Tag Archive: the guardian

Hope is tempered by caution both among Iranians and in the west, where some see an opportunity to repair relations

A young Iranian couple, Masoud Bastani and Mahsa Amr-Abadi, both journalists and both imprisoned on account of their writing, have seen very little of each other for the past four years. Like many Iranian prisoners they were granted occasional temporary releases, but officials always made sure they were not allowed out at the same time.

“The authorities wanted to make life yet more miserable for the two, like an extra punishment,” said one of their friends. Their convictions were for colluding and spreading propaganda against the state, a frequent charge against dissidents and independent journalists. This month, however, Bastani and Amr-Abadi were reunited at their house in Tehran, and pictures on Facebook showing the smiling couple embracing one another delighted their friends and followers.

Their newfound happiness is one of a number of small signs of change after the election in June of President Hassan Rouhani, a veteran pragmatist who ran on an ambitiously reformist platform. With a week until Rouhani’s inauguration, such signs have fuelled hope that a peaceful “Iranian spring” could be on the way, reversing the intensifying repression of the last eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet those hopes are tempered by bitter experience. Green shoots of civic freedoms and human rights were even more apparent under the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and at the peak of the 2009 opposition Green movement, only to be emphatically quashed by conservatives in the regime and security forces.

There is even greater caution in the west about the possibility of a better relationship with Tehran and perhaps even a deal to defuse the long and dangerous standoff over Iran’s nuclear aspirations. National security and the nuclear programme in particular are very much the preserve of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. But optimists hope that the intense economic pressures on Iran – amplified by severe US and European sanctions – that helped carry Rouhani to victory will drive the regime towards a historic compromise.

Rouhani has not yet formed a government, so the hopes and doubts swirling around his presidency are based mostly on speculation. However, Iranians report that since the election there has been a distinct thaw in the air.

Bastani and Amr-Abadi are not alone. More temporary releases have been handed out and a handful of the political prisoners recently granted leave have been told they need not return to jail provided they stay out of trouble. Others have been told they will be released on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday next month marking the end of Ramadan. Those on trial for political offences say they have been promised acquittal or light sentences. One recently released activist said his interrogators had been noticeably more polite, as if sensing the winds of change.

The new mood has been apparent among the police on the street. As millions of jubilant Iranians poured on to the streets to celebrate Iran’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup days after the election, the police tolerated public music, dancing and slogans chanted in favour of imprisoned opposition leaders, which would have been suppressed only days before.

Last week 25 independent Iranian documentary film-makers accused of working clandestinely inside the country for the BBC’s Persian service were all acquitted, even though at least 10 of them had previously been found guilty. The film-makers were alleged to have supplied the BBC with information, footage, news and reports misrepresenting Iran, leading to fears some would be charged with espionage. However, the country’s cinema organisation, affiliated to the powerful ministry for culture and Islamic guidance, surprised many by ruling that “none of the works was found to be propaganda against the ruling system and none contained anti-revolution material”.

At the same time, local media appear to be pushing back previously rigid boundaries. The semi-official Isna news agency broke a taboo by printing the names of opposition leaders under house arrest.

Summing up the popular mood, the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was blocked from standing in the election, said on Thursday: “The election’s result has brought hope, peace and rationality to our country.”

Even as they celebrate, many Iranians acknowledge they may be suffering from over-exuberance in view of the limited real changes to date and their extreme fragility. On Facebook and Twitter, the two-word post-election chant “Rouhani Mochakerim” (Rouhani thank you!), is increasingly used ironically as universal expression of gratitude for everyday occurrences (“My brother just passed his exams – Rouhani thank you!”).

The past few weeks have not just been a series of prisoner releases. There have been occasional political arrests too, such as that of the journalist Fariba Pajouh.

Faraz Sanei, of Human Rights Watch, said it was too early to declare a new Iranian spring on the basis of a few rays of sunshine. “Rouhani’s win was certainly a surprise to most analysts, but it is not an indication that reformists will have the upper hand during the next four years,” he said.

Rouhani’s impact on Iran’s relations with the rest of the world is even harder to predict. Khamenei set the tone for national security and foreign policy in the Ahmadinejad era and made clear during the election campaign that he did not intend to change under the new president.

There are signs that the regime intends to use Rouhani’s softer image to try to win more friends abroad. The government has broken with previous practice to invite foreign leaders – with the exceptions of US and Israel – to the inauguration next Sunday.

The foreign ministry even mounted something of a charm offensive in the direction of the UK, seen in ruling circles as Iran’s third worst adversary. On the occasion of the birth of Prince George, the ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi, a UK-educated fluent English speaker, offered congratulations to the Queen and the Prince of Wales.

The conservative backlash to those comments, however, served to underline the scale of the challenge facing the new government in attempting a rapprochement with the west. Araghchi was fiercely criticised by parliamentary rightwingers, and state TV broadcast a furious diatribe describing the Queen as an “iron-fisted dictator” who chose members of parliament and filled key positions by appointment. “England has one of the most reactionary and medieval forms of governments,” the report from London declared.

Ali Ansari, professor of modern history at Saint Andrews University, said the regime would ultimately have to resolve its contradictory views on dealing with the west. “The conservatives seem to think that Rouhani’s election will change international perceptions overnight,” Ansari said. “But if they think that a smiling Rouhani will get sanctions lifted and everything will be hunky dory without giving something substantial to the west, they may be surprised.”

The mixed messages emanating from Tehran have deepened divisions in the west over how to respond to the dawning of the Rouhani age. The UK government has opted not to send officials to the inauguration, arguing that to do so would be to break with the common EU position that only local ambassadors should attend. (The UK has not had a diplomatic presence in Tehran since its embassy was stormed by a mob in November 2011.)

That decision was quickly condemned by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, as “a misjudgment and a missed opportunity”. Ben Wallace, Conservative chairman of the British-Iran parliamentary group, also voiced concern that western mis-steps could undermine the new president. “Rouhani has a real task ahead. He has to balance the politics inside Iran while at the same time trying to bring Iran into the mainstream of the international community,” Wallace said. “The danger for him and for peace is if the US and the UK move the goalposts

and are seen to be hypocritical in support of repressive Sunni regimes yet tough on the Shia nation of Iran.”

The uncertainty over how to respond to Rouhani’s rise is even more pronounced across the Atlantic. According to the New York Times, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, passed a message purportedly from Rouhani to the White House, saying that the new president was interested in direct negotiations. As an apparent sweetener to encourage such sentiments, Washington has tweaked its draconian sanctions to allow the transfer of more medical equipment. At the same time, however, the Republican-run House of Representatives is preparing to vote on the imposition of even more stringent sanctions before going on its August recess. A joint letter by two retired senior US officers, General Joseph Hoar and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, and Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, published on The Hill’s congressional blog said: “Rouhani’s election represents what could be the last best hope for serious negotiations with Iran to produce a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute. . “The House must not snuff out hopes for Iranian moderation before Rouhani even gets a chance.”

LGBT activists target brands including Stolichnaya and Russian Standard in response to ban on ‘gay propaganda’

There’s nothing more Russian than vodka, so when gay and lesbian activists decided to protest against the country’s persecution of homosexuals it made sense to target its most famous drink.

The US sex writer Dan Savage, famous for his online campaign against the homophobic senator Rick Santorum, called for a vodka boycott to draw attention to new laws allowing police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual or “pro-gay”.

“To show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and straight allies in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: dump Russian vodka,” Savage wrote on his blog, He singled out the brands Stolichnaya and Russian Standard, coining the hashtag #DumpStoli for the campaign, which has been backed by Queer Nation and the Russian-American group Rusa LGBT.

Savage said attacks on LGBT people in Russia were escalating, and criticised the state for banning gay pride marches in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Six bars in Chicago announced they would stop selling Russian products, and a seventh bar said it had withdrawn Stolichnaya, according to Windy City Times, a Chicago LGBT newspaper.

The campaign seemed to have an instant success when the manufacturers of Stolichnaya criticised Russia’s record on lesbian and gay rights.

In an open letter published this week, Val Mendeleev, the head of the SPI group, condemned the Russian government for “limiting the rights of the LGBT community” and noted that the Russian state has no ownership or control of the brand, which is produced in Latvia.

On its Facebook page, the company posted a multicoloured banner reading: “Stolichnaya Premium Vodka stands strong and proud with the global LGBT community against the actions and beliefs of the Russian government.”

Stolichnaya, with its distinctive red-and-white label, was produced by the state in Soviet times and was reportedly the favourite vodka of Boris Yeltsin. After an attempt by the Russian state to regain the brand name in the 2000s, SPI Group, which is based in Luxembourg, has produced Stolichnaya in Latvia using Russian ingredients. Meanwhile, the state-owned Soyuzplodimport produces a nearly identical vodka in Russia.

Russia’s leading gay rights activist said the boycott was misguided.

“They mixed everything up. Stolichnaya isn’t Russian,” said the lawyer Nikolai Alekseev, head of the Moscow Pride organising committee.

“This is all good for attracting attention to the situation in Russia, like any other action, such as boycott of the Olympics, but it will not drastically change anything,” he added.

Unlike Stolichnaya, Russian Standard vodka is produced in Russia and is owned by the Russian oligarch Roustam Tariko. A spokesman for the company declined to comment.

In June Russia’s parliament unanimously passed a law banning the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors, prompting calls for other countries to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, and to distribute material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners. Four Dutch activists were charged in Murmansk this week under the law.

This is not Savage’s first controversial LGBT campaign: in 2003, he held a contest to create a definition for “santorum” after Santorum made comments critical of gay marriage. The new word was defined as “the frothy mixture of lube and faecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex”.

More details emerge of Francisco Garz n, 52, as he recovers in hospital after train crash that left at least 78 dead

The focus of the investigation into Spain’s worst rail accident for 40 years remains on the train’s driver, Francisco Garz n, who has been under arrest in hospital since Thursday evening.

Garz n has so far refused to answer police questions, the Press Association reported. He was now expected to questioned by a judge, it said.

At least 78 people died in the accident in which the high-speed Alvia 151 train careered into a sharp curve at more than twice the permitted speed before hurtling off the tracks. By Friday night, 31 were critically ill in hospital, some of them in comas.

Antonio del Amo, head of the Spanish national police’s central forensic unit, said six of the bodies recovered from the wreckage had yet to be identified.

On Friday, more reports of Garz n’s actions leading up to the crash began to emerge. The daily El Pa s reported that the experienced 52-year-old driver had received an order to reduce speed just seconds before the crash and had acknowledged it by pressing a button in the driver’s cab. It remained unclear whether he had been unable or unwilling to apply the brakes on the train, which was running five minutes behind schedule.

A stream of leaked extracts from recorded conversations immediately following the disaster suggested that Garz n held himself responsible for what had happened.

While still trapped in the cockpit of his train, he was reported to have told the emergency service of the state-owned train operator, Renfe: “I hope there are no dead, because they will be on my conscience.” He added: “I should have been going at 80 [kph] and I am going at 190.” Garzon also reportedly said over and again: “We’re human, we’re human.”

The Spanish news agency Europa Press reported that during the same conversation the driver had said: “I’ve fucked it. I want to die.”

Contacted by telephone in hospital by the regional newspaper, La Voz de Galicia, Garz n refused to comment beyond saying, “You imagine how I am.”

Details also began to emerge of Garz n’s life. He is a lifelong railwayman and native of Galicia, living in the city of A Coru a with his widowed mother, who lost her other son in a car accident. But he was born in Monforte, an important regional rail centre, and has a flat there.

The son of a railway worker, Garz n was brought up in housing built for railway workers and went to a school run by Renfe. It was in Monforte, 70 miles inland from Santiago de Compostela, that he began working for the company in his early 20s.

He had 10 years’ experience as a driver and Renfe’s president, Julio G mez-Pomar Rodr guez, said Garz n had worked on the Ourense to Santiago line, where the accident took place, for more than a year.

Before returning to his native Galicia, he had worked on the line between Madrid and Barcelona, which is served by so-called AVE trains that can reach speeds of 310kph (193mph).

Julia Morais, a friend of his own age in his home town of Monforte de Lemos, told Reuters: “He was sensible and very good at his job. We don’t know what could have happened.”

Garz n’s professionalism appeared to have been compromised by the discovery of a photograph he posted to his Facebook page showing his speedometer at 200kph. However, as a driver of high-speed trains he may have been on a stretch of the network where such a speed is permitted. The photograph was posted on 8 March 2012. It nevertheless surprised Garzon’s friends. One wrote: “You’re going like the bloody clappers, lad. Brake.”

Garz n is suspected of criminal recklessness, but has not yet been charged. Spanish rail experts have argued that mere negligence cannot explain the crash: that the “black boxes” recovered from the train will show that a technical fault was partly – or perhaps entirely – to blame for what happened. Garz n reportedly tested negative for alcohol following the crash.

Garz n was led from the scene of the tragedy with his face covered in blood and given nine stitches to a head wound, but appeared otherwise uninjured.

Meanwhile, in the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela, a shrine to the victims of the rail disaster was forming spontaneously at the entrance to the great cathedral of St James on Friday evening.

Friday was the feast of St James and the day many of the pilgrims to the traditional site of his tomb in the cathedral aim to complete their journeys. Some tied little bunches of flowers to the railings at the entrance. Others placed candles and notes on the ledges below. Nearby, a stack of pilgrims’ staffs leant against the wall.

A day for the ending of journeys was appropriate for remembering those who on Wednesday failed to complete theirs. In many cases it was sheer chance that some of the passengers aboard the Alvia 151 lived and others died.

Carmen Quiroga from A Coru a had switched to a later train because she stood a better chance of dining aboard in peace. As soon as her son heard of the accident, he rang her mobile, but it was out of range. “When I eventually spoke to him, he began to weep: he thought I was there,” she told La Voz de Galicia.

Benito Est vez changed his plans after learning from his parents that a relative had been taken to hospital, seriously ill. “I feared that I’d never see him again,” he said.

Others were as unlucky as Quiroga and Estevez were fortunate. A young man at the scene of the accident who declined to be named said he had swapped seats on the way up from Madrid with a woman who was killed when the train derailed.

Father Ricardo V zquez, the spiritual director of the seminary in Santiago, was among those on hand to provide comfort at the centre where relatives of the victims learned of their loved ones’ fate. Among the “devastated human beings” he attended was a man who “was crying out that he wanted to die because he felt responsible for the death of his daughter whom he had persuaded to come and visit him”.

Manuel Su rez, a sales representative from near Santiago, often travelled to Madrid for his work, but never by rail. “He always went by car or plane,” said a cousin. “But on this occasion, he said: ‘This time, I’ll go by train.'”

Deposed president alleged to have helped Palestinian Islamists murder Egyptian police during 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for conspiring with Hamas during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since he was forced from office and detained by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

After the announcement, Morsi was moved from a secret military facility to Cairo’s Tora prison, where his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, is also being held.

The news heightened tensions on a day when supporters of Egypt’s two main factions formed rival mass protests across the country in what was billed as a showdown between people backing the army and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. By the evening, nine people had been killed, most in Alexandria, and at least 200 injured in clashes in five cities, according to the MENA state news agency.

Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. The charges allege that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brothers were rescued from jail during the revolution with Hamas’s assistance, and then helped Hamas to attack Egyptian police facilities and murder policemen during the ousting of Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals and that Hamas had no role in the uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 25 January revolution [the 2011 uprising] through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return to influence of Mubarak-era officials and institutions who were sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The police – a target of the 2011 uprising – have seen their popularity rise again following the anti-Morsi protests on 30 June, and they have been quick to capitalise. On Friday, police gave Egyptian flags to pro-army protesters in a show of unity.

The decision by the new government to focus first on allegations relating to events before Morsi’s presidency, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that it may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police – who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under Morsi.

Resurgent support for the police, who publicly backed Morsi’s removal, was apparent among pro-army protesters, even from the most unlikely sources.

“The interior ministry [who run the police] have been purified of the blood of the past,” said 66-year-old Magdy Iskandar Assad, whose son was killed by police officers during protests following Mubarak’s fall. “There’s a reconciliation now between the people and institutions like state security.”

Assad was one of hundreds of thousands demonstrating in support of the army chief, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of the Egyptian media has spent the past month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to go out to support Sisi, and thousands heeded the call – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the atmosphere was of a military pageant.

Many wore photographs of Sisi around their neck. Military helicopters flew overhead to loud cheers from the crowd. Smiling protesters had their pictures taken with the soldiers who were securing the entrances to the square, some of them sitting on large armoured personnel carriers.

“My message to General Sisi is: what you did on 30 June was greater than what Egypt did in the 1973 war [against Israel],” said Walid Hedra, 38, a one-time Islamist who grew disillusioned with Morsi after he used dictatorial powers to force through a controversial new constitution last November.

“The armed forces are reborn again thanks to Sisi, the successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said Assad, referring to Egypt’s much-loved dictator during the 50s and 60s. “Sisi is a courageous man who is working for the good of the country.”

Egypt’s pro-Sisi demonstrations also coincided with counter-demonstrations by Morsi’s supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood organised 35 marches across the capital, raising fears of serious factional fighting after nightfall. By the evening, 37 had already been injured in clashes in northern Cairo – but clashes were fiercest in Alexandria, where the health ministry reported at least 100 injured.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, had earlier stoked tensions by calling Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

Many marching in Morsi’s name were afraid of what Sisi’s campaign against terrorism might entail. “It doesn’t make sense for a defence minister to ask people to give him authority to fight terrorism,” said Abdallah Hatem, a 19-year-old student from Cairo. “So his speech was a pretext for something else – a pretext to fight peaceful protesters who want Morsi to come back.”

“None of us here are terrorists,” added Mohamed Mostafa, a street vendor from southern Egypt, struggling nearby under the weight of a Morsi banner. “You can see that for yourself.”

But not everyone on the streets accepted the binary choice of the army or the Brotherhood. A small group of Egyptians, calling themselves the Third Square, gathered in a square in west Cairo to object to the authoritarianism of both groups.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his tenure. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi’s supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June.

Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a protest outside a military compound in east Cairo. In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is considered an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. But the movement’s leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation in the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi. Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core and delusional demand – would also see them lose significant credibility among their supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam. “They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

Asked whether he would accept anything less that Morsi’s reinstatement, 19-year-old Morsi-backer Abdallah Hatem said: “It’s impossible.”

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad

A new Coen brothers film celebrates Greenwich Village in its 60s heyday, but what’s left of Dylan and Kerouac’s New York? Karen McVeigh takes a cycle tour of the area

Five decades have passed since America’s troubadours and beat poets flocked to Greenwich Village, filling its smoky late-night basement bars and coffee houses with folk songs and influencing some of the most recognisable musicians of the era.

A few landmarks of those bygone bohemian days – most recently portrayed in the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis, out on 24 January – still exist. The inspiration for the movie’s fictional anti-hero, Davis, was Brooklyn-born Dave Van Ronk, a real- life blues and folk singer with no small talent, who worked with performers such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, but remained rooted in the village until he died in 2002, declining to leave it for any length of time and refusing to fly for many years. Van Ronk’s posthumously published memoir, the Mayor of MacDougal Street, takes its name from the street that was home to the Gaslight Cafe, and other early 60s folk clubs.

The Village stretches from the Hudson River Park east as far as Broadway, and from West Houston Street in the south up to West 14th Street. Its small scale makes it easy to explore on foot and perfect for a musical pilgrimage, but the arrival last summer of New York’s bike-sharing scheme, Citibike, makes for a more adventurous experience.

I picked up a bike outside Franklin Street subway station, south of the Village in Tribeca, and headed out to the river, at Pier 45. Looking south you can see One World Trade Center: at 541m, it’s now the tallest building in the western hemisphere. Cycle or walk to the end of the boardwalk that juts out into the Hudson, facing Hoboken, New Jersey, and look to your left and you can see the Statue of Liberty. From there, it’s a short cycle along Christopher Street, up Hudson and along West 10th, to Bleecker Street, where designer boutiques such as Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Lulu Guinness mark the area’s steep gentrification.

On MacDougal Street, a jumble of comedy cellars, theatres and cheap eateries have mostly replaced the old, liquorless cafes and basement bars of the folk scene. It is the hub of New York University’s campus and many of the bars, falafel joints and pizza houses are priced for students, with $2 beers thrown in.

But several older venues still exist, including the Bitter End, which staged folk “hootenannies” every Tuesday and now calls itself New York’s oldest rock club”. The White Horse Tavern, built in 1880, still stands on the corner of Hudson Street and 11th. It was used by New York’s literary community in the 1950s – most notably Welsh bard Dylan Thomas. It was here, myth has it, that the writer had been drinking in November 1953, before he was rushed to hospital from his room at the Chelsea Hotel, and died a few days later.

The original Cafe Wha? remains at 115 MacDougal Street, on the corner of Minetta Lane. In the bitter winter of 1961, when the Coen brothers movie is set, cash-strapped artists similar to Davis would take their chances at the open mic. It was here that Bob Dylan made his New York debut, and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac performed. Cafe Wha? continued to attract artists and musicians long after the Village folk scene gave way to rock’n’roll. A notice on the door catalogues a few of the famous names who played here: Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Havens, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and the Velvet Underground. It is still a popular music venue, with a house band playing five nights a week.

The real centre of the folk scene back then, however, was Washington Square, where musicians would gather on Sundays to swap ideas, learn new material and play. According to folk singer and historian Elijah Wald, the ballad and blues singers who sat around the fountain in the park created sounds that would influence artists from Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez to folk-rock groups the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas. The hero of the Coens’ film is not Van Ronk, according to Wald, but he does sing some Van Ronk songs and shares his working-class background.

When I visited on a sunny but cold December day, there was only one musician, a saxophonist, playing under Washington Square’s stone arch, but at weekends the park fills with rap and jazz musicians playing to tourists and students. Bikes are not officially allowed inside the square, but there are Citibike stations around it, so it’s easy to park and walk around.

A block north of the park, on West 8th Street, is a historic 107-room property once known as Marlton House and home to many writers and poets, who were attracted by relatively cheap rates and the bohemian neighbourhood. Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans and Tristessa while living here and, in a darker episode, Valerie Solanas was staying in room 214 in 1968, when she became infamous for stalking and then shooting Andy Warhol.

Sean MacPherson, who owns the stylish Bowery and Jane hotels nearby, has just reopened the building as the Parisian-inspired Marlton Hotel (marltonhotel.com). I popped in to its very comfortable lobby for coffee and a flick through its copy of John Strausbaugh’s The Village: 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues. And I caught up with Strausbaugh later, to ask him about the village in the early 1960s, when young idealists were living hand to mouth and sleeping on friends’ couches.

“In 1961, if you were in any way an artistic person in America, in that vast American landscape, you were a lonely figure,” said Strausbaugh. “You heard about San Francisco, you heard about Greenwich Village, and you went there. You didn’t play there to make money; you went there to be heard. Like Dylan, who played at the Cafe Wha?, then got another entry-level gig, then began playing at the biggest places.”

There were others, Strausbaugh said, like Van Ronk, who were talented, but whose ambitions were more modest than those of Dylan and Baez. The unique thing about the Village, he added, is that it survived so long as a bohemian enclave, from the early 1850s, when it attracted poets such as Walt Whitman, to the beatniks and folk revivalists of the 1950s and later.

“The left bank [in Paris] did not last 100 years, but the Village did,” he said.

Many of the buildings and sometimes entire streets in the Village have been preserved and are now home to some of the most expensive real estate in Manhattan and sought-after for their distinctive, old Greenwich Village look. A struggling folk artist might find a cheap meal in one of the student cafes around MacDougal Street, but they would never be able to afford to live in the area – or anywhere in Manhattan, realistically.

“It has not been completely finished off,” said Strausbaugh. “There are still a lot of theatres. But the people who make the music have not been able to live there for 20 or 30 years.”

India’s minister of home affairs promises inquiry after Ram Singh, on trial for rape, was found hanged in his prison cell

India’s home minister has admitted a “serious security lapse” after the man accused of leading five others in the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapist in Delhi in December was found dead on Monday morning in the high security prison where he was being held during his trial.

Sushilkumar Shinde, the minister of home affairs, promised an inquiry after the apparent suicide of Ram Singh, who was found hanged by his own clothes and a prison blanket at 5am, officials at Delhi’s Tihar jail said.

Singh, 34, was on trial with five others at a specially established fast track court in Delhi and faced the death sentence for his part in the gang rape and murder, which took place on the bus he drove for a living.

The Indian government has been repeatedly criticised for its handling of the case and its aftermath. The trial opened last month but has recently suffered delays. Reporting of proceedings has been banned by authorities.

Kiran Bedi, a former director of the jail and now an activist, told Associated Press prison officials had a moral and legal obligation to ensure Singh’s safety, and she expressed surprise that authorities had not been monitoring him with cameras. “You are duty bound to protect the lives of the prisoners,” she said.

The attack in the Indian capital on the physiotherapist in December prompted global outrage, protests across India and calls for deep legal and policing reforms. It also led to a fierce debate over attitudes to women as a factor contributing to the wave of sexual violence to women which has hit the country in recent years.

One of the key demands of protesters who took to the streets in their thousands following the attack were that those responsible be publicly hanged. Relatives of the victims said they were disappointed yesterday that Singh, a bus driver with a history of hard drinking, had been allowed to take his own life.

“He knew he was going to die anyway because we had and still have such a strong case against him,” the physiotherapist’s 20-year-old brother told Reuters news agency. “I’m not very thrilled with the news that he killed himself because I wanted him to be hanged … publicly. Him dying on his own terms seems unfair. But, oh well, one is down. Hopefully the rest will wait for their death sentence.”

On the night of the attack, the victim and her 28-year-old male friend had boarded Singh’s bus on a Sunday evening as they returned from seeing a film. They believed the bus was one of the many unlicensed carriers which fill the gaps left by Delhi’s inadequate public transport system. The pair were, however, attacked with an iron rod and the woman repeatedly raped. After almost an hour, they were pushed from the moving bus onto a roadside near the city’s airport.

The accused adults in the case – along with a 17-year-old – were swiftly detained for their alleged roles in the attack, which took place on 16 December. The minor is appearing in a separate court.

Singh’s lawyer said his client had been murdered in prison, possibly by the police. “What do you mean, killed himself? He has been killed in prison,” defence counsel AP Singh said.

Lawyers for the accused men have claimed that their clients have been repeatedly attacked by other inmates and were “tortured” by police.

Singh’s father also cast doubt on the official version of events. “He confessed about his mistake, then why would he commit suicide? He was prepared for any punishment the government would have given him,” Mange Lal Singh said. “He was first murdered and then his clothes were torn off to hang his corpse in his cell,” he said.

Investigators say that with 80 witnesses, DNA evidence and witness statements from both victims they have a strong case against the five men standing trial. Singh’s younger brother, Mukesh, is among the accused. The pair had been living in a slum neighbourhood in the south of Delhi at the time of the attack. They had been joined by two local men – a fruit seller and a part-time gym assistant, a former colleague and the juvenile, an illiterate drifter – on a “joy ride” after hours of heavy drinking on the evening of the assault. They had come across the woman and her friend by chance, statements from two of the accused claim.

Bakhretdin Khakimov, now in his early 50s, had been living under name of Sheikh Abdullah and working as a healer

A Soviet soldier who disappeared more than 30 years ago on the battlefield in Afghanistan has been found alive and well and living under the name of Sheikh Abdullah in the western Afghan city of Herat.

Russian officials attempting to trace soldiers still missing from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan said they had discovered Bakhretdin Khakimov, last seen in September 1980. Khakimov – then aged 20 – had been serving with the 101st motorised rifle unit, stationed near Herat. He was seriously wounded during a battle near the city and presumed dead.

A black-and-white photo from the time shows Khakimov as a fresh-faced draftee, dressed in Soviet army uniform and with the hammer and sickle badge on his furry hat. He now looks rather different, with a wispy beard, lined features and a large turban. A widower, he had been living as a nomadic sheikh and working as a traditional healer.

According to officials, local residents rescued Khakimov from the battlefield and treated his wounds with herbs. The Soviet soldier remained with the man who helped him, and acquired medical skills. Khakimov – an ethnic Uzbek, originally from Samarkand – married a local Afghan woman and settled in the Shindand district. His wife later died. The couple had no children.

The extraordinary story follows a dogged decades-long hunt by the Committee for International Soldiers, a Moscow-based organisation largely made up of Soviet Afghan war veterans. The organisation made little progress during the 1990s, when Afghanistan was convulsed by civil war, and then ruled by the Taliban. It resumed the search following the US-led invasion of Aghanistan in 2001, stepping up its efforts in recent years.

The committee’s deputy chairman, Alexander Lavrentiev, said contact was made with Khakimov two weeks ago, on 23 February. “Helpers from the local community brought him to Herat,” Lavrentiev said. Khakimov – who was born in 1960 – could still understand Russian but spoke it very badly. He had no identification documents, Lavrentiev said, and had been living under the assumed name of Sheikh Abdullah.

“He was just happy he survived,” Lavrentiev said, who personally met Khakimov in Herat in late February.

The Soviet soldier could still recall the names of his mother, brothers and sisters, as well as the place where he was first drafted into the Red Army. “In the words of Khakimov, he would very much like to meet his relatives, if they want to and if this isn’t damaging for them,” Lavrentiev told a press conference in Moscow on Monday.

Khakimov – now in his early 50s – had reportedly been living a semi-nomadic life and still has a nervous tic from his head injury. Intriguingly, he also recognised a photo of two other Soviet veterans who disappeared in Herat without trace. Khakimov told Russian investigators that both were alive and that he had met them in Afghanistan, now occupied a quarter of a century after the Soviets left by US, British and Nato forces.

Some 264 Soviet soldiers who fought in the 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan are still missing. Half are from Russia, with the other half from now-independent former Soviet republics including Ukraine. Most are assumed dead. Over the past decade the Kremlin’s Committee for International Soldiers has tracked down 29 former soldiers. 22 have gone back to Russia, while seven opted to stay in Afghanistan.

Ruslan Aushev, a decorated Afghan veteran who has been leading the hunt, said the search would continue until the last man had been accounted for, Russian news agencies reported. Representatives from his committee have made dozens of trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in the region, and have exhumed the graves of more than 15 soldiers. Forensic tests using DNA from relatives have identified five of them, including three in 2012, Aushev said.

Fears that deadlock will lengthen Italy’s two-year recession and spill over into rest of the eurozone hit markets across Europe

Three years of German-led austerity and budget cuts aimed at saving the euro and retooling the European economy was left facing one of its biggest challenges as Italian voters’ rejection of spending cuts and tax rises opened up a stark new fissure in European politics.

The governing stalemate in Rome and the vote in the general election – by a factor of three to two – against the austerity policies pursued by Italy’s humiliated caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti, meant that the spending cuts and tax rises dictated by the eurozone would grind to a halt, risking a re-eruption of the euro crisis after six months of relative stability.

Fears that the deadlock will lengthen Italy’s near two-year recession and spill over into the rest of the eurozone hit markets across Europe. The Italian banking sector fell 7% in value, dragging the main MIB stock market index 4% lower.

The market turmoil in Milan spread to Germany, France and the UK, with domestic banks among the biggest fallers. Deutsche Bank saw almost 5% knocked off its value, while Barclays suffered a 4% decline. The FTSE 100 fell 1.4%. The German Dax slumped more than 2% and the Paris Cac was down 2.75%.

The cliffhanger vote saw the maverick comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star movement take almost one in four of the votes and the political revival of the ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But the narrow victor, Pier Luigi Bersani, on the centre-left, claimed the mantle of the premiership, although it was unclear if he would be able to form a government.

Despite the withering popular verdict on cuts and taxes, Brussels and Berlin insisted the austerity programme had to be continued in Italy. France and others seized on the outcome for their own purposes, arguing for a relaxation of spending cuts and greater emphasis on policies to boost growth and job creation.

Bersani moved to try to cobble a government together by wooing the upstart Grillo with tentative talk of a reformist leftist coalition. Looking weary, Bersani said it was time for the 5 Star movement to do more than just demand a clean sweep of Italy’s established political order.

“Up to now they have been saying ‘All go home’. But now they are here too. So either they go home as well, or they say what they want to do for their country and their children.”

Grillo said earlier his followers in parliament would not join a coalition, but would consider proposals “law by law, reform by reform”.

Bersani said that, since his four-party alliance had won an outright majority in the lower house of the Italian parliament and more seats than any other grouping in the Senate, it had a responsibility to suggest ways in which Italy could be governed, despite the deadlock in the upper house.

Shunning the idea of a grand coalition with Berlusconi and the right, he proposed a government committed to a five-point plan for sweeping reform of Italy’s political parties and institutions.

The north-south split in Europe opened up by the election presaged clashes between eurozone governments, likely to surface at an EU summit next month, amid calls for a shift away from the harsh regime prescribed and driven through by Berlin in recent years as the price of bailing out insolvent eurozone periphery countries.

The Italian stalemate combines with tough negotiations over a bailout for Cyprus, being resisted by Germany, worries about the French economy, an unresolved debt crisis in Spain, and David Cameron’s decision to throw Britain’s future in Europe into question, making EU politics unusually volatile.

“Italy plays a central role in successfully overcoming Europe’s debt crisis,” said the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle.

“So we assume that the policy of fiscal consolidation and reform will be consistently followed by a new government.”

Angela Merkel, bidding for a third term as German chancellor in September, has been banking on a period of eurozone calm in the run-up to her election, but Italian voters have wrecked that calculation.

The Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, recently made head of the political committee that runs the euro, said Monti’s policies had to be continued. “They are crucial for the entire eurozone.”

The European Commission echoed the calls for sticking with the austerity medicine. Italy has the highest national debt level in the eurozone after Greece, although its budget deficit is in better shape than many others, including France and the Netherlands.

But Paris led the chorus for a policy shift. French government ministers, including Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, demanded a change of course in remarks directed at Berlin.

Spain waited anxiously to see what impact the Italian leap in the dark would have on its debt crisis. “This is a jump to nowhere that does not bode well either for Italy or for Europe,” said the foreign minister, Jose-Manuel Garcia-Margallo, adding he was “extremely concerned” about the effect on Spain’s borrowing costs.

Both Berlusconi and Grillo have been harshly critical of the Germans, decried Monti’s austerity packages, and have raised questions as to whether Italy, the eurozone’s third biggest economy, should remain in the single currency. Grillo has called for a referendum on the matter.

Berlusconi rounded on the Germans on Tuesday, declaring that the “spread” – the difference between how much Italy and Germany pay to borrow on the bond markets – had been “invented” two years ago. This was code for saying that Berlin and Frankfurt, the German government and the European Central Bank, conspired to push up the cost of Italian borrowing in 2011 in order to topple Berlusconi and bring in Monti, the technocratic darling of the eurozone elite.

The turmoil saw Italian bond yields also jump, indicating that any new government will be forced to pay a higher interest rate on its debts.

The 10-year Italian bond yield edged back into dangerous territory on Tuesday after it passed 4.9%, although this is a far cry from 2011 when the yields shot above 7%.

%d bloggers like this: