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1st March 2015

Uruguay bids farewell to Jose Mujica, its pauper president

Whatever your own particular "shade" of politics, it's impossible not to be impressed or beguiled by Jose "Pepe" Mujica.

There are idealistic, hard-working and honest politicians the world over - although cynics might argue they're a small minority - but none of them surely comes anywhere close to the outgoing Uruguayan president when it comes to living by one's principles.

It's not just for show. Mr Mujica's beat-up old VW Beetle is probably one of the most famous cars in the world and his decision to forgo the luxury of the Presidential Palace is not unique - his successor, Tabare Vazquez, will also probably elect to live at home.

But when you visit "Pepe" at his tiny, one-storey home on the outskirts of Montevideo you realise that the man is as good as his word.

Wearing what could best be described as "casual" clothes - I don't think he's ever been seen wearing a tie - Mr Mujica seats himself down on a simple wooden stool in front of a bookshelf that seems on the verge of collapsing under the weight of biographies and mementoes from his political adversaries and allies.

This world is crazy, crazy! People are amazed by normal things and that obsession worries me!" ”

Books are important to the former guerrilla fighter who spent a total of 13 years in jail, two of them lying at the bottom of an old horse trough. It was an experience that almost broke him mentally and which shaped his transformation from fighter to politician.

'Inner strength'

"I was imprisoned in solitary [confinement] so the day they put me on a sofa I felt comfortable!" Mr Mujica jokes. I've no doubt that had I not lived through that I would not be who I am today. Prison, solitary confinement had a huge influence on me. I had to find an inner strength. I couldn't even read a book for seven, eight years - imagine that!"

Given his past, it's perhaps understandable why Mr Mujica gives away about 90% of his salary to charity, simply because he "has no need for it".

A little bit grumpy to begin with, Mr Mujica warms to his task as he describes being perplexed by those who question his lifestyle.

Not afraid to take a swipe at his fellow leaders, he adds: "All I do is live like the majority of my people, not the minority. I'm living a normal life and Italian, Spanish leaders should also live as their people do. They shouldn't be aspiring to or copying a rich minority."

Maybe so, but this enigmatic leader remains an inspiration to many and is a reminder that politics is meant to be a humble and honourable profession.

24th February 2015

UK approves three-person babies

The UK has now become the first country to approve laws to allow the creation of babies from three people.

The modified version of IVF has passed its final legislative obstacle after being approved by the House of Lords.

The fertility regulator will now decide how to license the procedure to prevent babies inheriting deadly genetic diseases.

The first baby could be born as early as 2016.

A large majority of MPs in the House of Commons approved "three-person babies" earlier this month.

The House of Lords tonight rejected an attempt to block the plan by a majority of 232.

Power packs

Mitochondria are the tiny compartments inside nearly every cell of the body that convert food into useable energy.

But genetic defects in the mitochondria mean the body has insufficient energy to keep the heart beating or the brain functioning.

The structures are passed down only from the mother and have their own DNA, although it does not alter traits including appearance or personality.

The technique, developed in Newcastle, uses a modified version of IVF to combine the healthy mitochondria of a donor woman with DNA of the two parents.

It results in babies with 0.1% of their DNA from the second woman and is a permanent change that would echo down through the generations.

3rd March 2015

Delhi rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back

In 2012 an Indian student was violently raped on a moving bus in Delhi and died of horrific internal injuries. Leslee Udwin spoke to one of the rapists on death row while spending two years making a film about the case. She came away shocked by India's treatment of women - but inspired by those seeking change.

The horrifying details of the rape had led me to expect deranged monsters. Psychopaths. The truth was far more chilling. These were ordinary, apparently normal and certainly unremarkable men.

On 16 December 2012, the 23-year-old woman had been to see a film, the Life of Pi, with a male friend. At 8.30pm they boarded an off-duty bus, with six men on board, five adults and a juvenile. The men beat the friend and each raped the woman in turn, before assaulting her viciously with an iron instrument.

Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus, described to me every detail of what happened during and after the incident. While prosecutors say the men took turns to drive the bus, and all took part in the rape, Singh says he stayed at the wheel throughout.

Along with three of the other attackers, Singh is now appealing against his death sentence. In 16 hours of interviews, Singh showed no remorse and kept expressing bewilderment that such a fuss was being made about this rape, when everyone was at it.

"A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," he said.

Mukesh Singh is one of five convicted of the crime - his brother Ram died in prison before the trial

"Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good."

People "had a right to teach them a lesson" he suggested - and he said the woman should have put up with it.

"When being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they'd have dropped her off after 'doing her', and only hit the boy," he said.

Chillingly, he went on: "The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when they rape, they won't leave the girl like we did. They will kill her. Before, they would rape and say, 'Leave her, she won't tell anyone.' Now when they rape, especially the criminal types, they will just kill the girl."

24th February 2015

Tobacco 'kills two in three smokers'

The death risk from smoking may be much higher than previously thought - tobacco kills up to two in every three smokers not one in every two, data from a large study suggests.

The study tracked more than 200,000 Australian smokers and non-smokers above the age of 45 over six years.

Mortality risk went up with cigarette use, BMC Medicine reports.

Smoking 10 cigarettes a day doubled the risk, while 20-a-day smokers were four to five times more likely to die.

“It's a real concern that the devastation caused by smoking may be even greater than we previously thought”

Although someone who smokes could lead a long life, their habit makes this less likely.

Smoking increases the risk of a multitude of health problems, including heart disease and cancer.

Cancer Research UK currently advises that half of all long-term smokers eventually die from cancer or other smoking-related illnesses.

But recent evidence suggests the figure may be higher.

Newer studies in UK women, British doctors and American Cancer Society volunteers have put the figure at up to 67%, says Prof Emily Banks, lead author of the Australian study.

"We knew smoking was bad, but we now have direct independent evidence that confirms the disturbing findings that have been emerging internationally.

24th February 2015

MPs reject backbench bid to amend abortion laws

MPs have defeated a cross-party bid to clarify in law that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal in the UK.

Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, who spearheaded the move, said the law was being "interpreted in different ways".

But her proposal was defeated by 292 to 201. A review of the extent of sex selective abortion was agreed to.

The government said it had been consistently clear that sex selective abortion was "already illegal".

'Explicit statement'

Making the case for the change, the Congleton MP said her amendment would "clarify beyond doubt in statute that sex selective abortion is illegal in UK law".

And it would provide the government with an opportunity to address the "problem", such as by bringing forward best practice regulations and guidance, she added.

"Why is this new clause necessary? It is necessary because there is no explicit statement about gender selective abortion in UK law.

"The law is being interpreted in different ways because when the 1967 Abortion Act was passed, scans to determine the sex of the foetus were not available," she told MPs.

Ms Bruce said there was "confusion and mixed messages" on gender-based abortion

Ms Bruce insisted it would not criminalise any pregnant women because it applied only to doctors authorising an abortion.

And she rejected as "totally incorrect" the assertion that her proposal would block abortions based on a gender-linked disability.

Ms Wollaston said there was no evidence of a "systematic practice" of sex selective abortion in the UK, and warned against stigmatising communities by implying it was a widespread practice.

23rd February 2015

Church of England pays some workers below living wage

The Church of England pays some staff less than the living wage - despite calling on employers to pay at least that amount - it has been revealed.

The living wage, calculated from the basic cost of UK life, is currently £7.85 an hour outside London.

But the Sun newspaper reports a Church job advertised at £6.50 an hour - something an MP called "astonishing".

The Church said each parish, diocese and cathedral was a separate legal entity which made its own decisions.

According to the Sun, Canterbury Cathedral advertised for a kiosk assistant to be paid £6.70 an hour. The £6.50 advertisement was for "waiting-on staff" at Lichfield Cathedral.

Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke told the newspaper: "It's astonishing that the Church of England can call for the living wage to be paid by employers but don't pay it themselves."

His Tory colleague Philip Davies said many small businesses "might have considerably more difficulty raising wages" than the Church.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby: "It's embarrassing... no institution is perfect"

In a letter to all Church members last week, the House of Bishops said it backed the living wage, which ensured people earned enough to "live decently".

"It represents the basic principle that people are not commodities and that their lives cannot adapt infinitely in response to market pressures," the letter added.

In a statement, the Church of England said it was made of independent parts but added: "The vast majority of those employed by or sub-contracted to the central institutions are already paid at least the living wage and all will be by April 2017.

"The Diocese of Canterbury and the Pensions Board of the Church of England are committed to moving to paying the living wage and hope to be at that point within the next 2 years. As charities both institutions require time to increase giving levels prior to ensuring delivery of the living wage."

BBC religious affairs correspondent Caroline Wyatt said: "The intentions are there, and this is what the Church is aiming to do, but in the meantime we have probably not seen the end of this spat between politicians and the bishops."

The Living Wage Foundation says the hourly rate, revised yearly, is "calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK".

21st February 2015

CT scan of 1000 year old Buddha statue reveals mummified monk hidden inside

What looks like a traditional statue of Buddha dating back to the 11th or 12th century was recently revealed to be quite a bit more. A CT scan and endoscopy carried out by the Netherlands-based Drents Museum at the Meander Medical Centre in Amersfoort, showed the ancient reliquary fully encases the mummified remains of a Buddhist master known as Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School. While it was known beforehand the remains of a person were inside, another startling discovery was made during the scan: where the organs had been removed prior to mummification, researches discovered rolls of paper scraps covered in Chinese writing.

The Liuquan mummy has since been transported to Hungary where it will be on view at the Hungarian Natural History Museum through May of 2015. (via Robs Webstek, Neatorama, Creators Project)

21st February 2015

Why homeless Britons are turning to the Sikh community for food

Homeless people in the UK are getting free meals thanks to a centuries-old Sikh tradition. Why, asks Rajeev Gupta.

"We come here because we get food... A hot meal. It's a luxury for me." John Davidson is 55 and homeless. He is one of 250 people who have just received a hand-out of hot soup, drinks, chocolate bars and other supplies from the Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team van parked up on the Strand in central London on a cold Sunday evening. The Swat team, as they're known, park at the same spot every week so a group of volunteers from the Sikh community can hand out vital supplies. Homeless people, who overwhelmingly are not Sikh, patiently wait in line to be served.

For the volunteers handing out food here, this is more than just good charitable work. For them this is a religious duty enshrined by the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, over 500 years ago. At a time of deep division by caste and religious infighting between Hindus and Muslims in India, Guru Nanak called for equality for all and set forward the concept of Langar - a kitchen where donated produce, prepared into wholesome vegetarian curry by volunteers, is freely served to the community on a daily basis.

Today, thousands of free Langar meals are served every day in Sikh temples throughout the UK. The Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall, thought to be the biggest Sikh temple outside of India, says it alone serves 5,000 meals on weekdays and 10,000 meals on weekends. Every Sikh has the duty to carry out Seva, or selfless service, says Surinder Singh Purewal, a senior member of the temple management team. "It means we're never short of donations or volunteers to help prepare the Langar."

In recent times the Langar meal has acted as a barometer for the state of the economy. After the 2008 recession many Sikh temples reported a surge in the numbers of non-Sikhs coming in for the free Langar meals. It's now common to see non-Sikhs inside the temple, Purewal says: "We don't mind it. As long as people show respect, are not intoxicated and cover their heads in line with our traditions, then everyone is welcome."

The Swat team say they decided to take the concept of Langar outside its traditional setting in temples and out onto the streets when they saw a growing homelessness problem in London. Randeep Singh who founded SWAT says: "When you go to the temple, what's the message? The message is to help others, help your neighbours. That's what we are doing."

21st February 2015

Chelsea fans sought over London station racist chants

Police are investigating racist chanting at St Pancras station by men thought to be Chelsea fans returning from a Champions League match in Paris.

It comes after an incident of alleged racism by Chelsea supporters on the Paris Metro, when footage showed a black man being pushed from a train.

The chanting in London happened on Wednesday evening, the day after the club's 1-1 draw with Paris St-Germain.

British Transport Police say anyone with information should contact them.

Chelsea FC has already barred five fans from attending Stamford Bridge following the earlier incident.

It took place at Richelieu-Drouot station in the centre of the French capital on Tuesday ahead of the Paris St-Germain match.

Club 'disgusted'

Chelsea drew 1-1 with Burnley at Stamford Bridge in the club's first game since the incident in Paris

Five people have been barred by Chelsea from Stamford Bridge in connection with the incident

A number of

John Terry said in Chelsea's pre-match programme that what happened in Paris was "unacceptable"

Manager Jose Mourinho has said he was "ashamed" by the alleged racism.

In his matchday programme notes for Saturday's match against Burnley, which is also the club's annual "Game for Equality", he said it was a time to "celebrate this club's diversity".

He said it was an opportunity to mark "the work we do to show that football is for everyone and that Chelsea is dedicated to tackling all forms of discrimination".

The club drew 1-1 at home to Burnley in what was their first game since the incident in Paris.

Chelsea captain John Terry, also writing in the club's programme, said: "Football is a sport for everyone, that is one of the main reasons why we love it, and what happened on the Paris Metro was unacceptable."

Terry was found guilty by the Football Association of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand in 2012, and given a four-match ban and a £220,000 fine.

The Metropolitan Police have released CCTV images of three men they are looking for in connection with Tuesday's incident.

3rd March

Lent: Muslims stand in solidarity with Christians by tweeting what they will give up until Easter

In a show of solidarity, Muslims are standing with Christians and giving up guilty pleasures for lent.

For Christians, lent is a period of self-restraint, marked by fasting, repentance, prayer and self-control. Luxury or rich foods, such as meat and dairy are often avoided by those taking part.

Abstention from personal “bad habits” such as watching television or eating too much sugar is also commonly practised.

The observance starts on Ash Wednesday and lasts until Easter, as Christians imitate the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in a desert before being blessed by John the Baptist.

Using #Muslims4Lent, followers of Islam are tweeting photos of themselves in which they declare what they will be giving up.

Muslim American entrepreneur Bassel Riche, 28, told The Independent  that he was inspired to start the started the campaign after non-Muslim students joined in with the Muslim Students Association’s Ramadan Fast-a-Thon at his former college, The University of Houston.

“We would all gather in a big hall and break our fast together at a hosted dinner and partake in interfaith dialogue,” he said, explaining that he had observed lent around for four years, and wanted to encourage fellow Muslims to join him this year.

“The goal is to thank the many Christians that have always shown love and respect towards Islam by showing them we in turn have the utmost respect for their beliefs,” Riche said.

Riche, who is also the founder of the EidPrayLove website - which aims to show Islam as a religion of peace - added that he hopes the campaign “will show the true face of Islam and take the spotlight away from extremists."

“Despite what our extremists have done to hijack our religion, we believe in peace, love, tolerance & harmony with other faiths.”

“We don't want to be seen as some distant, mysterious faith - we want to be accessible for people to open up to us, that is the only way we can counter the misinformation," he said.

16th February 2015

Should ritual slaughter be banned in the UK?

Which matters more: animal rights or the rights of religious minorities?

And which will gain more votes among undecided voters on polling day?

Always an emotive issue, religious slaughter has become an unexpected political battleground as the general election approaches.

Animal rights campaigners have long called for a ban on halal or shechita slaughter, which amongst other requirements specify slitting an animal's throat quickly with a sharp knife while it is still conscious.

Halal slaughter has been especially targeted by certain groups to attempt to discredit humane halal slaughter methods”

The British Veterinary Association, the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and the National Secular Society all want to see an end to the religious slaughter of animals or to slaughter without pre-stunning.

However, in the run-up to the general election, opposition to those methods of slaughter would also seem to have become dog whistle politics: shorthand for targeting a specific religious minority - Muslims - without saying as much.

UKIP last week said it would ban all slaughter methods that didn't involve pre-stunning - causing controversy amongst British Muslims and Jews, some of whom warned that any such ban would in effect drive those who observe religious dietary laws out of the UK.

For many of the UK's almost three million Muslims, halal slaughter is a strict religious requirement, as is eating kosher for many of the UK's 300,000 Jews.

Rules over stunning

Under the halal code, animals are supposed to be killed quickly with a single sweep of a surgically-sharp knife

"Being cruel to animals is a sin in Islam, and we do not permit any form of cruelty in abattoirs certified by us.

"The discomfort and pain experienced by any animal should be absolutely minimised if not eliminated, and our standards reflect such requirements.

British and EU law requires all animals to be stunned prior to being killed, unless the meat is intended for Muslim or Jewish consumers.

Laws not applied

However, Animal Aid said it had discovered a "remarkable weakness in the application of the law", with the regulatory body, the Food Standards Agency, acknowledging to Animal Aid that any slaughterhouse "can practise non-stun slaughter without demonstrating that the meat is destined for religious communities."

11th February 2015

England bans smoking in cars with children

Drivers in England will be banned from smoking in their cars if they are carrying children as passengers.

The move, which will become law on 1 October, follows a similar ban in Wales and aims to protect young people under 18 from second-hand smoke. Scotland is also considering introducing a ban.

Anyone found flouting the law in England could be fined £50.

The British Lung Foundation welcomed the ban as a victory, but smokers' group Forest said it was unenforceable.

It will not apply to anyone driving alone or driving in a convertible car with the top down.

The regulations were passed in the Commons after 342 MPs voted in favour of legislation while just 74 voted against.

More than 430,000 children are exposed to second-hand smoke in cars each week, according to the British Lung Foundation,

Passive smoke in children can increase the risk of asthma, meningitis and cot death, say public health experts.

Professor Dame Sally Davies: "We need to protect our children"

While many support a ban, some say it is an unnecessary intrusion.

'Important step'

Public Health Minister, Jane Ellison, said: "Three million children are exposed to second hand smoke in cars, putting their health at risk.

"We know that many of them feel embarrassed or frightened to ask adults to stop smoking which is why the regulations are an important step in protecting children from the harms of secondhand smoke."

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: "This is a tremendous victory.

"We urge the Government to show the same commitment to introduce standardised packaging for all tobacco products, in order to protect the 200,000 children taking up smoking every year in this country.

"We are certain that these measures together will prove to be two of the most significant milestones for public health since the smoke-free legislation of 2007."

5th February 2015

UK anti-Semitism hit record level in 2014, report says

Anti-Semitic incidents reached a record level in the UK last year, according to the Community Security Trust.

A report by the trust, which provides security for Britain's Jewish community and monitors anti-Semitism, said the number of incidents had more than doubled to 1,168 in 2014.

It is the highest figure since the trust began monitoring in 1984.

"Anti-Semitic reactions to the conflict in Israel and Gaza" were the biggest factor behind the rise, the trust said.

It recorded 314 incidents in July - the highest ever recorded in a single month.

It said almost half the offenders made reference to Gaza or Palestinians.

However, it said the number of incidents had already risen significantly in the first six months of the year, before the summer's conflict.

'Extreme' assault

The report said the increase was most marked in London - where the number of incidents rose by 137% to 583 - and in Greater Manchester, where the number rose by 79% to 309.

It said there were 81 violent anti-Semitic assaults across the UK in 2014.

One, in London last September, was classified as "extreme".

The victim was subjected to verbal abuse and was hit with a glass and a baseball bat, the report said.

Anti-Semitic graffiti was left on a toilet door in London in August 2014

Most assaults were random attacks on Jewish people in public places, it added.

It said 19 involved objects - usually eggs - being thrown at "visibly Jewish" people from cars.

Eight were assaults on synagogue congregants going to or from prayers, the report said, and four targeted Jewish schoolchildren on their way to or from school.

In addition, there were more than 300 reported incidents of verbal abuse - apparently randomly directed at Jewish people in public.

The Metropolitan Police said hate crime "remains largely under reported" and urged victims to come forward.

In a statement, it said recent events had made Jewish communities "anxious" and said it was providing more patrols in "key areas" and was "closely monitoring the situation".

16th February 2015

Libby Lane: First female Church of England bishop consecrated

The Church of England has consecrated its first female bishop during a ceremony at York Minster.

The Right Reverend Libby Lane, 48, was made Bishop of Stockport in front of more than 1,000 people.

The Church formally adopted legislation last November to allow women bishops, following decades of argument over women's ordination.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu, who led the service, said he had been "praying and working for this day".

During the two-hour service Dr Sentamu and other bishops laid their hands on Bishop Lane and prayed. This was followed by lengthy applause.

"absolute impediment"

Writing in today's Yorkshire Post the archbishop said: "It is high time we had women bishops. I have been praying and working for this day.

"In a few years' time when more and more women will be bishops, I predict we shall be wondering how we ever managed without them."

However, in an indication that some Anglicans still oppose women's ordination, the service was briefly delayed by an opponent of the changes.

The Rev Paul Williamson stepped forward shouting "not in the Bible" after the Archbishop of York asked the church if Mrs Lane should be ordained as a bishop.

The second time Dr Sentamu asked the congregation, there was no opposition and the ceremony continued.

'Very emotional'

Bishop Lane had said the consecration would be a very "emotional" moment.

She said: "It is a remarkable thing that this happens to me, and people have been very supportive of me personally, but actually this is about a moment in the Church's history."

16th January 2015

£1bn spent 'to meet UK's overseas aid target'

At least £1bn more than expected was spent on overseas aid in two months to meet the UK's spending target, a watchdog's report says.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said the outlay at the end of 2013 may not have been spent as effectively as possible as a result.

The government is committed to spending 0.7% of the UK's national income on overseas aid.

Officials said aid went only where it was most needed.

The report by the spending watchdog said the Department for International Development (DfID) had also requested further cash from the Treasury in 2014 in order to achieve the target.

The NAO said difficulties were caused because the target is based on the calendar year, but the department's accounts work to the end of the financial year in March.

In January 2014, the Department's best estimate was that 2013 ODA totalled £11,415m, the equivalent of 0.703% of its estimate of gross national income, or £44m above the minimum needed to hit 0.7%.

The report said the government increased DfID's 2013-14 budget by a third to support its commitment at a time when it was reducing the budgets of most other departments.

The 0.7% target is based on what the UN urges developed countries to achieve. In 2013 the UK became the first G7 country to do so when it spent £11.5bn on overseas aid.

Sudden changes

He added: "In 2013, the UK became the first G7 country to meet the UN target.

"Investing in overseas development is creating a world that is healthier, more stable and increasingly prosperous and that is something Britain can be proud of.

"UK aid goes only where it is most needed and where it will deliver the very best results for taxpayers' money."

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