A Loss for Liberty

It's no secret in Moscow that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long had a beef with Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty. It's no surprise either: one could hardly have expected the ex-KGB officer to embrace a radio station created during the cold war to broadcast American-style news deep behind enemy lines. But until recently, Putin only hinted at his dislike. That changed last Thursday, when he removed the legal basis for the station to be located in Russia.

During the cold war, Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty--known in Russian as Radio Svoboda--was a rare source of unvarnished news for Russians. In 1991, the then President Boris Yelstin acknowledged the station's importance to the newly democratic country, issuing a decree that allowed Svoboda to open an office in Moscow. This is the law that Putin revoked last week, leaving the station's fate in limbo. At the least, say staffers, they will likely lose access to Russian politicians, who will be leery of crossing the Kremlin.

Ever since he took office in 2000, Putin has moved to rein in the rambunctious press of the Yeltsin years, pressuring newspapers and shutting down independent operations. But Radio Svoboda maintained its critical reporting, particularly on the war in Chechnya. Svoboda staff are accustomed to broadsides from the Kremlin accusing them of biased reporting on the conflict, including periodic threats to revoke the station's license. Putin fulfilled that vow just as the Chechnya war is heating up again--with sources telling NEWSWEEK that the Russian military has finalized plans to cross into neighboring Georgia to pursue Chechen rebels--and while potential critics like the United States are more focused on winning Moscow's support for its campaign against Iraq than condemning Russian actions in the Caucasus.

The Kremlin claims that Putin's move will merely ensure that the station henceforth operates "according to the same conditions" as other Russian news organizations. This is a rather ominous remark, considering the fortunes of many of Russia's once-independent media outlets. For their part, Radio Svoboda employees remain defiant--at least publicly. Thomas A. Dine, the president of RFE-RL, declared that the station will not allow Putin's move "to affect our reporting of events in the Russian Federation in any way." Brave words, but Radio Svoboda may have precious few of those left.


Mistaken For the Mullah

Mulvi Hafizullah is hiding out in the remote Afghan countryside in fear of his life. But the 40-year-old former Taliban protocol officer isn't worried about his ties to Afghanistan's previous regime. It's his resemblance to the Taliban's reclusive leader-on-the-lam, Mullah Mohammed Omar, that scares him senseless. Mullah Omar was rarely photographed during his time in power, and in a case of mistaken identity, Hafizullah says it is his picture--not Omar's--that has appeared on the hundreds of thousands of leaflets that have been dropped all over Afghanistan promising a $25 million reward for the capture of the Taliban leader and Osama bin Laden.

Hafizullah fears that thousands of Afghan soldiers and villagers--not to mention U.S. troops--are looking for him in order to collect the huge reward. "I'm afraid to leave my house," he told NEWSWEEK. "If I do, soldiers or villagers will tear me to pieces so they can claim the money." His troubles began early this year when he fled home to his village in Maidan province after the Taliban's collapse. Not long after his arrival, an elderly neighbor approached him, showed him the leaflet and asked him if he was in fact Mullah Omar. "I looked at the photo and it was me," says Hafizullah. The old man asked Hafizullah why he hadn't admitted to the villagers that he was really Mullah Omar. "Now we are even more proud to know you," the old man told him. Brushing aside Hafizullah's denials, the neighbor complained that since he was the mullah he should be doing more to help the poor village and to repair local roads. Within days, Hafizullah went back into hiding.

But Hafizullah can also see the funny side to the mix-up. "The Americans and the CIA are so blind and stupid to think that I'm Mullah Omar," he laughs. He adds that this is not the first such blunder the United States has made in the war in Afghanistan. At least five senior Taliban leaders whom the United States says it's captured--including Defense Minister Mulvai Ubiduula and Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Saqeeb, among others--are still free in Afghanistan, Hafizullah claims. "The Americans only captured men who had the same names as our leaders." (U.S. Central Command could not be reached for comment on Hafizullah's allegations.)

Despite his sense of humor, though, Hafizullah is fed up with his predicament. He whiles his days away tending a few apple trees and some grapevines in the courtyard of his hideout. He laments that his family is unhappy living so far from home. And he complains loudest that despite his protests, his 5-year-old son now thinks he's the mysterious Mullah Omar.

Entrepreneurs Yang Bin Busted?

When Chinese real estate and flower tycoon Yang Bin was picked last month to govern North Korea's proposed capitalist zone near its Chinese border, his world looked to be in full bloom. But Yang's prospects may be withering: On Oct. 3 Chinese police paid a 5 a.m. visit to the mogul, reportedly China's second-richest man, at his home in the northern city of Shenyang and reportedly detained him.

The reason may well have nothing to do with North Korea. Yang made his name in Shenyang in the 1990s, where his flamboyant Holland Village development, replete with windmills and castles, brought him to prominence as a get-rich-quick icon. That high profile might also have drawn some unwanted attention.

NEWSWEEK has learned that Yang's name has arisen in connection with a major corruption case in Shenyang. Last year former mayor Mu Suixin received a suspended death sentence for taking $800,000 in bribes and having a large amount of unexplained assets. And former deputy mayor Ma Xiangdong was executed in December for--among other things--gambling away $4 million in public funds. So where does Yang allegedly fit in? Holland Village got off the ground just as Shenyang's corrupt mayor and his deputy were flying high. At the time, local media noted that Yang's project faltered as soon as Mu and Ma were arrested in 2000 and that Holland Village allegedly lacked proper approvals. (His company has denied the allegation.) Informed sources tell newsweek that they believe Chinese authorities arrested Yang last week in order to learn more about the Mu case, and to probe whether Yang had paid bribes to get the Holland Village project off the ground--and that they needed to move before the North Korea initiatives made Yang politically untouchable. Yang's spokesman was unavailable for comment on the matter.


Burying the Past

This summer, activists from a Russian human-rights organization called Memorial thought they had found some answers at an old Soviet firing range just outside St. Petersburg. After years of searching, they discovered a mass grave filled with an estimated 30,000 bodies, thought to be among the nearly 40,000 Russians from the area who had been executed between 1937 and 1938 by order of Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin. Unearthing more than 50 burial sites, the activists examined some 20 skeletons--all of which had a hole blasted in the nape of the neck from a .45-caliber bullet, the kind used in the Colt pistols issued to Soviet secret police at the height of Stalin's reign of terror. By exhuming the bodies, there is hope that questions about the missing will finally be answered.

But Russia's new secret police seem to be looking to stall the investigation. The St. Petersburg branch of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, has refused to comment on the site and has blocked access to KGB archives of individual executions. By refusing to admit that a mass grave even exists, the FSB has slowed Memorial down tremendously over the past five years. "They are covering up this crime, even now," says Irena Flige, a member of Memorial's St. Petersburg chapter.

But just because the FSB is eager to distance itself from its ancestors doesn't mean the people of St. Petersburg are. Relatives of the murdered are calling for apologies and investigations. "The security services are proud of their image now and want everyone to forget their bloody past," says 81-year-old Ida Slavina, who lost her father to KGB executioners in 1938 and her mother to a labor camp. "The government has never apologized to its people for what it did." Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death. Perhaps by then the secret service will be willing to consider admitting its role in the horrors.


Busted in Portland

With much fanfare, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft touted the latest U.S. intelligence victory last week: the arrest of four Americans suspected of conspiring to provide "material support" to Al Qaeda and "take up arms against the United States." "We've neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders," Ashcroft said Friday. The arrests, along with the court appearances of John Walker Lindh and shoe-bomber Richard Reid, made Friday a "defining day" in the war on terror, he crowed.

Yet the boldness of his statements seemed at odds with the dry facts in the indictment. On paper, the case--against Jeffrey Leon Battle, October Martinique Lewis, Patrice Lumumba Ford, Muhammad Bilal and two others still at large--seems to point more to a group of failed terrorist wanna-bes than trained Qaeda killers. Though they had guns and allegedly planned to wage jihad, none of them even made it to Afghanistan.

According to the Feds, in mid-October members of the group purchased one-way plane tickets to Hong Kong--the first leg of their journey to the Qaeda camps. But then, officials say, Battle sent Lewis an e-mail saying they were having trouble getting into Afghanistan. Battle made it to Bangladesh. Ahmed Bilal, Muhammad's brother and one of the two suspects still at large, reached Indonesia. Eventually, they ran out of money and went home.

Ever since, the Feds kept close watch--but apparently turned up little more. Yet officials insist the case isn't "anywhere near finished" and more evidence may be forthcoming--in Portland, and beyond.


Serenity Rocks

Nobody knows who designed the Ryoanji Temple garden in Kyoto in the late 15th century. Among more than a thousand ancient temple gardens in Kyoto, it's considered to be the masterpiece. It might just be the work of a single genius, but its mathematical simplicity suggests many hands refined and distilled the arrangement over the years. The garden consists of 15 stones placed seemingly at random on a 10- by 30-meter rectangle of meticulously raked white gravel. For centuries visitors have sought to explain why this particular configuration is so appealing--why the Zen priests who tend the temple say the garden can be appreciated to the fullest only by those who attain enlightenment.

Esthetic theories have tended to attach symbolic significance to the arrangement: it has been said to represent a tigress crossing the sea with her cubs, islands in the ocean, rocks in the rapids and strokes of the Chinese character meaning heart or mind. But perhaps the appeal has less to do with garden's symbolism than the structure of the human mind. The brain always tries to make sense of the visual world, and to do so it often pieces together sparse clues to form a coherent image. What if the Ryoanji rocks give the visual portion of the brain just enough information to suggest something pleasing, but not enough so that it's staring the viewer straight in the face?

To test this hypothesis, visual scientists Michael Lyons of ATR Media Information Science Laboratories and Gert van Tonder of Kyoto University decided to run a mathematical analysis of the Ryoanji rocks that has been shown in previous studies to mimic what the brain does during the act of visual perception. The analysis, called a "medial axis transformation," draws symmetry lines in the empty spaces between the rocks. "We used the technique analyzing the structure of ma, empty space, which plays a big part in Japanese culture," says Lyons. When the two scientists saw the lines, they immediately realized that they resembled a tree. Its "trunk" also happens to end precisely at the optimum viewing point of the garden. Perhaps, they reasoned, the mind--properly conditioned by meditation--"sees" the tree unconsciously--that is, with the mind's eye. The unenlightened among us will have to settle for a peaceful scene.


Sales in Motion

If you hail a cab in Cape Town, make sure to tell the driver where you're headed--and the name of your favorite song. A local independent record label, Mother Mix (derived from Cape Town's nickname, "The Mother City") is trying to bring music to the masses via mass transportation. The company's innovative retail strategy is to sell CDs through local taxi and minibus drivers. While the meter ticks away, so do the beats; passengers are treated to the tunes of the newest hip-hop band. (Mother Mix plans to expand the repertoire to genres like European techno and drum-and-bass as well.) All the CDs or cassette tapes played are for sale.

And that's music to the cabbies' ears: on any given CD sale, which costs an average of $5, the driver receives a 30 percent cut to go along with tip and fare. Drivers sign up as distributors--much like Avon ladies on wheels--and they receive a starter kit, with fliers, posters and informational brochures about the Mother Mix concept, and a trial CD and cassette.

Mother Mix is just one of many independent labels (like Fresh Music and Ghetto Ruff) trying to make a dent in South Africa's fledgling music market, dominated now by a hodgepodge of global imports. The indies insist that they're in better touch with the sounds on South African streets than music execs based in London or New York. But when it comes to distributing their work, independents still have to fall back on large chains like Musica and CD Warehouse, where CDs and cassettes sell for an average of $15 to $20 apiece. The indie labels see only about $1 or $2 worth of those transactions for themselves. (Since the majority of South Africans make about $240 a month, store-bought albums are an absolute luxury.) By forgoing marketing and distribution expenses, Mother Mix can hawk their taxi CDs at a third of the cost. Which means they're building a local music scene that's actually accessible to locals, a feat that the company hopes other labels follow. "The question shouldn't be, 'Why can we do it?' " says label owner Alexander Gregori, "but really, 'Why can't everyone else do it as well?' " Think about all the yellow cabs in New York City. That's a lot of noise waiting to be made.

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