Apology from German thalidomide company after decades of silence

Thalidomide

The German company that manufactured thalidomide, the morning sickness drug that led to thousands of babies being born with deformed limbs and other defects, apologized to victims Friday after decades of silence.

At the Friday unveiling of a public memorial paid for by the company in the town of Stolberg, Grunenthal CEO Harald F. Stock said it regretted the grave problems the drug had caused before it was pulled from most markets in 1961.

Because its tests failed to detect hazards, many women took the medicine without knowing it could harm their babies, he said, and were left with “a heavy burden." For almost 50 years, Grunenthal had not found a way to reach out to the victims "person to person," Stock added.

“Instead, we have been silent and we are very sorry for that,” Stock said Friday, according to a translated copy of his planned remarks. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the silent shock that your fate has caused us.”

The new memorial was dismissed by some groups of thalidomide victims, who argued the company was only paying for the bronze sculptures to burnish its image, Der Spiegel reported. A German victims group told the Associated Press that the Friday apology wasn't enough.

“The apology as such doesn't help us deal with our everyday life,” Assn. of Contergan Victims spokeswoman Ilonka Stebritz told the news agency. “What we need are other things.”

After the effects were discovered, the company gave 114 million deutschmarks to a West German government foundation to support disabled children, but avoided legal liability. Nine of its executives and research employees were targeted in a lawsuit that was ultimately discontinued.

Victims around the world have continued to sue Grunenthal and the companies that marketed its drug. An Australian woman won millions of dollars earlier this year in a settlement with a British company that marketed thalidomide in her country, but had not reached agreement with Grunenthal as of last month.

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Greek leader asks Germany for 'more room to breathe'

Samaras merkel
BERLIN -- Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday in an effort to win two more years to meet his country's budget-deficit targets, but Merkel insisted that Athens stick to its stated commitments.

Facing a restless electorate that is hardening its opinions toward Greece, Merkel said Germany was prepared to help Athens remain in the 17-nation Eurozone. But she added that any renegotiation of Greece's bailout terms should wait until next month, when the so-called troika composed of the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund is set to issue a progress report on Greece's economic and financial reforms.

In advance of his visit to Berlin, Samaras went on the offensive in the German media, saying in interviews that Greece simply needed "more room to breathe." In order to qualify for its next round of international aid, Greece must make about $14 billion in cuts by 2014. The center-right Samaras, who heads a shaky coalition government that was elected in June, said his country needs until 2016 because of its steep economic downturn.

But patience in Germany is wearing thin with Greece's continual failure to meet deadlines. After Friday's meeting with Samaras, Merkel reiterated her stance that "Greece is a part of the Eurozone, and I would like Greece to remain part of the Eurozone." But facing tough elections next year for a third term in office, she added that she "made clear in the talks that we of course expect from Greece that the commitments that were made be implemented, that deeds follow words."

Many in Merkel's center-right coalition haven't ruled out the possibility of a Greek exit from the euro. Even her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaueble, who has said he also does not want Greece to leave the euro, is setting up a working group to consider the possibility, the Financial Times Deutschland reported.

On Saturday, Samaras flies to Paris where he is likely to hear a similar message from President Francois Hollande. Merkel and Hollande met in Berlin on Thursday over a private dinner and afterward presented a unified front on the euro crisis and Greece's need to fulfill its pledges.

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Photo: Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a news conferece in Berlin on Friday. Credit: Stephanie Pilick / EPA


German lawmakers work on legislation to protect circumcision

Rabbi metzger

BERLIN -- Israel’s top rabbi is in Berlin to rally support among German political leaders regarding legislation to protect the practice of ritual circumcision in Germany, which was called into question earlier this year by a controversial court ruling that Jewish and Muslim leaders said threatened their religious freedom.

In June, after a Muslim boy suffered health complications from the practice, a court in the western German city of Cologne declared nonmedical circumcision to be criminal because it causes children bodily harm. Amid outrage from some religious groups, lawmakers quickly passed a resolution promising legislation guaranteeing legal protection for circumcision.

This week, officials have been meeting with Yona Metzger, chief rabbi of Israel's Ashkenazi Jews, to craft legislation on the issue. But the stakes were raised further Tuesday after a doctor in the southern German city of Hof, in Bavaria, reportedly filed charges with local prosecutors against a rabbi there to stop the practice. Prosecutors must still decide whether to act on the charges, which the Council of European Rabbis described as a “grave affront to religious freedom.”

“This latest development … underlines the urgent need for the German government to expedite the process of ensuring that the fundamental rights of minority communities are protected,” the council said in a statement on its website.

Though the Cologne court ruling applies only to that jurisdiction, the decision immediately called into question the legality of circumcision nationwide. The German Medical Assn. told doctors not to perform circumcisions. Even some doctors in neighboring Austria and Switzerland were advised to stop performing the procedure until legal questions were answered.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that banning circumcisions would make Germany a “laughing stock.” But finding a compromise hasn’t been so simple, with opponents of the practice saying that what they see as protecting the rights of children should come above religious freedom.

The European rabbis’ council says that using anesthesia or having a doctor perform circumcision instead of a mohel would not be in accordance with Judaism. Metzger told reporters Tuesday that he suggested establishing a school for mohels in Germany with both religious training from rabbis and medical training from doctors in case of complications from circumcision.

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Photo: Israeli Rabbi Yona Metzger speaks to reporters in Berlin on Tuesday about the debate in Germany over circumcision. Credit: Kay Nietfeld / EPA


Deepening recession heats up talk of Greece exiting Eurozone

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi

When the euro hit wallets and bank accounts on New Year’s Day a decade ago, champagne and fireworks greeted the Europeans' embarking on what was touted as an irrevocable course for prosperity and economic integration.

GlobalFocusOver the years, though, as the economies of Greece, Spain and other Eurozone nations became mired in debt, expectations of a happy commune of affluence have given way to thoughts of breaking off the laggards to save the herd. What the Economist and other journals have referred to as a kind of "Hotel California that you can never leave" now looks to some to be exactly the hellish trap evoked by the Eagles in their 1970s ballad.

Greek officials disclosed this week that their economy shrunk 6.2% from April through June and that unemployment is close to 24% and rising. The shaky coalition government, confronted by strikes and protests against earlier austerity measures, has yet to identify the last $5 billion or so in budget cuts it must make to qualify for the next tranche of bailout funds due in September.

The bad news came as little surprise to the Eurozone’s better-off members, Germany first among them, which have complained for months that Athens has repeatedly failed to demonstrate the will to pare its bloated government payroll and get serious about collecting taxes.

A delegation of the so-called troika of creditors -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- visited Athens last month and is expected to issue a critical report on the Greek balance sheet in September. That has shifted the conversation from whether Greece will exit the Eurozone to how many other common currency users might follow.

Even Greek analysts have become dubious of the country’s prospects for living up to the commitments made to get triple-digit billions in bailout funds. They have been issuing gloomy forecasts of an inevitable Greek exit -- or Grexit, as it has come to be called -- perhaps preparing the public for an eventual return to the drachma.

“The political system once more showed how counterproductive it is. Instead of designing a workable state, it tries to reproduce the one that already exists,” the Greek daily Kathimerini’s columnist Paschos Mandravelis groused Monday. In his analysis, titled “On another planet,” he accused the government of protecting well-connected allies and unproductive state jobs.

A week ago, Greek Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said the government was still looking for about a third of the $15 billion in cuts to the 2013-14 budgets demanded by the troika in exchange for vital cash infusions. Debt inspectors are due back next month for a final review of whether Athens has gotten its finances in order, a judgment expected to be negative unless the government forces through deeply unpopular budget cuts and privatization plans in the final few weeks.

Elsewhere in the common currency club, the mood has changed from one of steadfast commitment to keeping the 17-nation Eurozone intact to mounting resignation that at least Greece will have to go.

Athens’ potential departure "has long since lost its horrors," German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler told ARD television recently. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs Eurozone finance ministers’ meetings, observed last week that a Greek exit would be “manageable.” On Monday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned from a hiking vacation in the Italian Alps, she was confronted with even more dismissive comments by her coalition partners.

“An example must be made of Athens that the Eurozone can also show teeth,” Markus Soeder, Bavarian finance minister and member of a conservative sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. He contended that Germany can ill afford to keep bailing out spendthrift euro members and that “further help to Greece is like pouring water into the desert.”

In the Economist cover story this week, a mock memo to Merkel on a possible Plan B advises her to consider two options to her current course of scrambling to hold the Eurozone together. One envisions Greece's departure, which alone could cost the euro area $398 billion in debt write-offs and transitional aid. The other scenario, in which Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus and Spain would also leave, could cost the rump Eurozone $1.4 trillion but halt the slow bleeding of bailouts to the struggling periphery, the respected London-based publication calculated.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and former European affairs director on the National Security Council under President Clinton, attributes the growing Grexit talk to an emerging consensus among economists that Athens' departure is a question of when, not if.

"Behind the scenes the European Union is making preparations for a Greek exit to contain the damage," he said of the latest assessments of the Eurozone's integrity.

Grexit would be manageable because of Greece's small economy and the fact that its finances are unlikely to ever meet Eurozone standards, Kupchan said. But he sees other departures as potentially destabilizing for the whole monetary union experiment.

"When you start talking about the Spanish or the Portuguese or the Irish leaving, that's a new ballgame," he said. "That's not a controlled exit of a member or two; it's a complete overhaul of the Eurozone."

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Photo: Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, has pledged to do whatever it takes to protect the euro common currency. But mounting debts and persistent recession in some of the peripheral countries of the Eurozone have turned the conversation to managing the departure of Greece, instead of preventing it. Credit:  Hannelore Foerster / Bloomberg


Confidence teetering in Eurozone, economists warn

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner
It's been more than two decades since the Iron Curtain fell and Europeans embarked on an ambitious mission to build a powerful economic, political and social union in place of the Cold War divide. And for more than two decades, Germans have been footing most of the integration bill.

GlobalFocusCompassion fatigue set in long ago among the continent's most prosperous people, and the mounting costs of keeping the Eurozone intact a decade after the common currency was introduced have all but exhausted Germans' generosity toward their needy neighbors.

In this summer of economic discontent that is rattling financial markets worldwide, commitment to the 17-nation Eurozone has been a hard sell for German politicians whose constituents see only more expense and uncertainty with the wobbly fiscal union. Investors, too, seem to have increasing doubts about the euro's future and European Union leaders' ability to forge a viable plan for managing collective finances.

All eyes are on the European Central Bank this week following the vow of its president, Mario Draghi, to do whatever is necessary to keep Spain and Italy in the Eurozone despite skyrocketing interest costs for servicing their massive debts. The bank is constrained by European Union treaty provisions from loaning money directly to governments, and Germany has staunchly opposed proposals for funneling bank funds to needy member states through mechanisms meant to provide strictly supervised bailouts, not to bankroll loans.

The ECB “is ready to do what it takes to preserve the euro. Believe me, it will be enough,” Draghi assured investors last week, bringing about a short-lived reprieve in the interest rates demanded by lenders for 10-year bonds to finance Spanish and Italian debt.

"After Draghi's comments, expectations are quite high that the central bank will take action Thursday. But at the end of the day, the ECB cannot solve this problem," said Keith Savard, senior managing economist at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica.

The ECB can fiddle with collateral requirements and the refinance rate for some short-term relief, but what is needed to restore confidence in the euro is coordinated fiscal strategy and collective guarantees that new loans will be repaid, Savard said. It will take years, he noted, to execute the necessary legislation and treaty revisions once agreement is reached, which appears far from imminent as Germany and other Northern European euro users resist exposing their own good credit to the dodgy finances of some of their neighbors.

Uri Dadush, director of the international economics program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, sees some progress -- "glacial," he said -- toward stabilizing the euro since May, when Greeks voted out the political coalition committed to the euro. Greeks managed to seat a pro-euro government in a second election in June, but they have yet to adopt the belt-tightening measures needed to get vital bailout funds due in August.

"There is urgency -- you see this in the volatility of the markets. But is catastrophe imminent? I don't think so. People know the ECB is there and, when push comes to shove, that the ECB will intervene," said Dadush.

Despite the barriers to direct lending to governments by the central bank, Dadush said it has managed to buy up at least $246 billion in government bonds at below-market interest for heavily indebted euro countries.

"Rules are there to be broken once the politicians decide this is what needs to be done," he said.

German resistance may also be broken, if the crisis escalates and threatens to further damage the market for Germany's cars, technology and other exports, said Fabian Zuleeg, chief economist at the European Policy Center in Brussels.

He is critical, though, of the German government's failure to make a strong case to its citizens about the benefits of preserving the currency union and moving forward with deeper financial integration.

"It's not a very positive way of engaging your citizens when you are scaring them into a situation where you say they don't have a choice," Zuleeg said.

All three economists interviewed Tuesday observed that Washington could help stabilize the euro if it were to buy the bonds of struggling states, demonstrating confidence in the currency that would inspire China, Japan, Brazil and other big economies to do likewise. They also agree there is virtually no chance that will happen, given the United States' own debt issues and a presidential election underway.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner in effect confirmed Tuesday that the euro crisis would be left to the Europeans to resolve.

"This is completely within their financial ability to solve," Geithner said at a Los Angeles World Affairs Council event, although he  acknowledged that the politics of the problem may be a more difficult sell.

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Photo: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, left, meets Monday with U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at a vacation home on the North Sea island of Sylt, where they discussed the outlook for tackling the Eurozone debt crisis. During a Los Angeles visit Tuesday, Geithner made it clear that the euro woes were a matter for Europeans to resolve. Credit: Philipp Guelland / Associated Press


British royal family member among riders in equestrian event

Zara Phillips Summer Olympics 2012
LONDON -- British horse lovers and royal watchers alike on Monday rooted for Olympic rider Zara Phillips, granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

Phillips and her aptly named horse, High Kingdom, powered round a  grueling cross-country course in Greenwich Park. They achieved 10th place at the end of the second day of the Olympic equestrian three-day event, which saw almost a fifth of the participants fall or fail to finish the course.

More than 50,000 fans basking in a day of sun and games spread themselves out over the 180-acre city park, home to the Meridian line and a historic naval museum. The crowds cheered as riders and their horses jumped over obstacles, splashed through water and twisted and turned around a treacherous 3.5-mile course of obstacles with names like The Planet and the Moon, the Coffin and the Altar. 

Whoops, applause and some gasps – when a horse or rider fell -  followed every competitor, but the crowd clearly supported the 31-year-old royal Olympian.

"The noise of the crowd was completely deafening. I couldn't even hear my watch beeping at the minute markers," Phillips told Reuters later.

Phillips had plenty of support from family including cousin Prince William and his wife, Catherine, William’s brother, Harry, and Camilla, wife of her uncle, Prince Charles. Phillips' mother, Princess Anne, a former Olympic rider, watched too.

Phillips helped the British team reach second place in the overall team rankings, behind the German team.  Tuesday’s equestrian competition features show jumping.

“I was really impressed," said fan Anna Patrick, 45. "She deserved her place on the team, and not because she’s a royal." 

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Photo: Zara Phillips of Britain rides High Kingdom as she competes in the cross-country phase at Greenwich Park at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Credit: Markus Schreiber / Associated Press 


Europe sends gays seeking asylum back home and back to the closet

Gay rights parade in Germany

As gays and lesbians facing repression at home have come knocking on European doors, pleading for asylum, they have often been assured they will be safe -- if they stay home and stay in the closet.

In Hungary, a court weighing the case of a West African woman opined, “If she would not make her lesbianism public, she would not have to fear the consequences of her behavior,” according to a Dutch study of European asylum practices last year. Switzerland turned down an Iranian man, saying homosexuality was tolerated in Iran “when it is not publicly exposed in a way which could be offensive.”

The British Supreme Court made headlines by rejecting that idea two years ago, likening requiring gays and lesbians to hide their identities to sending Anne Frank back to her Amsterdam attic. The United Nations refugee agency flatly states that asylum seekers cannot be expected to change or hide their identity to avoid oppression, and that being forced to do so can itself be a form of persecution.

Yet the argument that gays and lesbians can simply be sent back to the closet has continued to hold sway in many parts of Europe, according to researchers who have tracked cases in France, Belgium, Ireland, Poland, Denmark and elsewhere. In one recent case that sparked outrage in Germany, an Iranian woman was turned down for asylum and told she could live “unobtrusively” without any problem.

Her story became infamous in Germany after she pleaded with a Nuremberg feminist organization for help. Samira Ghorbani Danesh, 24, fled Iran nearly two years ago after dodging arrest at a Tehran party that was broken up by religious police who took her girlfriend away. Danesh hid elsewhere while police turned up at her home looking for her.

Iranian law says homosexual acts between women are to be punished with whippings and, after the fourth offense, death, though researchers and activists say it is unclear how often such executions are carried out. Terrified that police or her father would punish her for being a lesbian, the Iranian woman fled to Turkey and ultimately arrived in Germany, where she sought asylum.

Her attorney, Gisela Seidler, argued that Danesh faced arrest and torture in her home country. But German immigration officials said the young woman could simply hide the fact that she was a lesbian and live safely in Iran. Unhappy with the decision, Danesh spoke out about the case in German media, a decision that brought an outpouring of support from gay rights groups but also added to her fear of returning.

“Now she is in even more danger,” Seidler said earlier this year. “Her name is known all over the world.”

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Merkel, Hollande vow to 'do everything to protect' the euro

Merkel-hollande
LONDON -- The leaders of Europe’s two biggest economies pledged Friday to “do everything to protect” the continent’s common currency, whose long-term survival has come under fresh doubt from investors worried about Spain and Italy.

After a telephone conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a statement reiterating their countries’ commitment to “the integrity of the Eurozone,” the 17 nations that use the euro. But the two leaders offered no new measures to stem the crisis of confidence that has plagued the currency bloc for nearly three years.

Their joint statement came at the end of a volatile week that initially saw European stocks plunge in value because of increasing concerns over the creditworthiness of Spain and Italy. Borrowing rates for the two countries, which are locked in recession, climbed sharply as investors bolted for the safe haven of German and U.S. bonds.

But markets recovered some ground in the last two days following a comment by Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, who hinted at possible new intervention by the bank in the region’s long-running debt crisis. Officials in Madrid and Rome have urged the bank to buy some of their bonds to help bring down the high interest rates that the two capitals can scarce afford over the long term.

Like Merkel and Hollande, Draghi pledged Thursday to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro.

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French president apologizes for nation's role in WWII

French president apologizes for WWII round-up of Jews
[This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.]

PARIS — French President François Hollande on Sunday made an emotional mea culpa on behalf of his country for its part in the World War II roundup and deportation of more than 13,000 Jews from Paris.

At the 70th anniversary of what is known as the Vel d'Hiv Raids, Hollande admitted the operation carried out by Paris police in 1942 was a "crime committed in France, by France."

Hollande also praised former president and political rival Jacques Chirac who in 1995 became the first French leader to admit the roundup had been "France's fault."

Until then, French presidents including Hollande's Socialist mentor François Mitterrand had contended that the wartime collaborationist Vichy government led by Marshall Philippe Petain did not represent the French Republic.

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German lawmakers show support for religious circumcision

Germanyvote

German lawmakers passed a resolution supporting the practice of religious circumcision Thursday, vowing to protect it after a regional court deemed it a crime, upsetting Jewish and Muslim groups.

The resolution urges Chancellor Angela Merkel to usher in a new law ensuring that Germans are not punished for circumcising their children, provided the procedure is carried out under medical expertise and without unnecessary pain. Merkel had earlier lamented that the court ruling would make Germany a laughing stock for obstructing a Jewish religious ritual.

The court case that sparked the debate this year centered on a Muslim boy who suffered complications after circumcision. Though his doctor was cleared, the Cologne court ruled that circumcising a child without his consent was a grievous form of bodily harm, even if parents agreed to the procedure.

Jewish and Muslim groups argued that the ruling was an assault on their religious freedom. Under Jewish tradition, boys are to be circumcised eight days after birth, making it problematic to wait until a child can give consent, as the court ruling said.

The German Medical Assn., which recommended that doctors stop performing religious circumcisions until the law was clarified, said the decision was actually dangerous for children, because parents might turn instead to amateurs who could perform the procedure under unhygienic conditions.

But the court decision was applauded by circumcision opponents, such as the Secular Medical Forum based in Britain, which wrote to  Merkel urging her not to undercut the ruling, saying it “correctly places the welfare of vulnerable children above the unrestrained expression of adult beliefs.”

The Thursday resolution calls for a new law to be drafted by fall.

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Photo: Members of the German parliament vote on a resolution on religious circumcision during a special session Thursday in Berlin. Credit: Maurizio Gambarin / European Pressphoto Agency


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