued globalisation on the other, our China editor says.
It is also, Shirong Chen adds, an indication that China is firming up its image as a regional leader in the face of the crisis.
Parties clash over Budget outlook
Senior Labour and Conservative figures have clashed ahead of the Budget with the Tories arguing it will be a “day of reckoning” for the government.
Shadow chancellor George Osborne said the Budget, expected to confirm a likely 3% fall in growth in 2009, would “lay bare” Labour’s economic failings.
But in an upbeat message on YouTube Chancellor Alistair Darling said the UK economy had “underlying strengths”.
And Labour said the Budget would focus on efforts to “go for growth”.
Three days ahead of the Budget, the chancellor said his twin goals were to provide help for people struggling to make ends meet and to prepare the UK for the recovery when it arrives.
“We have underlying strengths we can play to. We want to build on them so there are jobs and good prospects for the future,” he said in a short message posted on the video sharing site.
He added: “There are huge opportunities and I want to make sure we are ready and prepared to take advantage of them.”
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been keeping the pressure on the chancellor, saying he will have to admit on Wednesday that his previous economic forecasts about the depth of the recession were way off the mark.
In last autumn’s pre-Budget report, the chancellor forecast the economy would contract by between 0.75% and 1.25% in 2009.
Experts believe he could now revise this to a projected drop in annual growth of between 3% and 3.5% – which would be the worst recession since 1945.
However, Mr Darling is expected to say the economy will return to growth next year and gain further strength in 2011.
Analysis by the respected Ernst & Young Item Club suggests the economy will shrink by 3.5% this year but will have begun to turn the corner by early 2010.
Mr Osborne told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show the Budget statement would be a “truly dramatic moment in which the economic carnage of the last 10 years will be laid bare”.
“It will be a day of reckoning and I think you are going to see the Chancellor forecast the longest recession that Britain has had since World War II.”
He added that the UK’s public finances “were not just the worst in the world but the worst since World War II”.
Mr Darling should focus on how to reduce government debt rather than “short-term political pressures” ahead of a likely election in 2010, he added.
The Conservatives have said Labour’s borrowing – which in November was forecast to hit 78bn this year but is now expected to be much higher – is reckless and will leave a whole generation saddled with debt.
Ministers say the sharp rise in borrowing is needed to support the economy through the downturn and protect jobs while stressing the UK must live within its means in the medium term.
This has led to speculation that Mr Darling could pay the way for a range of likely tax rises and spending cuts on Wednesday.
Mr Osborne has said Labour’s pledge to increase public spending by 1.1% next year was “unrealistic” and people should be prepared for a “very serious period of spending restraint”.
The Conservatives were reviewing government spending programmes across the board, he stressed, although he added that he had not ruled out future tax increases as well as means of bolstering the public coffers.
“I understand how tough it is going to be but it is necessary,” he said of likely spending constraints in the future.
Lord Mandelson said the Conservative approach would lead to “savage cuts” in public spending.
Labour must show, in the Budget, that its fiscal policy was “sensible and responsible”, the business secretary argued.
Debt levels were a matter of concern, he acknowledged, but were justifiable in the short term because of the exceptional economic conditions the country was facing.
“The reason borrowing is going up is to pay for the costs of the recession and to get us through it as quickly and painlessly as possible,” he added.
He said the best way to rebalance the public finances was to get the economy moving again and the Budget would set out plans to “go for growth”.
For the Lib Dems, Vince Cable said the UK was in the midst of an economic crisis and ministers must do more to free up bank lending and stem the spiralling rise in unemployment.
“Now the challenge is to face up to the sheer scale of something we have never had in our lifetime, which is complete collapse of the banking system and all that flows from that,” he said.
Afghanistan to boost police force
Afghanistan plans to recruit and train 15,000 new police officers in time for the country’s presidential election in August, the interior minister says.
Hanif Atmar said the Afghan authorities had asked international donors to approve a “strategic increase” in the size of the force.
The full scope of the increase would be announced in June, he said.
While the increase was temporary, he said, officials were studying how much bigger the force should be permanently.
The country’s police force currently has around 82,000 staff.
“Our request was a strategic increase of the numbers of the police in Afghanistan, and two: an interim increase until we are able to basically implement the strategic increase,” Reuters quoted the minister as saying.
“Initially we thought that the Afghanistan police size needs to be doubled in order to meet the requirements,” he said.
“We will have to do a deeper study to establish and determine the needs, and the response to the needs.”
Last month US President Barack Obama announced a US review of strategy in the region.
He proposed a big spending programme on infrastructure projects, and said 4,000 extra troops would be sent to Afghanistan to train security forces.
US boycotts UN racism conference
Washington has confirmed it will boycott a UN forum on racism in Geneva next week because of differences over Israel and the right to free speech.
The state department said the proposed text of the conference’s guiding document remained unacceptable despite having been amended significantly.
The US and Israel quit a similar forum in Durban in 2001 when its draft document likened Zionism to racism.
Current language about “incitement to religious hatred” also alarms the US.
The five-day Durban Review Conference is due to open on Monday.
EU diplomats were still consulting on Saturday on whether to attend the conference. Canada and Israel said earlier that they would not attend.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has stirred outrage by repeatedly calling the Holocaust of the Jews a “myth”, is the only prominent head of state so far scheduled to attend.
The state department said it was “with regret” that the US had decided to boycott the conference.
“The text still contains language that reaffirms
the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action [DDPA] from 2001, which the United States has long said it is unable to support,” it said in a statement.
“Its inclusion in the review conference document has the same effect as inserting that original text into the current document and re-adopting it.
“The DDPA singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“The United States also has serious concerns with relatively new additions to the text regarding ‘incitement’, that run counter to the US commitment to unfettered free speech.”
Internal debate has raged in the US for weeks on whether to attend, the Associated Press news agency reports from Washington.
Pro-Israel groups vehemently opposed participation while human rights advocates and organisations like TransAfrica and members of the Congressional Black Caucus thought it was important to attend.
Immediately after the announcement, Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who heads the black caucus in Congress, said the group was “deeply dismayed” by the boycott.
“This decision is inconsistent with the administration’s policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with…” she said.
“The US is making it more difficult for it to play a leadership role on UN Human Rights Council as it states it plans to do. This is a missed opportunity, plain and simple.”
Belarus gets EU summit invitation
The Czech Republic has invited Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to an EU summit next month, despite criticism of his record on human rights.
As current holder of the EU presidency, the Czechs will host the “Eastern Partnership” summit in Prague on 7 May.
The EU has suspended a travel ban it imposed on Mr Lukashenko and other top officials.
The EU wants to develop closer energy and trade links with Belarus and five other ex-Soviet states.
But Mr Lukashenko previously indicated that he would not attend the summit, even if he were invited, the Czech news agency CTK reported.
The Czech EU presidency said the invitation was made by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg at a meeting with Mr Lukashenko in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Friday.
“Belarus itself will decide who will represent the country at the summit,” the Czech official statement said.
Mr Schwarzenberg “pointed out the problems with registration of several non-governmental organisations” in Belarus, the statement went on.
His counterpart Sergey Martynov replied that “society cannot be changed overnight”.
The other countries invited to the partnership summit with the EU are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
In light of the recent riots in Moldova, neighbouring Romania – an EU member state – has pledged to fast-track citizenship applications from Moldovans.
But the Czech Deputy Prime Minister, Alexandr Vondra, has told Romania of his “serious concern about the risks that would arise if Romania adopted a simplified procedure of granting citizenship”.
Moldova-Romania relations soured last week, with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin accusing Romania of trying to topple his government by supporting the anti-communist protesters.
Moldova expelled Romania’s ambassador and introduced visas for Romanians.
The EU has stepped up diplomatic contacts with Belarus since the authorities in Minsk released political prisoners last year.
Mr Schwarzenberg’s visit included a meeting with opposition representatives, who were quoted as saying the situation in Belarus had “recently been changing for the better, albeit the changes are not system-related”.
“Officials who violate human rights by repression are not being held accountable,” the statement quoted them as saying.
Correspondents say Mr Lukashenko has kept many characteristic features of the Soviet period – above all, a political system that suppresses dissent and obedient media that devote much coverage to the leader’s activities.
China ‘to act over jail deaths’
China says it is to tighten control of its prisons after cases of suspicious deaths in detention came to light.
About 15 people have died while in police detention this year, according to widespread media reports.
Senior judges and prosecutors will now inspect some of China’s nearly 3,000 detention centres, where criminal suspects are held.
The aim of the campaign is to prevent what officials call “unnatural deaths” in the country’s jails.
It comes in addition to a campaign to improve the work of prison officers that was announced earlier this month.
The authorities were reporting just five deaths a few weeks ago.
The new figure is an unusually frank admission: The Chinese government does not often admit that its prisoners are not treated properly by the authorities, says the BBC’s Michael Bristow in Beijing.
The attempts to reform detention centres suggest China is serious about improving the country’s criminal justice system, says our correspondent.
State media reported that on Friday, five prisons in the south-western state of Sichuan were opened to the public, allowing more than 1,000 local residents to see the conditions inside the jails for themselves.
The move, the first in Sichuan, aims to promote more civilized management and fair law enforcement and to prevent and reduce crimes, said
“The basic human rights of inmates should not be ignored but rather respected and protected fully,” Xinhua quoted Liu Zuoming, head of the provincial department of justice, as saying.
Many hurt in Mexico train crash
Two commuter trains have collided on the outskirts of Mexico City, injuring at least 70 people, officials say.
The accident occurred at San Rafael station, Elias Miguel, the head of Mexico City’s emergency management secretariat, told Efe news agency.
One train apparently ran into another on the recently inaugurated railway line on Saturday around 2220 (0320 GMT on Sunday), reports said.
About 170 people were rescued from carriages of the two trains.
Reports varied as to the number of people injured, and those affected were taken to several local hospitals for treatment.
Television footage showed crumpled carriages still on the tracks early on Sunday morning.
‘Green Nobel’ for forest champion
By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News
A campaigner who was jailed during his battle to save the rainforest in Gabon has received a top international award.
Marc Ona Essangui was honoured for his fight to stop what he describes as a destructive mining project in the Ivindo National Park.
He is one of seven people from six continental regions to be awarded an equal share of the 900,000 (600,000) 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize.
It has been described as “the Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalism”.
Mr Ona has campaigned for three years against the Belinga mine project – a deal between the government in Gabon and the Chinese mining and engineering company, CMEC, to extract iron ore.
The project includes the construction of a large hydroelectric dam, which is already underway, to provide power for the mine.
The dam is being built on the Ivindo River, near the Kongou Falls, Gabon’s highest waterfall.
Mr Ona, who described the falls as “the most beautiful in central Africa”, said that Gabon’s government had failed to consult the local population and had not assessed the impact of the development on the environment before it gave permission for construction to begin.
He told BBC News that he hoped his receipt of the Goldman Prize would “draw international attention to just how precious this area is”.
Mr Ona, who uses a wheelchair, dedicated his early career to improving education and communication infrastructure in Gabon, including working with the United Nations Development Programme. He later turned his attention to environmental issues.
He eventually decided to focus his efforts full time on the work of his own environmental NGO, Brainforest, which aims to protect the rainforest for the benefit local of communities.
“The government established 13 national parks here, and I became interested in all the activities within them,” he said.
“In 2006, my colleagues and I noticed that roads were being built within Ivindo.”
When Mr Ona investigated, he discovered that there had been no environmental impact studies carried out before the road building started.
On its website, the Gabonese government describes the national parks as having been “classified for the conservation of Gabon’s rich biodiversity”.
The key goals of the national park scheme, it says, are preservation of “the wealth of the ecosystem… for current and future generations” and stimulating “the development of ecotourism as an economic alternative to the exploitation of natural resources”.
Mr Ona said: “All of this construction was carried out illegally and against the code of the national parks.”
He also unearthed and leaked a copy of the Belinga mine project agreement between the government and CMEC, revealing that CMEC had been offered a 25-year tax break as part of the deal.
“When we really started to look into the deal, we noticed that it was China, not Gabon, that was the major beneficiary,” he said.
He and his colleagues embarked on their campaign, working with other environmental NGOs, holding news conferences and meeting with local communities.
“The government even motivated some protests against the NGOs involved,” he recalled.
“They alleged that we were working [on behalf of] Western powers, and we received a lot of pressure to stop the campaign.”
This culminated in Mr Ona being arrested and charged with “incitement to rebellion”.
He was jailed by the Gabonese judicial police on 31 December 2008; but following an internationally co-ordinated campaign for his release, he was freed on 12 January 2009.
Since June 2006, however, he has been banned from travelling outside the country.
His passport was returned to him only 24 hours before he was due to travel to San Francisco for the Goldman award ceremony.
There has been no construction in Ivindo for almost a year, but Mr Ona says this has more to do with the economic crisis and the price of iron ore than with the Gabonese government backing down.
Marc Ona Essangui lives with his family in Libreville, Gabon
He has no plans to give up his quest.
“Some of the money from this award will go to the functioning of Brainforest, and the rest will be allocated to setting up small- and medium-sized businesses for local communities,” he said.
“I want to set up a clinic near Ivindo where the local people can be treated using traditional medicine. Some of the money will serve to establish this health centre for all of those communities.”
The organisers of the Goldman Prize describe the six winners as “a group of fearless grassroots leaders, taking on government and corporate interests and working to improve the environment for people in their communities”.
Among the other 2009 recipients are Maria Gunnoe from West Virginia, US, who has faced death threats for her outspoken activism to stop destruction of the Appalachia by the coal industry.
Also rewarded are Russian scientist Olga Speranskaya, who connected NGOs across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region to identify and safely remove toxic chemical stockpiles, and Rizwana Hasan, Bangladesh’s leading environmental attorney, whose legal advocacy led to tighter regulations on the ship-breaking industry.
Blossom amid the gloom for Japan
People in Japan have long celebrated the arrival of the cherry blossom with picnics under the trees and this year is no exception, though as Roland Buerk reports, the worst economic crisis since World War II has taken the shine off the festivities.
The winter was long, cold, grey and wet, made grimmer by desperate news about the health of the world’s second biggest economy.
Little wonder people in Japan were ready to welcome the arrival of spring.
The first red buds appeared on the dark, almost black, cherry blossom trees in Tokyo around the beginning of March.
In the last few weeks they have burst into flower.
So thick have the blossoms been that the avenues of trees in the parks have looked like pink and white clouds. There are more along waterways.
Hemmed in by concrete, often used as a conveniently vacant bit of land to build a flyover expressway, Tokyo’s rivers are far from pretty in the winter.
But at this time of year they are transformed, with the laden branches dipping down towards the water.
Tokyo’s residents have been out in vast numbers to celebrate the new season.
This city has the largest population of any metropolitan area on the planet, and it seemed everyone wanted to see the blossom.
In Ueno Park the crowds were so thick it was difficult to move along the pathways.
Amateur photographers were everywhere, taking close-ups of the blossoms on their camera phones, or snapping their friends posing under the trees.
The seasons are cherished in Japan.
Autumn foliage and rice planting are celebrated, but the cherry blossoms are especially welcome.
In centuries past, aristocrats would walk under the trees or sit to compose poetry.
Blossom appreciation is part of the Japanese cultural tradition of “mono no aware”, perhaps best translated as an awareness of the fleeting nature of beauty and a bittersweet sadness at its passing.
Nowadays as spring approaches, an item appears on television each night after the weather forecast: the latest news on the progress of the cherry blossom front, as it moves north up the archipelago with the warmer weather.
The first blossoms were spotted on the island of Okinawa, far to the south in the sub-tropics, in early January.
In Tokyo officials from the Japan Meteorological Agency keep a close watch on the Yasukuni Shrine.
It is a controversial memorial to almost 2.5 million people who dedicated their lives to Imperial Japan, particularly those who fell in World War II. Convicted war criminals are among those symbolically enshrined there.
Soldiers were often compared to the beautiful but short-lived blossoms, and many vowed to meet their comrades in spirit at Yasukuni if they were killed.
Among its many cherry blossom trees, the shrine contains one particularly famous example protected by a fence.
When it has five or six blooms, the season in Tokyo is officially declared to have begun and several weeks of lavish cherry blossom picnics get under way.
Preparing to party
As I strolled through the park, groups in suits and ties were sitting cross-legged tucking into sushi, rice, noodles and sweet dumplings, all washed down with sake and beer.
One group hailed me to join in a drinking game. To chants of encouragement, we took turns to down glasses of shochu, a powerful Japanese spirit.
The gatherings grew raucous into the night under the blossoms which were lit up with lanterns.
Reserving a place in the crowded parks for the annual office party is an important task and usually assigned to the most junior employees.
Many firms take on new recruits at this time of year.
After they are welcomed at large, elaborate ceremonies – complete with group renditions of the company song – they are sent off with blue plastic sheets to stake out a good spot.
From early in the morning, young men – and some women – in new suits were industriously laying out their sheets.
They taped together cardboard boxes to make low tables.
‘Lucky to have a job’
This year the cherry blossom season has come as Japan stumbles into its worst post-war economic crisis.
Major manufacturers are in trouble, exports have halved of the cars and electronic gadgets that have powered Japan’s rise to become an industrial and technological powerhouse.
Along with profits, the old certainties of the Japanese way are being eroded.
Fewer young people are being taken on by the big companies to start a job for life.
Some firms have even revoked offers they have made, despite a government policy of publicly naming and shaming them.
So as the young recruits settled in for a long wait for their colleagues to arrive for the evening festivities (some had brought sleeping bags as protection against the chilly wind of early spring) one of them reflected to me: “I’m lucky to have a job.”
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 April, 2009 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the
for World Service transmission times.
Case tests Obama’s Iran agenda
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran
It started with a young woman arrested for allegedly buying a bottle of wine.
Now the case of Roxana Saberi could become the first big test of relations between Iran and the new administration of President Barack Obama.
For nearly three months, Ms Saberi has been held in Evin prison, Tehran.
It soon became clear the bottle of wine was only a pretext. She was accused of operating as a journalist without a valid press pass.
Then, in a space of barely 10 days, she was charged with the much more serious offence of spying, tried and sentenced to eight years in prison.
It is a tough sentence, even on such a grave allegation.
The evidence has never been published, the trial was held in secret and her father claims she was tricked into making a false confession.
It all raises deep suspicions over whether this case has been hijacked by hardliners within the Iranian government, eager to sabotage any reconciliation with the United States.
Ever since President Obama started reaching out to the government of President Ahmadinejad, it has been clear that the government here is sceptical of his intentions, and confused about how to respond.
The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has suggested there is no difference between President Obama and his predecessor, George W Bush. Sometimes it seems as if the government here pines for the certainties of the Bush era.
In one recent demonstration, government approved protesters chanted “Death to Obama” for the first time.
The confusion is understandable.
Here they chant “Death to America” on state occasions, just as one might repeat God save the Queen, Vive la France or God Bless America.
But if Roxana Saberi’s sentence is a political manoeuvre, it could be more complicated than simply an attempt to sabotage new talks.
Already through this case the Iranians have moved the agenda from the nuclear programme that the United States would like to focus on.
They have a bargaining chip to use in talks, perhaps to use as they press for the release of Iranians still held in Iraq.
Or perhaps the Iranians are preparing for a show of mercy, ready to dispatch Roxana Saberi back to the United States.
But for the moment this case is moving Iran and the United States back into conflict, before reconciliation even had a chance to begin.
India’s all-important Muslim vote
By Suvojit Bagchi
BBC News, Delhi
The Indian government’s “war against terror” may cost the Congress party dearly in the election.
Arrests and alleged extrajudicial killings of Muslim youths have angered many in the Islamic community.
“People in power have branded us as terrorists and used us as a vote bank, this cannot go on,” said the all-powerful cleric of Delhi’s Jama Masjid mosque, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, in a recent press conference.
Speaking about the deaths of two Muslim students allegedly at the hands of police in South Delhi’s Muslim area last October, Mr Bukhari said the Muslim community “wants justice”.
‘Safety and security’
This sense of injustice has resulted in the formation of new Muslim political parties over recent months.
These parties believe in Indian parliamentary democracy and say they are working to “strengthen” it.
The party manifestos unanimously emphasise the “safety and security” of all communities, especially Muslims.
“The security of Muslims is one big issue, as after every blast in India a series of arrests of Muslim youths takes place,” said a spokesperson for the influential All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
Muslim men were “systematically killed” in routine police encounters, he alleged.
Muslims comprise more than 13% of India’s population and many are aggrieved that proportionately they only have about half that much representation in parliament.
More than two dozen Muslim political parties, big and small, are contesting these elections – almost double the figure of the last election.
The prominent players are the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), Ulema Council and Indian Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Muslim Munettra Khazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the People’s Democratic Council in West Bengal and veterans like the Muslim League and Indian National League in Kerala, the Democratic Secular Party in Bihar and the Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin in Andhra Pradesh.
Interestingly, even the staunchest supporters of these parties do not believe they are going to win.
“Our primary aim is to erode the vote of the Congress party and then to win a few seats,” says Buranuddin Qasmi, an election analyst of the AUDF.
Meanwhile, many Muslims are questioning the logic behind the hasty launch of such parties.
They argue that a party like the Ulema Council will not even be able to emerge as a minor player because it lacks proper planning and goals.
Statistics show the parties that manage to win the votes of low caste people along with the Muslim vote bank have a strong chance of winning.
Since India’s independence from British rule, Congress has been getting a sizeable chunk of Muslim votes at national level, largely because Muslims felt they had to prove their loyalty to India in early post-partition days, experts say.
In India, the Muslim League and its president, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, are held responsible for dividing India and creating Pakistan.
Muslims who stayed in India have traditionally supported Congress since independence “to prove their loyalty”.
Yogendra Yadav, the noted political commentator, feels that Muslim parties have “come of age”.
“Fifty years into independence, the trauma of partition prevented Muslim political parties from conceiving a politics of their own,” he says.
“But they are slowly getting out of it. In the last decade or so they have been speaking for themselves – a very positive sign for Muslims as well as for democracy,” Mr Yadav says.
The figures seem to support his claims – the proliferation of new political parties means that no one party is expected to get more than 60% of Muslim votes.
But Congress believes Muslims cannot be empowered by a Muslim party alone.
“Muslim parties have traditionally voted for Congress and will continue to do so, as they know only a majority party like Congress with secular credentials can empower them,” says Imran-ur Rehman Kidwai, the chief of the party’s Minority Cell.
He also brushed aside the fact that there is any kind of “insecurity among Muslim youth”, calling it a “non-issue”.
But whatever Mr Kidwai says, in at least one state a Muslim party is creating serious trouble for Congress.
The Islamic vote in Assam makes up more more than 20% of Muslim votes and appears to be making forays into Congress bastions.
The Hindu nationalist BJP – which Muslims tend to vote against – could win in the state.
But that has not stopped the AUDF from running anti-Congress campaigns.
Congress is confident it can retain the bulk of the Muslim vote
“Enough of that – whenever Muslims vote against Congress, it is said to be in favour of the BJP. Can’t we ever raise our voice because of right-wing parties like the BJP?” the AUDF’s election analyst, Buranuddin Qasmi, asks.
The real Achilles’ heel for Congress is the Sachar Report – a prime ministerial committee that recommended several measures to improve the living conditions of Muslims in India.
Initiated by Congress and tabled in parliament in 2006, the report has become central to the Indian Muslim community and is often quoted to voice their grievances.
During election campaigns, Muslim parties have pointed out that none of the recommendations of this report have been implemented.
“Congress and Manmohan Singh may have done a commendable job in commissioning a report of this magnitude. But the minority affairs ministry has done literally nothing to implement it, with the exception of giving scholarships to Muslim students,” Dr Abu Saleh Shariff, member-secretary of the Sachar Committee Report, told the BBC.
However, Imran Kidwai says that 19 out of 22 of its recommendations have been implemented.
“Muslims will vote for Congress,” he confidently predicted.
In pictures: Orthodox Christian Easter
Light shines on a Greek Orthodox priest as he conducts prayers Christianity’s holiest shrine, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as Orthodox Christians mark Easter Day.
At the Jerusalem church, on the site where Jesus is said to have been buried, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theofilos III led ceremonies.
Some 10,000 pilgrims in Jerusalem’s Old City crammed into the church – which is shared by six Christian denominations – for the Holy Fire Ritual.
This woman made it into the sacred site, but another 30,000 remained outside amid tight security by Israeli police.
Greek Orthodox and other Eastern rite Christians this year mark Easter a week after Protestants and Catholics because the Orthodox Church follows a different calendar.
Easter has been marked across the Orthodox world. In Kiev, Ukraine, a woman in white appears like a ghostly apparition during a candle-lit procession.
Services were held across Eastern Europe, this one in Tuzla, Bosnia.
In the Egyptian capital Cairo, Pope Shenouda III celebrated the Coptic Easter Mass. The Church of Alexandria in Egypt has an estimated 58 million members worldwide.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C) and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) joined a service at this Moscow cathedral. Russia’s Orthodox Church has grown in power since the Soviet Union fell.
And in neighbouring Georgia a lady lights a candle in the capital Tbilisi, where President Mikhail Saakashvili also attended a service with his family.
Easter marks the holiest feast in the Christian calendar. The candles in this photo of a procession outside a cathedral in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia look like neon streaks.
South Africa’s battle with crime
Crime is the big issue as South Africa goes to the polls on 22 April. Business has joined forces with government to try to defeat the country’s criminals, but as Stephen Evans discovers in Johannesburg, lawbreakers often remain one jump ahead.
Everybody knows that crime is a problem in South Africa but its utter pervasiveness still comes as a shock.
Everybody you talk to seems to have their own experience of true horror. It is not something they have just heard about, but something that has happened to them or someone close to them.
I went to the grand headquarters of Standard Bank, the biggest bank in Africa.
The executive who met me at the entrance said the metal detectors there had not managed to stop the robbers the week earlier who had got in with AK-47s and cleared out the cash machine on the seventh floor.
I talked to an economist who told me how his wife had been stopped in her car and had two “Glocks” pressed to her head, as he put it, referring to another gun of choice in Johannesburg.
The house of a professor I visited was as empty as if the removal men had been, which, in a sense, they had.
I talked to Goolam Sidat who stands in his store on Pan Africa Square in Alexandra Township where one million people live cheek-by-jowl in what officialdom calls “informal structures” (shacks, to you and me).
Goolam’s store sells everything a schoolchild needs.
He stands in front of neat rows of pencils and notebooks and ties and shirts, carrying on the trade started by his father who came from India in 1942.
Goolam is very matter of fact about robberies. “It happens,” is the tenor of his statements. But then he reveals that his brother was shot dead in a robbery behind those very counters.
In the grief of it, he decided to shut up shop for good. But then local people begged him not to, he said. Goolam relented because the people needed him and his goods. It was his duty to them.
One of my South African friends told me an accountant friend of his joined the exodus after he and his wife were held up at gunpoint in their own home, by robbers who threatened to put the baby in the microwave unless they revealed where the jewellery was.
They now live in Maidstone in Kent. Not their old luxurious South African lifestyle but you can understand why they went.
And South Africa does really need accountants.
About one million South Africans have left since the end of apartheid, often for London or Western Australia and invariably with the very skills an economy trying to raise itself up desperately needs.
On the latest figures, there are about 126,000 armed robberies a year in South Africa, far more than under apartheid, though the figure for murders – 19,000 a year – is lower than before 1994.
Economists say the cost of this crime is the same as a 1% sales tax or a 5% increase in the wage bill – and 5% matters if you are trying to compete with, let us say, China.
Which is why business and government got together to set up Business Against Crime. It advises banks, for example, on how to lessen the risk of having money stolen in transit. It has also just got a special vehicle with equipment that scans number plates to compare them with a database of stolen cars.
They place this truck near the entrance to shopping centres to try to identify potential robbers.
‘Levels of greed’
Business Against Crime’s chief executive is Siphiwe Nzimande. The day I met him he said he had been two hours late for work because a strike by taxi drivers had turned into a shootout that closed the main road into town.
His colleague in the anti-crime unit chipped in to say that she had had her car stolen at gunpoint, while she was in it.
Siphiwe is bright and determined. The problem is that once he counters one type of crime, the criminals adapt.
Out-and-out robberies of banks dropped in number, for example, as banks learned how to prevent them, but then cash in transit became the target until measures were tightened there.
Now, the problem is the blowing up of cash machines – in remote areas, increasingly.
The chasm between rich and poor in South Africa has not narrowed since the end of apartheid, though those in the business centres and shopping centres on the rich, right side of the tracks now do include some black people.
I put it to Siphiwe that there might be a Western liberal view that such inequality spawns crime.
He would have none of it. He had walked with complete safety in similarly divided parts of India, he said.
“Our problems are caused by something else,” he said firmly. “I think we have levels of greed that are probably higher and levels of immorality and people lacking a good value system.”
He said the criminal justice system was weak and the courts and the police needed to catch and punish more people.
But, he concluded, that he still had much hope for the country.
“If we didn’t have any hope we would have emigrated to your country but we’ve got a lot of hope that somewhere down the line we will turn the corner.”
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 April, 2009 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the
for World Service transmission times.
Vettel seals first Red Bull win
By Chris Whyatt
Sebastian Vettel made light work of poor visibility at a rain-hit Chinese Grand Prix with a superb drive to give Red Bull their first ever race victory.
Team-mate Mark Webber made it a one-two to ensure it was a dream day for the British-based team in Shanghai.
Championship leader Jenson Button came third ahead of the second Brawn car of veteran driver Rubens Barrichello.
World champion Lewis Hamilton was sixth for rapidly-improving McLaren behind Finnish team-mate Heikki Kovalainen.
After two days of hot and sunny conditions for practice and qualifying, strong winds brought a continuous rain to the modern track meaning the Chinese GP started as the Malaysian race had finished – under the safety car.
That appeared to open up the field and play into the hands of Brawn GP, the championship pace-setters who were sat in fourth and fifth on the grid and carrying a heavier fuel load than the Red Bulls ahead of them and, in particular, Renault’s Fernando Alonso in second.
But Brawn’s drivers could do nothing about the consistent pace of the Red Bulls in the soaking conditions, with Vettel particularly impressive on his way to his second GP victory after becoming the youngest ever race winner in Italy last year with Toro Rosso.
The race started with eight laps under the safety car, though when it peeled off the cars were still engulfed in spray.
But Vettel drove flawlessly throughout, eventually beating Webber by 10.9 seconds as he occasionally clocked laps that were three seconds quicker than anybody else – and the 21-year-old German now moves up to third in the drivers’ championship.
Australian Webber could himself have notched his first GP win but will have to settle for his best ever finish as the pole sitter took victory for the third successive race this season.
Around 30 laps in he and Button became embroiled in a battle for second position and both drivers made small but costly errors, causing them to momentarily skid off the sheets of water which stood on the sodden track.
That period proved crucial for Vettel who, with Button and Webber trading places but slightly losing time, kept his cool to stretch out his lead and make sure of the win.
“I am extremely happy, this is the second time now [I have won] in the wet,” he said. “The car was fantastic, the team did a really good job in fixing the problems we had and preparing it.
“It was the right decision to start behind the safety car.”
Button stretched his lead at the top of the championship by a point as a result of finishing third and highlighted the difficulties drivers faced in the treacherous conditions in Shanghai.
“It was crazy out there, there was so much aquaplaning,” he said.
“Every lap I thought I was going to run the car off, especially on the last corner.”
Sixth-placed Hamilton secured three points after experiencing an improved showing in a McLaren car which is showing far greater reliability than in the first two Grands Prix of the season.
Starting in eighth, the English driver made an impressive early charge after the safety car went in and moved up to fourth position around the 25-lap mark.
The world champion’s determination to challenge the frontrunners in a season in which he has largely been well off the pace, allied to the wet circuit, saw him spin off a number of times – but Hamilton expressed a quiet pleasure with the progress McLaren are making.
“It was terrible [conditions] out there,” he said.
“There was a little bit of fun at the beginning when I had some grip but it was really tough. I’m sure it was the same for everyone.
“[But] the reliability of the car is fantastic and these were some good points for the team.”
One of the most notable performances of the race came from Sebastian Buemi – the only rookie driver this season – who drove aggressively and, after briefly sitting fourth at one stage and then recovering from a minor crash into the back of Vettel, eventually finished eight to notch a point for Toro Rosso.
Reigning constructors’ champions Ferrari had another disastrous race and it is the first time since 1981 they have gone three races into the season without a point.
Whilst going well in third position on lap 21, Felipe Massa’s car gradually slowed down before coming to a halt as it broke down on the track, causing the Brazilian to retire.
“I’m very disappointed and a bit upset but my motivation is still intact,” said Massa.
“All of us must work together to get out of this situation. The team is united and there is a real will to turn things round as soon as possible.”
Team-mate Kimi Raikkonen did enjoy a brief battle with Hamilton around the same period as he looked to secure the Italian team’s first points of 2009, but the Finn eventually finished 10th.
Force India came close to securing their first ever points in F1 but Adrian Sutil, who was in sixth place with five laps to go, spun off on worn tyres.
After the race both Red Bull drivers gave credit to the team’s crew, who had to fix a driveshaft problem that had blighted the race cars in Saturday practice and restricting their running in qualifying.
They will now be looking to build on their first win in the next race in Bahrain on Sunday, 26 April.
Nadal seals fifth Monte Carlo win
Rafael Nadal continued his magnificent run in Monte Carlo with a fifth successive title as he beat Novak Djokovic 6-3 2-6 6-1 in Sunday’s final.
The world number one was pushed hard as Djokovic dominated the second set and had break points early in the third, before Nadal battled back to win.
At just 22, Nadal has now equalled Roger Federer’s mark of 14 tournament wins in the elite Masters 1000 Series.
Only Andre Agassi has won more, with 17 Masters titles.
“If I had to choose one Masters Series before the start of the season to win, Monte Carlo would be in the first position,” said Nadal.
“The city, the atmosphere, everything is special, the history of the tournament. Yeah, this tournament is always special for me.”
Nadal becomes the first man to win Monte Carlo five times in a row, but he faced one of his toughest examinations on a clay court in recent years.
“I played a very good match, actually one of the best I have played against him on this surface,” said Djokovic afterwards.
“It’s really unfortunate that in certain moments I didn’t play the way I was supposed to play, with a little bit more patience.”
With only four wins in 15 previous matches against Nadal – and none in six clay-court encounters – Djokovic was under relatively little pressure for such a big final.
And after recovering from dropping serve in the opening game, the 21-year-old Serb levelled immediately and began to mix his game up well, sealing a second break with a drop shot.
Nadal was making more errors than usual but a couple of trademark forehands helped him break to love in game five and from there he reeled off another four straight games to take the set.
Djokovic required the trainer for a back problem late in the set and the signs were not good going into the second, but the third seed came roaring back into contention.
One of the rallies of the year saw Djokovic break serve in the opening game, thanks to a lob volley followed by a smash, and he fended off two break points to move 3-1 clear before getting the double-break when Nadal went long with a forehand in game five.
Djokovic was increasingly happy to come to the net and looked in total command when he sealed the set – the first Nadal had lost in Monte Carlo for three years – with two successive aces.
The beginning of the deciding set was a tense, closely-fought and dramatic affair, with the first three games all going to deuce and producing a hatful of break points for both men.
There was another contender for rally of the season in game one, as Nadal withstood huge pressure to save a break point by chasing down a drop shot and producing an amazing angled winner.
“He got an incredible drop shot and he made a winner,” Djokovic said afterwards. “The angle was just incredible. I think that’s what kind of lifted him up.”
Three break points went begging for Djokovic and in the following, equally epic game, the Serb let three game points slip away with errors and a double-fault.
Nadal finally earned his chance with a fantastic wrong-footing backhand pass down the line, and Djokovic obliged with a a missed forehand on break point.
The chances kept coming and Djokovic converted his third break point in the following game before the Serb finally cracked in game four, being broken to love to trail 3-1.
Nadal looked much the stronger now, quickly holding to love, and a tired-looking Djokovic double-faulted on break point in game six as the set ran away from him.
After two hours and 43 minutes, Djokovic netted a forehand on match point and Nadal fell backwards onto the red dirt in celebration of his 27th straight match win in Monte Carlo.
But the world number one found room for improvement afterwards, saying: “The serve is really important because I was serving better in the beginning of the season.
“In this tournament I didn’t serve very well. Especially my second serve, sometimes it was 120 kph, so that’s a disaster.
“I have to play more, I have to serve better next week. I am going to have two days to work on this.”
Nadal will go for a fifth successive title in Barcelona next week before the world’s best head to the Rome Masters.
Man Utd 0-0 Everton (aet)
Everton win 4-2 on penalties
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at Wembley
Everton won a penalty shoot-out at Wembley to wreck Manchester United’s hopes of an historic haul of five trophies and seal an FA Cup final date with Chelsea.
The Toffees reached the showpiece for the first time in 14 years – but Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will be left fuming at referee Mike Riley.
Riley refused what appeared to be a clear-cut penalty when defender Phil Jagielka brought down Danny Welbeck in the second half, and United’s disappointment will be felt more acutely after they cracked under the pressure of the spot-kick shoot-out.
Tim Cahill missed Everton’s first penalty, but keeper Tim Howard saved United’s first two efforts from Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand.
Leighton Baines, Phil Neville and James Vaughan were then on target for Everton, with Nemanja Vidic and Anderson responding for United.
And with Everton’s fans providing a deafening backdrop of expectation, Jagielka calmly slotted home the decisive penalty to send one half of Wembley wild.
Everton chairman Bill Kenwright looked close to tears in the Wembley directors’ box as boss David Moyes raced on to the turf to celebrate with his players.
For United and manager Ferguson, there was only disappointment and they must now turn their attentions back to the pursuit of the Premier League and Champions League.
As expected, Ferguson made wholesale changes to the side that secured a Champions League semi-final place with victory in Porto on Wednesday – with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Edwin van der Sar not even on the bench.
But United’s revamped line-up acquitted itself well in a drab first 45 minutes that offered little in the way of quality or chances.
Marouane Fellaini sent Neville clear in a dangerous position inside the area after 10 minutes, but finishing has never been the Everton captain’s strong point and he blazed well off target.
Carlos Tevez then shot wide for United before goalkeeper Ben Foster nearly gifted Everton an opener in the 20th minute, stumbling over an attempted clearance and almost allowing former United striker Louis Saha in to score.
Everton had a narrow escape two minutes later when Rafael’s cross was touched on by Welbeck, before a deflection off defender Joleon Lescott diverted the ball on to an upright with Howard wrong-footed.
The Merseysiders almost had an opening goal to cheer minutes after the break, but Foster made a superb low save from Cahill’s 25-yard drive.
Ji-Sung Park responded with a shot just wide before United made the first change of the semi-final, replacing the limping Fabio with Patrice Evra.
Darron Gibson then tested Howard from long-range as the game finally showed signs of life.
United were then denied what looked the clearest of penalties when a breakdown in communications between Howard and Jagielka forced the defender to haul down Welbeck.
Riley, whose appointment had been been questioned by Moyes, waved away United’s appeals as Ferguson was moved into a jig of fury in his technical area.
Welbeck had recovered from a nightmare first half, showing great character to emerge as a threat for United, curling a good effort just off target with seven minutes left.
United, who had already introduced Paul Scholes, brought on Berbatov for Federico Macheda at the end of 90 minutes, perhaps hoping a moment of quality from the Bulgarian would avoid the need for penalties.
Cahill, while not at his most prominent, was always a danger and he forced Foster into a save with his legs two minutes into extra-time.
And he was almost on the end of a miscued shot from substitute Vaughan – on for Fellaini – as Everton strived to break the deadlock.
But there was to be no breakthrough and the teams went into a penalty shoot-out, which would at least provide some drama on an afternoon that was hardly a glittering advert for the Premier League.
United keeper Foster was the hero in the Carling Cup win against Spurs, but there was to be no repeat as the Toffees kept their nerve to run out winners and book a return to Wembley to meet Chelsea on 30 May.
Foster, Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Fabio Da Silva (Evra 63), Welbeck, Gibson, Anderson, Park (Scholes 67), Tevez, Macheda (Berbatov 91).
Subs Not Used: Kuszczak, Neville, Nani, Evans.
Rafael Da Silva, Tevez, Scholes.
Howard, Hibbert, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines, Osman, Neville, Fellaini (Vaughan 102), Pienaar, Cahill, Saha (Rodwell 70).
Subs Not Used: Nash, Yobo, Castillo, Jacobsen, Gosling.
Everton win 4-2 on penalties
Mike Riley (Yorkshire).
BBC Sport Player Rater man of the match:
Man Utd’s Nemanja Vidic (7.35 on 120 minutes).
Please note that you can still give the players marks out of 10 on BBC Sport’s Player Rater after the match has finished.
US woman gets dead fiance’s sperm
A New York woman has won a race-against-the-clock legal bid to harvest her dead fiance’s sperm.
Gisela Marrero told a Bronx court her partner had spoken about having another child with her only the day before his death from a suspected heart attack.
She had only 36 hours to collect 31-year-old Johnny Quintana’s semen before it would have become unusable.
As the couple were unmarried she needed a court order, which was granted just four hours before the deadline.
After the Bronx State Supreme Court approved her request, sperm bank employees raced to a local medical centre, where the body of the dead mechanic, who died on Thursday, was stored.
Ms Marrero, who has a two-year-old son by Mr Quintana, said: “The day before he passed away, we talked about planning for our future, buying an apartment and having another child,” reported the New York Daily News.
“This was his wish. It’s the last thing I can do for him.”
There were emotional scenes in the court as Ms Marrero and her dead fiance’s family celebrated Friday afternoon’s decision.
Earlier this month, a mother in Texas won a legal bid to have her dead son’s sperm harvested after he died in a fight outside a bar, so she could have the option of carrying out his wish to have children.
Orthodox Christians mark Easter
Orthodox Christians have been marking Easter at celebrations throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Thousands of worshippers crowded into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Christianity’s holiest shrine, for the Holy Fire Ritual.
Russian believers filled the cathedral in Moscow, where Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia presided for the first time since his enthronement.
Easter marks the holiest feast in the Christian calendar.
Greek Orthodox and other Eastern rite Christians mark Easter according to a different calendar from Protestants and Catholics.
This year the Orthodox Church celebrates Easter one week later, although the timing changes from year to year.
Jerusalem’s Old City was jammed with pilgrims from the eastern Orthodox faiths, which include Greeks, Copts, Russians and Assyrians.
Some 10,000 worshippers crammed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday night for the Holy Fire ceremony.
Another 30,000 remained outside under tight security by Israeli police. Scuffles have broken out in previous years amid disagreements between the different Orthodox denominations which share responsibility for the church.
Christians believe the church is built on the place where Jesus was crucified and buried.
According to the ancient ritual, the Greek Orthodox patriarch in the Holy Land, currently Theofilos III, lights an oil lamp in the darkened church. The light from the holy fire is then shared by candles to the crowd.
The patriarch carried an ornate staff and wore a golden crown as chanting pilgrims and clergymen with candles joined in worship, reports said.
The flame from Jerusalem is also passed to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ, and aboard special flights to Athens and other cities.
It was passed as far afield as Russia, where the Patriarch Kirill was the first to light his candle from it at the cathedral in Moscow.
The service was attended by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife Svetlana, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and several other officials.
In neighbouring Georgia, President Mikhail Saakashvili attended an Easter service in the Tbilisi Central Trinity cathedral with his wife and two sons.
Mr Saakashvili has been facing opposition calls for him to step down for the past week.
Protesters have taken a short break for the Easter festivities, but opposition leaders have vowed to launch the “final stage of the battle” after the holidays.
“It is a great celebration for the entire Orthodox world,” President Saakashvili said in the cathedral. “Georgia, as one of the most ancient Christian nations, is celebrating it and we are sharing it with all the Orthodox Christians worldwide.”
In the Egyptian capital Cairo, Pope Shenouda III celebrated the Coptic Easter Mass. The Church of Alexandria in Egypt has an estimated 58 million members worldwide.
Iran leader urges reporter rights
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said an Iranian-American journalist jailed for spying must have her legal right to defend herself.
The request came in a letter from his office to Tehran’s prosecutor, state media reported, a day after Roxana Saberi was jailed for eight years.
Our Tehran correspondent says it is an unusual intervention by Mr Ahmadinejad.
US President Barack Obama has expressed concern at the 31-year-old’s sentencing after a secret one-day trial in Tehran.
Mr Obama urged Tehran to free Ms Saberi, saying he was “deeply concerned” for her safety, and adding that the US would contact Iran about the case through Swiss intermediaries.
“I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage,” he told reporters in Trinidad where he attended a regional summit.
Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in January and went on trial this week, denies the charge and plans to go on hunger strike, her father Reza has said.
Her lawyer has said he will lodge an appeal.
Ms Saberi’s mother Akiko expressed concern for her daughter’s health, saying she was “very, very frail.”
She said it was hard to believe how a country could treat a human being like this.
Mr Ahmadinejad said the rights of Ms Saberi and jailed Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who has been behind bars since November, must not be violated in any way.
“Please take the necessary measures to ensure that the process of examining the charges against the aforementioned individuals are being carried out carefully and fairness, justice and regulations are observed,” he wrote in the letter to prosecutors.
“Please, personally observe the process to ensure that the defendants are allowed all legal rights and freedom in defending themselves and that their rights are not violated even by one iota,” reported Iranian official government news agency Irna.
The verdict came despite calls by the Obama administration for Ms Saberi’s release and diplomatic overtures to Iran after three decades of severed ties.
It raises suspicions over whether the case has been hijacked by hardliners within the Iranian government, eager to sabotage any reconciliation, the BBC’s Jon Leyne reports from Tehran.
He says it is not clear if the Iranian president is suggesting due legal process has not been followed, or if he is generally emphasising the importance of fairness in such sensitive cases.
Senators from Ms Saberi’s home state of North Dakota described the court ruling as a shocking miscarriage of justice that would damage Iran’s international credibility.
She has reported for a number of foreign news organisations including the BBC, NPR and Fox News.
The journalist originally faced the less serious accusation of buying alcohol, and later of working as a journalist without a valid press card.
Then, in a period of less than two weeks, the charge of spying was introduced, and she was tried by the Revolutionary Court and sentenced.
A US-Iranian national, Ms Saberi has spent six years in Iran studying and writing a book.
Nigerian group frees UK hostage
A British man held hostage in Nigeria for more than six months has been freed, a military official said.
The official said Robin Barry Hughes was handed over to the military in Nigeria’s southern oil region.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) had held the 59-year-old oil worker, from St Margaret’s Bay in Kent, since September.
Kidnapping is common in the Niger Delta by armed groups trying to force the government to share oil revenue.
Kidnaps ‘to continue’
Mend said in an e-mail earlier on Sunday that it would release Mr Hughes, an oil worker, “on health and age considerations”.
There was no mention in the message of a second British hostage, Matthew Maguire, from Birkenhead, Merseyside.
Most of the 27 people captured in the September incident have already been released by the group.
Mend said in January the two Britons would not be released until the Nigerian government freed the group’s leader, Henry Okah, who is being tried on charges of arms trafficking.
Photographs of Mr Hughes and Mr Maguire were released in January, showing them looking dishevelled but uninjured in a forest clearing.
In an e-mail sent to journalists, Mend had said: “Since their fate is now tied to his, God forbid that Henry Okah should die in detention.”
Mend said militants would continue to kidnap “high value oil workers from Western Europe and North America” in 2009 to keep pressure on the government to empower the inhabitants of Nigeria’s oil-rich states.
Americas rivals see signs of hope
The Summit of the Americas has ended on an upbeat note, despite a lack of agreement on a joint declaration.
Regional heads of state had talks over three days, but several remained in dispute with the US on issues including Cuba’s exclusion from the summit.
US President Barack Obama said he saw positive signs from Cuba and Venezuela, and that the summit marked a new start in US relations with its neighbours.
The leaders of Brazil and Venezuela also said they hoped for better ties.
Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva agreed he saw “potential positive signs” between the US and Cuba and Venezuela.
Communist Cuba has been subject to a US embargo since 1960, while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was an implacable foe of former US President George W Bush.
Mr Chavez also hinted at a thawing in relations.
“We have a different focus obviously, but we are willing, we have the political will to work together,” Reuters news agency reported him as saying.
Mr Obama headed to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad having offered Cuba a “new beginning” in relations with the US.
Many others in the region wanted better, more constructive ties with US, he said.
In a news conference at the close of the summit, Mr Obama conceded that decades of US policy on Cuba “hasn’t worked the way we wanted it to”.
But he highlighted a string of key issues where Cuba must make progress.
“Issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech and democracy are important, and can’t simply be brushed aside,” Mr Obama said.
Hope and belief
Despite the upbeat statements, the Summit of the Americas was left without a final declaration as the 34 countries taking part failed to reach a consensus.
Left-wing leaders from Bolivia, Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as Venezuela’s president felt the document omitted crucial issues such as the US embargo on Cuba.
But criticisms of the US were generally softened by admissions of respect for Mr Obama himself.
Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega emerged as a strong critic of US economic policy, and told the US president his views during a meeting between Mr Obama and Central American leaders.
But Mr Ortega praised Mr Obama’s approach to dialogue: “I want to believe he’s inclined, that he’s got the will,” he said.
Mr Obama signed off noting that he had heard his Latin American counterparts praise the good work done by Cuban-trained doctors working across the continent.
“It’s a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence,” he said.