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German officials go bananas over major cocaine find

Police in Germany have reported finding hundreds of kilograms of cocaine hidden inside shipments of bananas sent to supermarket chains in the north and west of the country. The drugs' street value is in the millions. German authorities announced Friday that some 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of cocaine had been found hidden inside shipments of bananas sent to various supermarkets in Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. A press officer for the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Lower Saxony said Friday that supermarket staff in Brunswick found several packages of the prohibited substance on Wednesday, with five further supermarket shipments also found to contain packages of cocaine. Thousands of boxes of fruit imported to Germany with the same wholesale shipment from South America are being searched by officials. Berlin police discovered more than 386 kilograms of cocaine inside banana boxes at a discount supermarket chain in May, in what they said at the time was the largest-ever confiscation of the drug in the capital. Authorities say the market value of this week's find is around 15 million euros ($16.45 million).

Police in Germany have reported finding hundreds of kilograms of cocaine hidden inside shipments of bananas sent to supermarket chains in the north and west of the country. The drugs’ street value is in the millions. German authorities announced Friday that some 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of cocaine had been found hidden inside shipments of bananas sent to various supermarkets ... Read More »

Britain drops visa restrictions for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei will get a full six-month visa for Britain. The UK embassy in Beijing justified issuing a shorter visa earlier, saying Ai had failed to declare a criminal conviction in his application. British officials on Friday apologized for withholding a long-term visa for Ai Weiwei and decided to issue a six-month-long permit for Ai to visit their country after Home Secretary Theresa May intervened. "The Home Secretary was not consulted over the decision to grant Mr. Ai a one-month visa. She has reviewed the case and has now instructed Home Office officials to issue a full six-month visa," a spokeswoman for the interior ministry said. "We have written to Mr. Ai for the inconvenience caused," she added. Ai got back his passport from the Chinese government last week and arrived in Germany on Thursday (pictured above), where he directed the film "Berlin, I Love You" via Skype. The maestro also held an official position in the Berlin University of Arts since April 2011. He was scheduled to visit London for an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy of Arts, but received only a short visa for the purpose. On the same day he landed in Munich, Ai posted a letter from the British embassy online, saying the government was giving him a 20-day visa because he failed to disclose a criminal case. Chinese President Xi Jinping was also due to arrive in Britain in October, fuelling accusations that British Prime Minister David Cameron was putting trade before human rights in dealing with Beijing. In 2011, Ai was arrested after Chinese officials accused him of withholding tax. He was detained for 81 days and bail conditions were imposed on him for a further year. Human rights activists accused China of politically persecuting the 57-year-old artist. Ai has never been criminally convicted in his country.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei will get a full six-month visa for Britain. The UK embassy in Beijing justified issuing a shorter visa earlier, saying Ai had failed to declare a criminal conviction in his application. British officials on Friday apologized for withholding a long-term visa for Ai Weiwei and decided to issue a six-month-long permit for Ai to visit ... Read More »

German prosecutors investigate Internet journalists for treason

The Federal Prosecutor General is investigating two German journalists suspected of treason for releasing confidential information online. Charges have been filed against the two reporters who run the blog, Netzpolitik. Journalists Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl (pictured above) were informed of the investigation on July 24. The two reporters published the official letter on the Netzpolitik website on Thursday. The prosecutor's letter referred to two articles that were published on the blog in February and April. The reporters were believed to have quoted from a report by Germany's domestic intelligence agency which had proposed a new unit to monitor the internet, particularly social networks. The document had been categorized as "classified document- confidential." According to German media, the Federal Prosecutor had called in a consultant to determine whether the publish document was, in fact, classified as a state secret. Officials also plan to look into the unnamed informants of the reporters. If found to be guilty, the reporters could face at least one year in prison. An attack on press freedom "We are not witnesses, but as accomplices, we are as liable as our unnamed sources," the two journalists wrote. "It has been a long time since Germany acted against journalists and sources in such a manner." German journalists union DJV condemned the move as an attack on the freedom of the press. The juridical process was "an inadmissible attempt to muzzle two critical colleagues," DJV head Michael Konken said, demanding that all investigations against Beckedahl and Meister be stopped. Netzpolitik.org is one of the most popular German blogs and reports mainly on digital rights themes. Beckedahl and Meister have also won praise for their real-time reporting on the German parliamentary commission investigating neo-Nazi crimes committed by the NSU group. The affair is reminiscent of similar investigations against the widely read news magazine "Der Spiegel" in 1962, when it published a report saying the German army, or the Bundeswehr, was incompetent to face a nuclear war. The magazine's journalists were also accused of treason at the time.

The Federal Prosecutor General is investigating two German journalists suspected of treason for releasing confidential information online. Charges have been filed against the two reporters who run the blog, Netzpolitik. Journalists Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl (pictured above) were informed of the investigation on July 24. The two reporters published the official letter on the Netzpolitik website on Thursday. The ... Read More »

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei arrives in Germany

Artist Ai Weiwei has landed in Germany after Chinese authorities withheld his passport since his 2011 arrest. The controversial artist said he was allowed to enter on a four-year multiple re-entry visa. Greens politician Margarete Bause received the 57-year-old artist in Munich, where he arrived on Thursday. It was a "really good" feeling to be able to travel again, he told reporters. Ai said last week that Germany had granted him a four-year multiple entry visa after his passport was returned to him. He is expected to travel to the capital Berlin where his wife and six-year-old son live. Since 2011, Chinese authorities withheld his passport after he was arrested during a crackdown on dissidents and activists. The artist was released on bail following 81 days in detention, though the period expired the following year in 2012. He was not charged with any crime. However, his company Fake Cultural Development Ltd. was accused of tax evasion and later ordered to pay $2.4 million (2.2 million euros) in back taxes and fines. Ai denied the accusations and filed an appeal, adding that the incident was a penalty for speaking out against the government. Restricted access Ahead of a major retrospective of his work at the Royal Academy in London slated for September, Ai Weiwei complained that British authorities had restricted his visa to 20 days instead of providing him with a six-month business visa, which he requested. Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher on China, criticized the UK's decision, saying it was "a gesture of either capitulation to Beijing or inexcusable ignorance," as Chinese President Xi Jinping will be visiting the country on an official state visit in October. "To deny comparable access to a peace critic of Chinese autocracy and repression, and to do so on the basis of flawed Chinese judicial procedures, is inexcusable," Wang said in a statement. Ai noted on his Instagram account that he held "further restrictions" with British officials in order to clarify any misunderstandings. The officials reportedly referenced "news about Ai's secret detention by Chinese authorities in 2011 and the tax case for Fake Design." "This decision is a denial of Ai Weiwei's rights as an ordinary citizen, and a stand by Britain to take the position of those who caused sufferings for human rights defenders," the artist said. The artist's retrospective is expected to last until December 13. Ai's wife and son have resided in the German capital Berlin for 11 months.

Artist Ai Weiwei has landed in Germany after Chinese authorities withheld his passport since his 2011 arrest. The controversial artist said he was allowed to enter on a four-year multiple re-entry visa. Greens politician Margarete Bause received the 57-year-old artist in Munich, where he arrived on Thursday. It was a “really good” feeling to be able to travel again, he ... Read More »

German army to receive 20 million euros for Ukraine maneuvers

The Bundeswehr is to receive millions more for its training missions. The move is targeted at NATO military exercises in eastern Europe. The German defense ministry announced on Thursday plans to spend an additional 20 million euros ($21 million) on Bundeswehr troops to be sent for training to Germany's eastern European NATO allies. The NATO military exercises in Ukraine were also a reason for boosting the budget from 70 million to 90 million euros, a spokesman for the defense ministry told news agency dpa. Ministry officials also said that 2,700 German soldiers were stationed abroad, including in Mali and Turkey. The reduced deployment therefore made it easier for administrators to free troops for training. The German military is sending 154,000 of its roughly 180,000 active soldiers abroad to participate in military exercises. Last year, the figure was around 160,000 troops - an over two-fold increase from around 73,000 fighters the year before. Around 4,400 soldiers were to participate in 16 maneuvers in Poland and the Baltics, the defense ministry said. These were planned as a support measure for countries bordering Russia. In addition, preparations are being made for the biggest NATO military exercise this year which will take place in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Beginning on September 28 and lasting until October 16, the training, called "Trident Juncture" will involve 36,000 soldiers from more than 30 countries. Nearly 3,000 Bundeswehr soldiers will take part in this year's training. Criticism from the Left Party The Defense Ministry's latest plans, especially involving training in eastern Europe have, however, drawn criticism from some political factions within the country. Heike Hänsel of the opposition Left Party accused the German government of "increasing tensions with Russia and jeopardizing the European peace framework" by participating in the NATO exercise. The money could have been better used for Ukraine's impoverished masses or to repatriate war victims, Hänsel argued. Relations between Russia and Western countries have strained since Moscow's annexation of Crimea last year. European Union member states and the US accuse Russia of backing separatists in Ukraine's east, who have declared their own independent republic and carried forward a war that has left more than 6,000 dead.

The Bundeswehr is to receive millions more for its training missions. The move is targeted at NATO military exercises in eastern Europe. The German defense ministry announced on Thursday plans to spend an additional 20 million euros ($21 million) on Bundeswehr troops to be sent for training to Germany’s eastern European NATO allies. The NATO military exercises in Ukraine were ... Read More »

Germany shuts out refugees with ‘safe’ states list

With refugee numbers on the rise, German political parties have been wrangling once again over which Balkan states to add to its list of "safe countries of origin." But whether there is any point to it is another matter. As conflicts abroad become refugee panics at home, Angela Merkel's government is reaching for time-worn methods of coping. Germany's list of "safe" countries of origin was controversially extended last year to include three Balkan states - Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia - (already on the list were all European Union states plus Ghana and Senegal). Now the conservative Christian Social Union - the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union - would also like to see the other Balkan states - Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro - added to the list. While the Merkel administration tussles with the smaller partner in its coalition, the Social Democratic Party, over whether to extend the list, the Bavarian cabinet last week went ahead and signed off on plans to build special centers close to its borders to fast-track deportations of Balkan refugees. Deserving refugees, undeserving migrants The CSU's argument - picked up by most of the country's right-wing press - is that if Germany doesn't turn away Balkan nationals more quickly, the asylum system will not be able to cope with refugees from war zones in Syria and Iraq. "We have to be able to distinguish between immigrants with a real need of protection and immigrants with no prospect of residence," said CSU leader and Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer in a speech last week. "And that's the point where we say 'that's total garbage'," said Stephan Dünnwald of the Bavarian refugee council. "They're opening up a new category by saying some people are refugees from poverty or something - they're only coming here to scrounge benefits - and the 'real' refugees who are being hunted, or are victims of civil war." The problem of this easy distinction, though, is that it ignores the plight of marginalized groups, most obviously the Roma and Sinti. "It bypasses the asylum process altogether," Dünnwald explained. "And if that happens with Roma, for example, it's a disaster, because in many countries Roma are persecuted." Dünnwald has spent many months researching the situations of refugees across the Balkans, especially in Kosovo, and has seen what happens to Roma there. "If they get abused or attacked and they go to the police, the best case scenario is that the police laugh at them and tell them to go home, and in the worst cases they get charged," he told DW. Not even Europe is safe Herbert Heuss, senior advisor at the German Central Council for Sinti and Roma, admits that this isn't the same kind of political persecution that people experience in Syria or Iraq. But he points out, "If you take into account the cumulative discrimination - being shut out from the health system, the education system, no access to housing, the job market - those are reasons for fleeing that ought to lead to an asylum status in Germany." The truth is that there are few places anywhere in Europe where refugees are treated well - whether they're fleeing President Bashar al-Assad's bombs, or the "Islamic State," or social discrimination. Earlier this year, Amnesty International reported evacuations of camps in and around Belgrade. "We have seen similar evacuation policies being implemented in Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic - people being sent out of city centers," said Heuss. "In Romania, in Kluj, people were sent to a camp right next to a garbage dump. This idea of a safe country of origin doesn't exist. It doesn't even exist in the EU." Meanwhile in Germany, there has been an increase in attacks on asylum seekers' homes. What does "safe" even mean? The concept of "safe" countries first took a legal foothold in Germany in the early 1990s - at the end of the Cold War, when borders opened across Eastern Europe, and war erupted in the Balkans. The net result was circumstances very similar to those today. "There was a high number of migrants to Germany - in those days it was refugees and ethnic German immigrants from the former Soviet Union, today it is Syria, Kosovo and Albania," said Rainer Ohliger, board member at Network Migration in Europe, a Berlin-based network of migration academics and workers. Anyone reading the German news in the past months would also recognize the debates of the early 90s - from the rise in anti-refugee violence to the government's reaction. "Under the pressure of these large numbers, the debate about housing, the burden on local councils, the same debate as we're having today, the basic right to asylum was capped," said Ohliger. "And one of these limitations was the definition of safe countries of origin." The list of "safe" countries was created with the help of an article in Germany's constitution that allowed parliament to introduce a law specifying states "in which, on the basis of their laws, enforcement practices and general political conditions, it can be safely concluded that neither political persecution nor inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment exists." At first, the list included almost every country in Eastern Europe, and they became "safe states" by default when they joined the EU. Now, with Germany steeped in a new refugee panic, the list has been extended once again to include the Balkans. But whether or not it will make any difference to the number of Balkan asylum seekers being accepted in the EU is another matter. As the government itself admitted on the website of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, last year's extension of the list was barely more than a symbolic political point: "The Act does not influence the number of positive decisions. This number is however already very low, regardless of the Act. Only 0.3 percent of applicants from Serbia, the FYR of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina received any other than a negative decision in their asylum proceedings in 2014 (January-October)."

With refugee numbers on the rise, German political parties have been wrangling once again over which Balkan states to add to its list of “safe countries of origin.” But whether there is any point to it is another matter. As conflicts abroad become refugee panics at home, Angela Merkel’s government is reaching for time-worn methods of coping. Germany’s list of ... Read More »

Disneyland Paris faces EU probe over claims German and UK visitors pay more

The European Union has launched a probe into whether Disneyland Paris is charging customers more depending on their country of purchase. German and UK customers have allegedly been excluded from promotional offers. British newspaper "The Financial Times" reported that Disneyland, Europe's biggest amusement park, had been charging German visitors up to 2,447 euros ($2,711) for a premium package - close to double the price for French consumers at 1,346 euros. Britons have also reportedly been paying rates of up to 1,870 euros for the same deal. Under European law, Disneyland Paris could be taken to court if found to be overcharging customers from certain countries. Taking the Mickey "We are currently scrutinizing a number of complaints, including several against Disneyland Paris," a European Commission spokeswoman said in a statement to AFP news agency. Several of the complaints involved differences in treatment "on the grounds of nationality or residence." "Too often, consumers seeking to buy services or goods in another [EU] member state are prevented from getting the best price," the spokeswoman added. The French government has now been asked to investigate whether the theme park is complying with EU fair trading laws. European crusade for consumers The probe into Disneyland comes amid a huge crackdown by the European Commission on national trade barriers that affect consumers, particularly online. US firms have thus far borne the brunt of the EU-led campaign, with high-profile cases having already been launched against global internet giants Google, Apple and Amazon. Just last week, Disney was also among six top Hollywood studios accused of breaching antitrust laws by of using film licenses to block access to pay TV content in other European countries.

The European Union has launched a probe into whether Disneyland Paris is charging customers more depending on their country of purchase. German and UK customers have allegedly been excluded from promotional offers. British newspaper “The Financial Times” reported that Disneyland, Europe’s biggest amusement park, had been charging German visitors up to 2,447 euros ($2,711) for a premium package – close ... Read More »

Report: Lufthansa planning ‘budget’ pricing system

Lufthansa is planning a new pricing system to meet challenges from low-budget competitors, a German paper has reported. Meager earnings have spurred the shakeup at Germany's classic airline. Lufthansa's ticket chief Jens Bischof was quoted in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper saying that passengers would only pay for what they used, unlike the all-round service that the airline has offered since the 1950s. Economy-class flights would be offered in three categories from October 1: Flex, Classic and Light, which would comprise just a seat and hand luggage. The various options, spurred by low-cost rivals, would apply initially to Lufthansa's domestic and medium-haul flights. "A third of all passengers in Europe and Germany travel only with hand-luggage," Bischof said. "Why should these customers still pay a standard tariff?" "In our new concept the customer will only pay for the service ordered," he added. But basics such as free snacks and flight miles will be retained, as will Business Class. Long-haul flights The new system would also apply to Lufthansa's foreign subsidiaries Austrian and Swiss. It remains unclear whether long-haul flights to Asia and America will also offer the new system. Luggage charges would start at 15 euros, if the passenger handed it over at check-in, or at triple that price if found to be excessive just before boarding. The Süddeutsche said Lufthansa would formally present its model on Monday, after planning the changes over the past year-and-a-half. Lufthansa chief Carsten Spohr, who became a central figure after the crash of a flight of another subsidiary, Germanwings, in southern France in March, had previously pushed for efficiencies to head off airlines such as EasyJet, Ryanair and Middle East competitors. Labor compromise imminent? The shakeup follows Lufthansa's meager earnings in 2014 and a tentative deal to avoid further strikes, reached last Friday with the pilot's trade union Cockpit. Both sides are to conduct a joint market analysis to develop a new salary system. The union wants guarantees that all Lufthansa pilots will no longer be allocated to the low cost subsidiary Eurowings in a salaries' packet said to be worth 400 million euros ($439 million). In exchange, Lufthansa wants to lift the pilots' normal retirement age, currently at 55. Currently, a company pension tides them over until they reach Germany's statutory retirement age between 65 and 67. Using seats to capacity The Süddeutsche said the ticket pricing plan marked an about-turn for Lufthansa, which in Germany remains market leader ahead of Air Berlin, which has the backing of Arab Gulf investors. Lufthansa pricing executive Jörg Hennemann told the paper that the proposed ticket pricing system was aimed at ensuring that aircraft seating was consistently "used to capacity." On average in 2014, Lufthansa flights recorded nearly 80 percent capacity. Worldwide, Lufthansa has 119,000 employees. Last year the airline had a turnover of 30 billion euros but earned a profit of only 55 million euros.

Lufthansa is planning a new pricing system to meet challenges from low-budget competitors, a German paper has reported. Meager earnings have spurred the shakeup at Germany’s classic airline. Lufthansa’s ticket chief Jens Bischof was quoted in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” newspaper saying that passengers would only pay for what they used, unlike the all-round service that the airline has offered since ... Read More »

Several people hurt at anti-refugee protest in Dresden

A demonstration by members of a German right-wing extremist party protesting against a tent camp for refugees in Dresden turned violent, with several people injured. But refugees have now begun to move in. Demonstrators from the German right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) who were protesting against a tent camp set up to house refugees in the eastern city of Dresden attacked counter-demonstrators on Friday evening, resulting in several injuries. Protesters set off firecrackers and threw stones and bottles. The incident involved some 200 right-wing extremists and 350 people who gathered to oppose them. A police spokesman told the AFP news agency that three people needed first-aid treatment and one protester was temporarily detained. Despite the protests, the first refugees were able to move into the tent camp, which is to provide temporary housing for up to 800 people, according to authorities. The camp was set up on Friday by the German Red Cross, which is running the facility, and the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW). 'Shocking attacks' The Red Cross chairman for the state of Saxony, Rüdiger Unger, said Red Cross workers had been attacked by suspected anti-refugee protesters while putting up the tents. Unger said he was "profoundly shocked" by the incidents, adding: "I have never before experienced Red Cross workers being attacked during operations." Most of the refugees due to arrive in Dresden have fled war-torn Syria. Housing problem Authorities in the state of Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital, say that the state took in 10,500 asylum seekers in the first half of the year - three times as many as in the same period last year - making it necessary to extend reception facilities. They say the some 60 tents are only a temporary measure and will be taken down again when the situation allows. In recent months, a number of refugee accommodation facilities have been set on fire in Germany in protest at the growing wave of asylum seekers coming to the country.

A demonstration by members of a German right-wing extremist party protesting against a tent camp for refugees in Dresden turned violent, with several people injured. But refugees have now begun to move in. Demonstrators from the German right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) who were protesting against a tent camp set up to house refugees in the eastern ... Read More »

FIFA announces 2018 World Cup schedule

Just over a year after Germany clinched its fourth World Cup crown in Brazil, FIFA have announced the match schedule for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Will Germany be at the final again? FIFA have announced the match schedule for the 2018 World Cup in Russia on the eve of the qualifying draw in St Petersburg. Kickoff times for the tournament matches will be decicded at a later date. The 2018 FIFA World Cup will begin on Thursday June 14, 2018. Russia, as the host country, are seeded as the A1 team, and will be involved in the opening game of the tournament. The World Cup final will be held on Sunday July 15, 2018. Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium will host both the tournament opener and the final. Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Sochi, Samara will be the quarterfinal venues while St Petersburg and Moscow will stage the semifinals. The FIFA organizing committee, headed by UEFA president Michel Platini, also approved the procedures for the preliminary draw and qualifiers in each of the six confederations. The qualifying competition will span 32 months featuring 851 matches, concluding in November 2017. It was also announced on Friday that the FIFA Confederations Cup - a warm-up competition for the host country to test ahead of the main competition - will be staged from June 17 to July 2, 2017. Eight teams will compete, including defending World Cup winners Germany. Germany were also announced as one of nine top-seeds in the World Cup qualifying draw, which takes place in St Petersburg on Saturday.

Just over a year after Germany clinched its fourth World Cup crown in Brazil, FIFA have announced the match schedule for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Will Germany be at the final again? FIFA have announced the match schedule for the 2018 World Cup in Russia on the eve of the qualifying draw in St Petersburg. Kickoff times for ... Read More »

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