Monthly Archives: May 2007

Does the punishment fit the crime?

China has sentenced the former head of its food and drug safety agency to death. He had pleaded guilty to corruption and accepting bribes.

According to Xinhua, Zheng Xiaoyu, aged 62, was accused of taking about E630,000 in bribes in exchange for approving drug-production licences. The court said the sentence was appropriate given the “huge amount of bribes involved and the great damage inflicted on the country and the public by Zheng’s dereliction of duty”.

However, the International Herald Tribune quite rightly points out that this impending execution comes amid outcry over China’s food safety. Earlier this year, two Chinese firms were accused of shipping contaminated pet food ingredients to the US, leading to the deaths of animals across the country and subsequently a massive recall.

Meanwhile, a chemical used to make antifreeze made it into cough medicine and toothpaste exported to Central America. More than 100 people died last year in Panama after taking cough medicine containing diethylene glycol, which left China marked “glycerin”. Last week, the same ingredient was found in toothpaste in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

That China has a shoddy record when it comes to food and drug safety is putting it mildly. Counterfeit medication is rampant and mass food poisonings are common. However, I can’t shake the feeling that Zheng is taking the heat for a wider problem in the nation. His actions — if indeed he did what he has been accused of — have led to the suffering of many and the deaths of some from sub-standard medicine.

But I have to ask you: does Zheng’s punishment fit his crime?

Man against beast

 Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t make this stuff up. From the Associated Press:

A man clad only in underwear and a T-shirt wrestled a wild leopard to the floor and pinned it for 20 minutes after the cat leapt through a window of his home and hopped into bed with his sleeping family.

“This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day,” said 49-year-old Arthur Du Mosch, a nature guide. “I don’t know why I did it. I wasn’t thinking, I just acted.”

Raviv Shapira, who heads the southern district of the Israel Nature and Parks Protection Authoritym said a half-dozen leopards have been spotted recently near Du Mosch’s small community of Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev desert in southern Israel, although they rarely threaten humans.

Shapira said it was probably food that lured the big cat. Leopards living near humans are usually too old to hunt in the wild and resort to chasing down domestic dogs and cats for food, he added.

Du Mosch’s pet cat was in the bed with him at the time, along with his young daughter who had been frightened by a mosquito in her own room.

Shapira said the leopard was very weak when park rangers arrived at Du Mosch’s home after the surprise late-night visit. He said nature officials would likely release it back into the wild.

Du Mosch said he probably would not have been able to control the big cat were it in better health. As a nature guide, he said, he was familiar with animals and did his best to hold down the leopard without harming it. He said he took it all in stride, “but the kids were excited.”

The political Gulf

The US and Iran have agreed a broad policy on Iraq.

The consensus, which must be reviewed in Washington and Tehran, calls for a “trilateral security mechanism” consisting of the three nations, and depends on the Iranians ending support for militants.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the talks could lead to future meetings, but only if Washington admits its Middle East policy has been unsuccessful.

Iran and the US have been at odds for years, but things have intensified because of the Iranian nuclear programme. Adding to the tension were the recent American naval exercises in the Gulf, which has resulted in an increased US build-up in the region. However, the face-to-face talks between US ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi — which focused solely on Iraq — do mark a slight thawing in relations.

It’s just too bad that people on both sides are looking for an armed conflict.

Steven Clemons reports that Dick Cheney is busy undermining diplomatic initiatives toward the Islamic Republic. It is a complex move on several fronts: elements within the Department of Defence and national intelligence are readying for conflict in a bid to convince Iran that it could be attacked, while Cheney and his cohorts want to persuade Bush that the military option is viable.

This runs contrary to the diplomatic efforts of Condi Rice, which are backed by the Pentagon, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CIA Director Michael Hayden.


The thinking on Cheney’s team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran’s nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles) .

This would provoke an Iranian military response and force Bush to abandon diplomacy in favour of another war.

Clemons has derived his information from a Cheney aide, who has been doing the rounds in Washington in a bid to drum up support for hawkish maneouvres against Iran. This official has apparently been saying words to the effect that:

Cheney believes that Bush can not be counted on to make the “right decision” when it comes to dealing with Iran and thus Cheney believes that he must tie the President’s hands.

A scary thought.

On the other side are Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard. War would suit them down to the ground as it would give both a major boost in domestic support. Like the Cheney brigade, these actors are not necessarily advocating an out-and-out conflict, but manoeuvering so it becomes a viable, even preferential option.

Who would win such a conflict? That depends on the definition of victory. Ousting Ahmadinejad and implementing a more favourable regime (which would, quite incidentally, allow the US greater access to Iranian oil reserves) is one such definition. On the Iranian side, simply not being conquered would be enough. Repelling a US invasion — should it come to such a drastic measure — would be PR gold.

Anything the US has learned in Iraq would be practically useless in Iran. The US and its allies have had enough trouble subjucating Iraq, and Iran dwarfs its neighbour, as this Wikipedia map shows (click for larger view):


It is also a mountainous country, which would slow down any military advance and allow Iranian forces to conduct a successful guerilla war. It is unlikely the likes of Pakistan, Afghanistan or Turkey would allow the staging of an invasion.

But that said any war would most likely take the form (initially at least) of airstrikes on key infrastructure in a bid to bring the country to its economic knees. This was the pattern followed in Serbia during the Kosovan conflict and in Iraq prior to the invasion. It also offers the best PR strategy for the US, as its military can be seen as winning while risking very few of its members.

Both Cheney and Ahmadinejad are playing a dangerous game. A chaotic Iraq has already threatened to destabilise the region; a chaotic Iran would only add to this. Whether it would unlease further sectarian strife is a subject for wiser heads than mine. But there would be no happy ending to such a story.


The UN has suffered its first casualty in Darfur since it began a small-scale deployment in December.

Lieutenant Colonel Ehab Nazir, an Egyptian national, was shot dead at his home. It appears to have been a burglary, but the world body hasn’t ruled out other motives. We shall have to wait and see if the investigation gets anywhere.

The news comes only a day after Sudan was presented with a proposal for a UN-African Union hybrid peacekeeping force. The 23,000-strong mission would be tasked with protecting civilians and helping to restore law and order.

There are already about 7,000 AU troops in the region, but these are supposed to be augmented by several thousand UN soldiers sometime this year. As it stands, the world body has less than 180 deployed there.

A peace deal was signed by the government and one rebel group in May 2006, but it has yet to be implemented. The fighting has continued between the Janjaweed militia and local militant forces.

There is the ever-present danger that the conflict will drag Chad and the Central African Republic — countries to where many refugees have fled — into the conflict, potentially starting a wider regional war (Chad and Sudan support each other’s rebels, although they recently signed a “reconciliation” deal).

The situation in Darfur only serves to make a further mockery of the United Nations. It passes resolutions which nations are free to ignore, and often can not provide adequate resources to achieve its stated objectives. It is hampered by politics and the risk of losing the donations of member states. As long as this situation persists the UN will never live up to its potential.

The hybrid force proposal will come to nothing. The UN Security Council won’t even pass a resolution until Sudan agrees to the mission, which it won’t as it considers it too big.

I have written before (in another format) on the defunct nature of the United Nations. I will try to dig up that particular essay and upload it. In the meantime, this is a good blog on how the media has become disengaged with Darfur.

Beverage of the gods

A while back I posted on the glory that is coffee, and how it can cut the risk of diabetes. But wait, there’s more!

Canadian researchers now say it can reduce the risk of gout. Now, gout may sound like an old-fashioned kind of ailment, but this article points out it affects about six million people in the US. What made me laugh is that for years people at risk of developing the painful joint condition — which is caused by uric build-up in the blood — were told to avoid coffee!

The study team found drinking four or five cups a day can cut the risk by 40%, while drinking up to six cups can make it 50-60%. Decaf seems to work just as well, while tea does feck all.

Unfortunately, study author Dr Hyon Choi says the drink isn’t a treatment, but adds there’s no need to cut down if you have the condition already.