Iran sentences American to death for spying

A judge has sentenced a US-Iranian man to death for spying for the CIA, a report said, exacerbating Tehran-Washington tensions already high because of Western sanctions on the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.

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Amir Mirzai Hekmati, a 28-year-old former Marine born in the United States, was “sentenced to death for cooperating with a hostile nation, membership of the CIA and trying to implicate Iran in terrorism,” the Fars news agency said, quoting a verdict by the Revolutionary Court judge in Tehran.

Hekmati, born to an Iranian immigrant family living in the US, was shown on state television in mid-December saying in fluent Farsi and English that he was a Central Intelligence Agency operative sent to infiltrate Iran’s intelligence ministry.

He had been arrested months earlier.

Iranian officials said his cover was blown by agents for Iran who spotted him at the US-run Bagram military air base in neighbouring Afghanistan.

But Hekmati’s family in the United States told US media he had travelled to Iran to visit his Iranian grandmothers and insisted he was not a spy.

In his sole trial hearing, on December 27, prosecutors relied on Hekmati’s “confession” to say he tried to penetrate the intelligence ministry by posing as a disaffected former US soldier with classified information to give.

The United States has demanded Hekmati’s release.

The US State Department said Iran did not permit diplomats from the Swiss embassy — which handles Washington’s interests in the absence of US-Iran ties — to see Hekmati before or during his trial.

Hekmati’s death sentence adds to a series of grave points of contention between Iran and the United States stemming from an escalating showdown over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Last month, Iran showed off what it said was a CIA drone it captured using cyberwarfare.

It also said Sunday it had arrested an unspecified number of “spies” who allegedly sought to carry out US plans to disrupt parliamentary elections in March.

The suspects were not identified by name or nationality and, as with numerous previous similar announcements, the accusation was not publicly substantiated.

Washington, for its part, said in October it thwarted a plot allegedly hatched in Tehran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US. President Barack Obama last month also signed into law new sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank.

The United States and its Western allies accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapon capability.

Iran, though, insists its programme is exclusively for peaceful ends.

It has threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf — a chokepoint for 20 percent of the world’s oil — if it is threatened militarily or by sanctions.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned on Sunday that such a move would cross a “red line” and “we would take action and reopen the strait.”

He told CBS television that while the United States does not believe Iran is actively developing an atomic bomb, it was “trying to develop a nuclear capability.”

“That’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us,” he said.

Facebook red-faced over Google smear campaign

Facebook has been left red-faced after acknowledging it hired a prominent public relations firm to draw attention to privacy practices at Internet rival Google.

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The PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, said meanwhile that it had taken on an assignment for Facebook on the condition that it not reveal the name of its client and that it should not have done so.

Facebook’s clumsy PR effort was first revealed by the website The Daily Beast, which said Burson-Marsteller had reached out to a number of US news outlets urging them to look into claims Google was invading privacy.

The campaign, which targeted a Google tool called “Social Circle,” was uncovered after a blogger turned down the offer from Burson-Marsteller and instead publicly posted emails from an exchange with the firm.

“The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day — without their permission,” one of the Burson-Marsteller emails said.

Facebook, which has struggled with privacy controversies of its own, said in a statement to AFP that it had hired Burson-Marsteller but insisted that “no ‘smear’ campaign was authorized or intended.”

“Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles — just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose,” Facebook said.

Social Circle lets users of Google’s Gmail see information about their friends and friends of their friends and the inclusion of data allegedly scraped from Facebook upset the Palo Alto, California-based social network.

Facebook said it hired Burson-Marsteller to “focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst.”

Facebook was unapologetic but said “the issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.”

Burson-Marsteller, whose chief executive, Mark Penn, was chief strategist of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign, confirmed it had been hired by Facebook.

“The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media,” the PR company said.

“Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources,” Burson-Marsteller said.

“Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined,” it said.

“When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.”

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with more than 500 million members while Google dominates the Internet search market.

The two Web giants are waging a fierce battle over online advertising and how people navigate the Internet.

Google, whose own social networking efforts have largely been failures, does not send Web surfers to Facebook, for example, and vice versa.

The Mountain View, California-based is currently winning the fight for advertising dollars.

Google’s share of overall US online advertising revenue is estimated to grow to 43.5 percent this year from 38.9 percent last year, according to eMarketer, while Facebook’s share rises to 7.7 percent from 4.7 percent.

What the super telescope will look like

Western Australia is soon to discover whether it will host the world’s most powerful telescope, which will look almost as far back into time as the Big Bang.

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The director of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Telescope bid for Australia and New Zealand is Dr Brian Boyle.

He says the SKA telescope will be used to address some of the most fundamental questions in astronomy.

“The telescope will shed light on the origin of dark matter and dark energy, testing the theories of Einstein and Hawking on the ultimate limits, and also searching for the very first stars in the universe, looking back over 15 billion years to the very first hundred million years of universe formation”.

The world”s most powerful telescope (mp3)

Dr Boyle says it will be the world’s largest radio-telescope.

“It’s a telescope that is 50 times bigger than any other radio-telescope ever built. It will comprise of 3,000 small 12m-diameter antennas scattered other many thousands of kilometres.

“Each of these antennas will collect data from the universe and all these data will be combined to form images of the universe at radio-wave length”.

Radio waves are a million times lower in frequency than light, ranging from 100 megahertz up to a few gigahertz.

Currently, an expert committee of scientists is reviewing two potential locations for the telescope.

One is the Australia-New Zealand proposal, where the core of the telescope would be located in the mid-west region of Western Australia but with antennas scattered all over Australia and New Zealand.

The other proposal is centred in the Karoo region of the western cape of South Africa, but with antennas scattered over a further eight African nations, as far north as Ghana and Kenya.

Dr Boyle is confident the Shire of Murchison in the West Australian desert would be the best location for the core of the telescope.

“Radio quietness is an important characteristic because radio waves in the universe are very faint and usually would be drowned out by human activity,” he told SBS.

“The region that we have chosen in WA is a region with a very low population density: 2000 to 1 person per square kilometre and that means that there is a very low-interfering radio frequency to prevent the telescope from seeing distant objects in the universe.

“Australia also has a very sophisticated broadband network that can be used to transfer the data from the antennas that are scatted over the continent and also Australia provides a very safe and secure working environment”.

Tonight in London, the expert panel will reveal its preferred location to the board. The advice will remain confidential until the location of the telescope if formally announced in April.

Dr Boyle says the telescope could potentially pick up signals created by extra-terrestrial intelligence.

“The telescope will be sensitive enough to pick signals form airport radars — if airport radars exist — from planetary systems around other sides of the universe.

He says the telescope will be looking back in time further than we have ever done before.

“We will look at the very formation of structure after the Big Bang and we’ll be able to discriminate between theories of how our universe evolved over that period.

“And by looking at things like the fabric of the cosmos, we’ll be able to look at what are the origins of dark matter and dark energy, and see how they perhaps even challenge the paradigm of the current universe,” he told SBS.

“96 per cent of our universe is made of material other than the normal matter that we are used to. Whether that is this exotic dark matter – that we think about a quarter of the universe is made of, or other even more exotic dark energies – that we think 73 per cent of the universe is made of.

Dr Boyle says dark matter is not yet properly understood.

“When we watch the interaction between space objects and part galaxies, we know that there is matter there that we not only can’t see, but we can’t account for in normal matter that we can detect, so there must be some matter there that is not normal protons and neutrons. And that’s how we determine the need for dark matter.

“It’s matter that is needed to explain the gravitational influences of galaxies on each other that we can’t count by either optical or radio any other astronomical direct observation.

“The telescope will be looking back at what we call the ‘Dark Ages of the Universe'”, Mr Boyle said.

This weekend the Minister for Science, Chris Evans, will lead a delegation to China and Italy, two members of the SKA Organisation, which will make the final decision by April.

Senator Evans said he would stress that Australia’s stable society, strong economy and scientific expertise could provide confidence to the countries investing in the project.

"Cuban blue" cats said to be new breed

In a Havana apartment, four silvery gray cats race around the floor and tumble over the furniture playing with each other, occasionally jumping into the laps of their human visitors.

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They act like typical house cats, but these are not just any felines. They are members of what Cuban cat lovers believe is a newly identified breed of short-hair cat they call the Cuban blue.

“They are very docile, very playful. They have a very agreeable personality,” said Angel Uriarte Rubio, president of the Cuban Association of Cat Enthusiasts, as he gently stroked a male cat at rest in his lap.

Rubio is a physician for humans, but a cat lover by disposition. He spearheaded the effort to identify the Cuban blue as a new breed and hopes it will one day take its place alongside the world’s five other cat breeds known as “blues.”

Blue is a bit of a misnomer the cat world uses for cats that are actually gray. The other breeds are the Russian blue, the Chartreux, the Korat, the Nebelung and the British blue.

The Cuban blue looks similar to the Russian blue, and for a long time was believed to be the same breed, but that made no sense, Uriarte told Reuters on Thursday.

“We knew there were no Russian blues in Cuba because Russian blues are not very widespread in the world and none had ever arrived in Cuba,” he explained.

So, last year, the cat association got serious about establishing the separateness of the Cuban breed by studying its body structure, fur qualities, eye shape and other details.

“The structure of the body is different, as is the shape of the head. The colour of all of them is the same, but, unlike dogs, the differences in cats are in the small details,” he told Reuters on Thursday.

Last year, he appeared on television with a Cuban blue and asked owners of similar cats to come forward.

“They began to call from all over Cuba,” he said. The results showed that the Cuban blues were not scarce, but also not out there in great numbers.

Cat association member Olga Fernandez is leading an effort to breed the cats with the intent of producing first-class Cuban blues, which is to say those that more closely match the association’s standards.

Predictably, she is swimming in cats, with 11 living in her apartment and another 21 in her garage. Not all are Cuban blues; some are strays she has taken in.

It remains to be seen if the rest of the cat world will accept the Cuban blue as a new breed. There are four major cat associations worldwide, including in the United States, which is Cuba’s longtime ideological foe.

But Uriarte said bad U.S.-Cuba relations should not influence decisions on whether the Cuban blue is a separate breed.

“I don’t think cats have anything to do with politics,” he said.

Doomsdayers descend on New York

All over New York, preachers armed with t-shirts, brochures, books and posters are preaching the end of the world on Saturday May 21, 2011.

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It’s raining in New York, and everyone tries to get out of the rain. Not Manny.

The 56-year old Dominican, unflappable, stands on a corner with his umbrella, warning people that on Saturday, May 21, the world will end.

Using a complex numerical calculation from the Bible, there are even advertisements on the New York city subway warning of the “great earthquake” that accompanies the advent of Judgement Day.

“According to the Bible, in the Book of Revelations there will be a worldwide earthquake,” Manny told AFP.

“We’re not sure if it will happen at the same time everywhere, because times are different. But it is supposed to happen simultaneously around the world,” he said.

The date of May 21, 2011 may seem random, but it is based on a numerical analysis by the American, Harold Camping, the president of Family Radio, a religious broadcaster based in California.

“According to Genesis, when the flood occurred in the year 4990, God told Noah that in seven days he would destroy the earth,” Manny explained. “And he destroyed it in seven days.

“But Peter said: ‘I know that one day for me is like a thousand years.’ So 4990 plus 7001 years (the equivalent of seven days) equals 2011,” he explained.

Not only that, May 21 coincides with the 17th day of the second month of the calendar used during the Biblical flood, according to Camping.

Nearby the corner where Manny is prophesying, Borce, 43, is handing out leaflets and explaining to anyone who will listen that they have a few hours left to find salvation.

“Right now there is still salvation, but when May 21st gonna come, the salvation program is finished, God gonna shut the door, and after that only five months remain for the unsaved of the world, and they’re gonna be suffering and on the 21st October, God gonna destroy this world with fire,” Borce said.

If Manny and Borce are out on the noisy New York City streets everyday spreading the word, they are planning to be in a quieter place when the fateful moment arrives.

“Until Friday, I gonna still pray for God for mercy. Saturday I’ll be at home, just watching the news, because the doors will be shut,” said Borce, who is American.

“I will kneel and ask God’s mercy to see if he can save me, because God wants salvation for everyone,” said Manny, who was at his side.

Despite their faith, both men realize that their message is often ridiculed. “People do not believe it,” said Manny.

“It is typical of what happened in Noah’s time, where only eight people were saved. According to the Bible, only 200 million people will be saved” this time, Manny said.

To Borce, that reaction is predictable. “The people are laughing, they laugh at us,” he says, adding: “Pray until Friday.”