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Comment: the silence surrounding Prisoner X

By Felix Patrikeeff, University of Adelaide

When Melbourne man Ben Zygier, an alleged agent of Mossad, or perhaps a double agent, died in December 2010, his end was barely perceptible.

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He had been held anonymously in solitary confinement at a high-security prison in Israel. A notice of his death appeared on the Internet, and then promptly disappeared. His name was not made known at the time.

It had to be secured by Australian investigative journalists. Australian authorities were informed of the death, and the unfortunate man’s body was returned to his family in Australia, but leaving behind his wife and children in Israel.

Ben Zygier (also known as Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burroughs) was supposed to have disappeared quietly, and neither Australia nor Israel seemed in a hurry to shine any light on the incident.

Ben Zygier had been locked in the high-security Ayalon prison for ten of the eleven months after the much-publicised death of a senior Hamas figure, Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, in Dubai on 19 January 2010. The timing is most important, as Zygier was reportedly taken into custody a month later.

Hamas members at a memorial for slain senior military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. It is suspected that his assassination was carried out by Mossad agents. AAP/Ali Ali

Al-Mabhouh’s assassination had been organised for Israel by 26 agents of its external intelligence agency, Mossad. The majority of these had travelled on UK or other cloned European passports. Four had fake Australian passports. Their cover was blown by Dubai authorities, who relatively quickly amassed a great deal of evidence, including CCTV footage of the agents following Al-Mabhouh to his hotel room.

In the maelstrom of press coverage that followed Dubai’s revelations, the third-party countries whose passports had been counterfeited raised very vocal protests against Israel for the unconscionable use of false passports to perpetrate covert action.

Australia’s then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, generally a taciturn politician, was in important ways quite blunt and certain in his views on the situation, emphatically stating that “no government can tolerate the abuse of its passports, especially by a foreign government”. A member of the Israeli Embassy in Canberra (presumably the resident Mossad agent) was expelled. And then silence.

The use of counterfeit passports dominated the airwaves. In the year before the Al-Mabhouh killing, there had been other Australian press investigations going on regarding the use of our passports, but at that time the focus was on dual citizens and a technically legitimate use of the passports (through name changes).

Zygier was caught in that particular net, but protested vehemently that he had nothing to do with a covert role. The question is, where did the leads that allowed our journalists to pursue the story come from? They came from our own “intelligence sources”.

What all of this suggests is that our agencies (both news and, presumably, security) had been working hard on the use of passports by dual citizens. This may have extended to breaking the cover of one such user, Zygier. Normally, such an action will not result in the measures taken against “Prisoner X”, as Zygier became known, after being detained by Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency). An agent whose cover has been blown becomes all but useless to the agency they work for, and, if they have been working deep in cover in hostile areas, potentially endanger themselves.

Incarceration in Ayalon Prison was not to protect Zygier, and, as it has been pointed out by authoritative commentators, the way in which he was dealt with by Israel was really quite unusual.

But equally so, one could argue, was the “hands off” approach adopted by Australian authorities in a case where an Australian citizen had been deprived of his identity, held in a maximum-security prison, investigated and tried in camera, but whose wife had known where he was, brought in an Israeli lawyer seasoned in the human rights area, and, it would seem, have urgently pressed for something to be done concerning her husband’s plight.

Ben Zygier may well have been “turned” by Australian intelligence after his involvement in procuring passports for Mossad agents. ABC/Foreign Correspondent

Did she also contact the Australian Embassy in attempting to exhaust each and every possible method of exerting pressure on the Israeli Government? Presumably that did happen, but there was a general silence about that.

In a recent Parliamentary Committee hearing, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gave an entirely plausible explanation as to Zygier’s case and why it had not appeared on its radar: the files were being investigated by our intelligence agencies, and, presumably, not by DFAT itself. But would Zygier’s wife not have tried to deal with the Australian authorities here regarding her husband’s desperate situation? There is general silence on that question too.

We know from what the Israeli government has said that opening up this case could cause considerable embarrassment, but it did not say for whom specifically: Israel itself, or Australia.

We have also heard the conjecture that one of the reasons why Zygier found himself in such a situation was that perhaps he could no longer bear the crisis of conscience of having his morality challenged by what he was instructed to do, or alternatively what he saw done, by Mossad, and therefore blew a whistle.

These aside, there is, of course, another potential explanation, and that is that Zygier had been a double-agent, but a very well concealed one until, presumably, his name became known to journalists, and, by extension, to the general public. If this was the case, who might his other “masters” have been?

The Zygier case has been remarkable in that, even with the scant information that has emerged since the story broke, it has provided tantalising insights into intelligence agencies both here and in Israel. However, and as so often happens, clandestine agencies, and governments, have a habit of relying on deep and stubborn silence to obliterate the sensations that emerge in such cases. If it does here, we can only conclude that the Israeli and Australian governments would prefer to have the matter buried with Zygier. The reasons why remain intriguing.

Felix Patrikeeff does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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A dying art: Chan Shaw’s work showcased in Sydney

An exhibition has opened in Sydney featuring the work of one of Australia’s most remarkable fashion designers.

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From a Chinese migrant family, Vivian Chan Shaw’s hand-knitted garments have for decades attracted international attention.

Chan Shaw’s unique attention to detail led to a lifetime’s work and it all started casually.

“Somebody wanted somebody in a fashion shop. I thought, I might just sort of stick my nose in and see what I can do,“ the fashion designer recalls.

More than stick her nose in, Chan Shaw became a trailblazer of Australian fashion in the ’70s and ’80s. Propelled by necessity, as a single mother of four children.

“But when I got into it, more and more and more, I loved it, it was sort of like second nature,” she says. “I thought, I am home, this is it!’

Her family had been here a while. Migrating in the Gold Rush in 1860, but she was born in Hong Kong, then raised in Sydney – as a fashionable child. Her mother owned a clothing boutique and her grandmother taught her how to knit.

As a designer, she pioneered working with artisan hand loomers and innovative and experimental knit-wear became her trademark.

“It’s sort of like a dying art, because it’s very hard to do and very time consuming,” says Chan Shaw. “It’s not as easy as say running up a garment on a sewing machine, so that’s the difficult part.”

Chan Shaw’s daughter, designer Claudia Chan Shaw, works with her mother, and says it’s not just the designs that are unique, but also the way they are made.

“To find something hand made in Australia, let alone Sydney – you know everything these days is made in China and India and Bangladesh – it’s very, very unusual,” says Claudia. “Sometimes you’ll have Australian designers having little capsule collections made in Australia, but it’s very, very rare for an Australian designer to have the complete collection – every single piece, including jewellery, all made here.”

Chan Shaw approached America and Europe with a single focus and the oldest sales and export technique.

“We used to take what we call a ‘trunk show’ over, which means you take a whole lot of garments, put them in a bag, and have a showing,” she says. “We usually sold the whole lot. We would come back without any.”

The secret: her distinctive process.

Each handmade garment is valuable because they couldn’t be copied en masse. Like her daughter’s wedding dress, worn once, and now in the Powerhouse Museum.

It all helped Australia’s fashion image. Before Vivian, Australia’s only fashion image was of Drizabones and swimwear.

“Vivian opened doors in those famous American department stores that were so tough,” says fashion luminary Leanne Whitehouse. “And to sell to those department stores – you didn’t sell a collection of knits – you sold a top, and there was a buyer for the tops, and there was a buyer for the skirts and a buyer for the dresses, and to have a cohesive collection sitting in one of those department stores was like winning the lottery.”

Through four decades of Vivian Chan Shaw’s designs, a distinct and unwavering style has endured, remarkable in the fast changing world of fashion.

She puts her longevity down to this uniqueness.

“We are different. We aren’t for everybody, therefore we have a selected sort of clientele,” says Chan Shaw. “If they love us, they love us forever. Really, they have grown old with me, together.

Vivian Chan Shaw designs to her own rhythm; she’s not a slave to fashion. Her elegant flounces, unique colouring and hand-made detail inspire intense loyalty from her life-long customers – local and international.

A special design commissioned for Barbie’s 30th birthday is attracting wearers such as Dionne Warwick and Margaux Hemingway.

At 78 and still working, Chan Shaw has surprised even herself with the way it all turned out.

“I was thunderstruck,” she says of walking through her own retrospective. “I thought, God – is that what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years? I mean – I must have!”

Vivian Chan Shaw – 40 Years, A Retrospective is on display until 13 February in Sydney.

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Comment: Change at the top – what next for BHP Billiton?

By Tim O’Shannassy, RMIT University

The board of BHP Billiton Limited today announced the retirement of chief executive officer and inside director Marius Kloppers.

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Dr Kloppers is a 20-year veteran of the company, serving 12 years as a senior executive. He was appointed CEO in October 2007. Dr Kloppers’ retirement from the CEO role will be effective 10 May 2013, and from the group effective 1 October 2013.

BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser praised the efforts of his retiring CEO in today’s board announcement. Mr Nasser drew attention to Dr Kloppers’ steady stewardship of the company in the global financial crisis environment, driving new investments, and delivering strong shareholder returns during his tenure, with the group outperforming its peers.

The decision has been taken that Dr Kloppers will be succeeded by Andrew Mackenzie, currently BHP Billiton’s chief executive non-ferrous.

Dr Kloppers described working for BHP Billiton as a “privilege”, paying tribute to current and former colleagues, in particular former chairman Don Argus and former CEOs Paul Anderson and Chip Goodyear.

Media reporting in recent weeks has focused on the need for the group to rework its strategy. The commodity price boom encouraged strong spending from mining companies to increase productive capacity. Federal Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson is on the record in 2012 as saying the mining boom is over, so times have changed.

Big miners such as BHP Billiton set the tone for strategy in their industry. In 2012, BHP Billiton communicated to the market that their strategy focus for the current year is on reducing operating costs and non-essential expenditure. There has been suggestion of a slowdown or stop of some development programs, closure of higher cost operations and a significant targeted cost reduction program across the group. However, there have been few specifics provided to the investment community on details of this cost-cutting program.

The financial result presented today was in line with analyst forecasts, but a little disappointing. First half total revenue was down 14% at US$32.2 billion with net profit down 58% at US$4.24 billion.

Against the backdrop of these announcements there has been some media and shareholder chatter on succession planning at BHP Billiton in recent months.

Not all media commentators have seen Dr Mackenzie as a clear choice for the prized position of BHP Billiton CEO. Names including Marcus Randolph, Alberto Calderon and Michael Yeager have been suggested in the Fairfax media, with the view that a CEO with a strong operations background may be best suited to the role.

Dr Mackenzie has occupied a variety of roles in oil and gas, petrochemicals and minerals with organizations including BP and Rio Tinto, as well as enjoying a distinguished academic career. Dr Mackenzie joined BHP Billiton in 2007.

Dr Mackenzie will join the BHP Billiton board in May. BHP Billiton pride themselves on succession planning, though none of the contenders for the CEO succession currently are on the board of the world’s biggest miner. A small number of quality inside directors balanced by a strong chair and a majority of outside directors can make a strong and sound contribution to organisation strategy. Such an environment can also help to prepare senior executives for succession.

Looking to the future, the challenge for BHP will be to reduce costs, develop the right growth assets, and deliver strong returns to shareholders. Investors have become more vocal on the need for mining companies to improve their yield to investors, which are a fraction of what financial services companies can deliver.

Tim O’Shannassy does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Pigs and pollution: China ‘can’t keep ignoring the environment’

By Yanshuang Zhang

In a joke currently circulating on China’s most popular social media, Sina Weibo, a Beijing resident boasts about his happy life in the badly air-polluted capital, saying that every morning when he opens the window he can enjoy a free smoke.

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A Shanghai resident sniffed:“Bah! Every time we turn on the tap, we get free pork soup.”

Hilarious, but grim. Deadly air is shrouding most big Chinese cities and thousands of dead pigs have been found in the Huangpu River: things are bad enough that China’s normally compliant Parliament has begun to protest.

By last week, more than 6,000 rotting pig carcasses had been cleaned up from Huangpu River, which supplies tap water to Shanghai. These dead pigs were mostly dumped by nearby pig breeders in Zhejiang province. They don’t have the capacity to do biosafety disposal of sick animals, nor can they get compensation from the government for such losses from disease due to a lack of insurance and compensation mechanisms in the industry. Traces of some common pig viruses have been found in some of the animals floating in the river.

Experts from the central government claimed the issue had been appropriately solved, ruling out the possibility of major threat to public health. They further clarified no sick animals had been butchered and sold for meat in this case. However,one would expect the rumours to continue because many similar cases have been reported in the past several years.

The tip of the iceberg

The dead pigs of Shanghai are just a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In recent years increasing numbers of “cancer villages” in China have been revealed, mainly on social media sites and blogs where activists and environmental experts raise public awareness of soil and groundwater contamination. In these polluted areas, soaring rates of diseases like stomach cancer are believed to be caused by drinking contaminated water containing hazardous chemicals disposed of by local industries.

In February, Deng Fei, a former investigative journalist and now an influential activist, initiated a campaign, inviting Chinese “netizens” to take photos of polluted rivers in their hometowns and upload them to Weibo. Meanwhile, in coalition with journalists and environmental activists, he launched a “China Water Crisis Independent Investigation” which regularly releases information on Weibo about water quality nationwide. His call received thousands of responses from net users, and for the first time provoked a national debate on groundwater safety.

Based on an insider source, Deng further revealed on Weibo the truth about a recent water dispute that arose in Weifang prefecture, Shandong province. Some local companies are believed to have discharged underground pollution for years, severely contaminating ground water and giving the area one of the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world. However, during the investigation the local government tried to cover up and even block media coverage.

Outrage over pollution has widely spread among ordinary Chinese people, and even attracted attention on social media channels throughout the world.

Jimmy Palmiotti, the famous inker of Marvel Comics expressed his condemnation of water pollution in China. Twitter

Some Chinese media have also joined the crusade against water pollution. Event People’s Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece outlet, has stepped in and issued a series of appeals on its Weibo account. They warn “enterprises shouldn’t poison the public to chase higher profits; government agencies shouldn’t loosen their regulations for the sake of their work performance”, “we want a GDP that won’t kill the next generation, and from the government to the public, we should all trumpet the cause of water pollution control and preserve clean water sources for a beautiful China”.

According to the China Geological Survey, 90% of underground water has suffered different degrees of contamination, with more than 60% suffering severe contamination. Also according to statistics released by Xinhua News Agency, in 118 Chinese cities only 3% of the underground water is considered moderately clean.

Chinese netizens take to the internet with their grim humour as a way of revolt.

A no-win situation

Furious public opinion has made it hard for the authorities to ignore these crises. During the annual National People’s Congress and China People’s Political Consultative Conference which has just ended, the questions around water quality as well as other environmental issues in China were frequently raised on the urgent agenda. The new elected government has pledged to tackle the growing health crisis provoked by environmental degradation.

There are appeals to speed up environmental legislation to improve environment quality and push for a strict time-line for solving environmental problems. The new leadership has effectively announced several new laws and standards on environmental protection over the last two months, including a detailed implementation framework from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It seems the new leaders have been gradually living up to their promise to establish an effective service-oriented government which draws a clear line between itself and the old.

Keeping the balance between economic growth and environmental protection is a critical challenge for the new government. China is still on a course of seeking maximum economic growth. Unless the whole nation gets down to pursuing a sustainable development, there will never be a win-win situation in the relationship between human and nature.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

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Thousands of fans celebrate Wanderers in Western Sydney

The Red and Black mob was celebrating a near-perfect start to the A-League, with plenty to be proud of: winning the regular season, setting new records with 10 consecutive wins and selling out stadiums.

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“We didn’t miss any game,” said a fan. “We went to Newcastle, to the Central Coast, to Campbelltown, we didn’t go to Melbourne. Just anywhere we could drive, we went”.

Skipper Michael Beauchamp says Western Sydney will extract a silver lining from their A-League grand final defeat in the form of renewed focus next season.

The Wanderers went down 2-0 to the Central Coast in front of over 40,000 fans at Allianz Stadium, ending an astonishing maiden season with their first loss since January 6 when, ironically, they went down to the Mariners by the same scoreline.

They entered the title decider on the back of a 13-game unbeaten streak – which included a record 10 consecutive wins – and as minor premiers having created Australian sporting history as the first start-up club to clinch silverware in their first year.

Accomplishments made even more remarkable when you factor in it was all achieved under a first-time head coach, 39-year-old Tony Popovic, who was in charge of a side that had been hurriedly thrown together just weeks before the season started.

But with the championship trophy the only thing to elude them, Beauchamp feels it now gives them a focus for next season. “It definitely hurts and that’s going to be a factor next season – we don’t want to feel that again,” he said on Monday.

“So come that first day of pre-season that’s going to be our goal to be a part of the grand final again and be on the winning side.”

The Wanderers had fielded several players on Sunday, including Aaron Mooy, Jerome Polenz, Kwabena Appiah-Kubi and Shannon Cole, who either weren’t regular starters or had just comeback from injury.

Popovic conceded maybe they weren’t “match hardened” and “weren’t as sharp as they could have been”. He said he now had an appreciation of how the Mariners feel to have lost three grand finals in the last seven years. “Losing a grand final is not easy,” he said.

“I know the Mariners have done it three times and I can see now what that feeling is like. It’s not nice.

“But you have to look at the positives.

“There’s a lot of hunger in this club to be the best we can be and we feel we can be even better next year. “Although things have gone well, there are a lot of things we’ve learned along the way.

“Everything is new for us and in every key area we want to do things a bit better. “So come the pre-season we’ll set some new goals.” Popovic acknowledged the tremendous supporter-base the club had. “I have a lot of football experience overseas,” he said.

“But it was something I’d never seen where after a big game like that and a defeat for your club, all your fans hang around for a good hour after the game. “That’s true support.”

Meanwhile, several players are out of contract – including Dino Kresinger, Joey Gibbs, Tarek Elrich and Tahj Minniecon. Popovic said he would asses things this week before deciding on their futures.

“Once we sit with the players this week … we’ll take the next step and have a look at which areas we want to improve on and whether we need to bring in some players or not.”

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