Robber high on wine and hugs

A group of friends was finishing dinner on the back patio of a Washington, DC, home when a hooded man slid through an open gate and pointed a handgun at the head of a 14-year-old girl.

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"Give me your money, or I'll start shooting," the intruder said, district police and witnesses say.

Everyone froze, including the girl's parents.

Then one guest spoke up.

"We were just finishing dinner," Cristina "Cha Cha" Rowan, 43, told the man.

Sharing wine

"Why don't you have a glass of wine with us?"

The intruder had a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupery and said: "Damn, that's good wine."

The girl's father, Michael Rabdau, 51, a federal government worker, told the intruder to take the whole glass, and Ms Rowan offered him the bottle.

The robber, with his hood down, took another sip and a bite of Camembert cheese.

He put the gun in his sweatpants.

Then the story took an even more bizarre twist.

"I think I may have come to the wrong house," the intruder said before apologising.

Hug, please

"Can I get a hug?"

Ms Rowan, who works at her children's school and lives in Falls Church, Virginia, stood up and wrapped her arms around the would-be robber.

The other guests followed.

"Can we have a group hug?" the man asked.

The five adults complied.

The man walked away a few moments later with a filled crystal wine glass, but nothing was stolen, and no one was hurt.

Police were called to the scene and found the empty wine glass unbroken on the ground in an alley behind the house.

‘Strange but true’

Police classified the June 16 incident, which lasted all of 10 minutes, as strange but true.

The witnesses thought the intruder might have been high on drugs.

"We've had robbers that apologise and stuff, but nothing where they sit down and drink wine. It definitely is strange," said Commander Diane Groomes, adding the hugs were especially unusual.


Media mogul convicted of fraud

Black, 62, was convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice.

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He faces a maximum of 35 years in prison for the offences, plus a maximum penalty of $US1 million ($A1.16 million).

Acquitted of other charges

He was acquitted of nine other counts, including racketeering and misuse of corporate perks, such as taking the company plane on a vacation to Bora Bora and billing shareholders $US40,000 ($A46,224) for his wife's birthday party.

Black, sitting at a table with his attorneys, did not show any emotion when the verdict was read.

After US District Judge Amy St Eve briefly adjourned the court, his wife, Barbara Amiel Black, and his daughter, Alana, leaned over to console him.

While the verdict was mixed, the conviction signalled an increasing trend of aggressive US government pursuit of senior corporate executives, following the Enron, Tyco and WorldCom scandals, and of holding top executives personally accountable for their companies' actions.

Former Executives guilty

Black's three co-defendants were all found guilty of three counts of mail fraud.

They are former Hollinger International vice presidents John Boultbee, 64, of Vancouver and Peter Atkinson, 60, of Toronto and attorney Mark Kipnis, 59, of Chicago. They face up to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $US750,000 ($A866,700).

Hollinger International once owned community papers across the United States and Canada as well as the Chicago Sun-Times, the Toronto-based National Post, The Daily Telegraph of London and Israel's Jerusalem Post.

The Sun-Times is the only large paper remaining at the company whose name has been changed to Sun-Times News Group.

The heart of the case against the husky, silver-haired publishing millionaire focused on a large-scale selloff starting in 1998 of Hollinger community papers that were published across the United States and Canada.

Companies that bought newspapers in seven such deals paid millions of dollars to Hollinger International, with headquarters in Chicago, in return for promises it would not go into competition with the new owners.

No 2 man testifies

Black was charged with illegally diverting millions of dollars in those so-called non-compete payments to himself, Boultbee, Atkinson and the longtime No 2 man in the Hollinger International empire, F David Radler.

Radler pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to testify in exchange for a lenient 29-month sentence.

In eight days on the witness stand, he contradicted Black's argument that he knew little about the deals that led to the non-compete payments because he was busy with other matters.

Black's attorneys painted Radler as a liar looking for a good deal from prosecutors in his own case.


US anti-torture measures

The order prohibits cruel and inhumane treatment, humiliation or denigration of prisoners' religious beliefs.

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The White House declined to say whether the CIA currently has a detention and interrogation program, but said if it did, it must adhere to the guidelines outlined in the executive order.

Criticism from Europe

The US has been criticised by European allies and others around the world over interrogation techniques such as "waterboarding," in which prisoners are strapped to a plank over water and are made to fear that they may be drowned.

Critics also have complained that the CIA has run secret prisons on European soil and mistreated prisoners during clandestine flights in and out of Europe.

Mr Bush has repeatedly said the US does not practice torture.

"Last September, the president explained how the CIA's program had disrupted attacks and saved lives, and that it must continue on a sound legal footing," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow says.

"The president has insisted on clear legal standards so that CIA officers involved in this essential work are not placed in jeopardy for doing their job – and keeping America safe from attacks."

The executive order was the result of legislation Mr Bush signed in October that authorised military trials of terrorism suspects, eliminated some of the rights defendants are usually guaranteed under US law, and authorised continued harsh interrogations of terror suspects.

Violation of international law

The Supreme Court had ruled in June 2006 that trying detainees in military tribunals violated US and international law, so Mr Bush urged Congress to change the law.

He also insisted the law authorise CIA agents to use tough methods to interrogate suspected terrorists.

The legislation said the president can "interpret the meaning and application" of international standards for prisoner treatment, a provision intended to allow him to authorise aggressive interrogation methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts.

Not wanting to give up its terrorism playbook, the White House did not detail what types of interrogation procedures, such as waterboarding, would be allowed.

Conditions

But it did offer parameters, saying any conditions of confinement and interrogation practices could not include:

• Torture or other acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation and cruel or inhumane treatment.

• Willful or outrageous acts of personal abuse done to humiliate or degrade someone in a way so serious that any reasonable person would "deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, threatening the individual with sexual mutilation.

• Acts intended to denigrate the religion, religious practices, or religious objects of an individual.


Potter books fly off shelves

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Rowling slays or spares the boy wizard.

After months of hype and hearsay, “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows”, the seventh volume in a decade-long magical saga, went on sale globally at in most countries, with London the focus of festivities.

Bookshop and supermarket chains in Britain stayed open all night to meet what they called record demand as Rowling, Potter’s rags-to-riches British creator, hosted an overnight reading for hundreds of fans at a London museum.

Waterstone’s bookshop, which hosted the country’s main Harry Potter party at its flagship store in central London overnight, said 250,000 fans filled its shops nationwide as it sold more than 100,000 copies in the first two hours.

At 15 books sold every second, retailer WH Smith said sales at its 400 stores in Britain were beating the record of 13 per second held by the sixth volume in the series, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

With 325 million copies of the first six volumes sold worldwide, and translations into 64 languages, Potter-mania was rife across the globe.

In New York, more than 100 people patiently waited in line outside a Barnes and Noble bookstore in midtown Manhattan to get a much coveted copy of the

book.

Even before its stores opened their doors for the event, the Borders book chain had already sold 1.5 million copies of the last Harry Potter installment through online and telephone orders.

“The biggest day in Borders’ history. We’ve never had a book like this,” said Borders USA chief executive officer George Jones.

In Asia, all-night parties and Hogwarts Express-style train trips were among hundreds of events being held over the weekend.

In Pakistan, police said they had defused a car bomb the previous night outside a packed shopping centre in Karachi where the book was scheduled to be launched.

Harry Potter fans in living in Kabul were delighted to be able to get their hands on copies of the latest title Saturday, the same day that the book hit shops elsewhere around the world.

Flights into Afghanistan are infrequent, but a international freight forwarding company, Paxton International did Potter lovers a favour by shipping in dozens of copies on an early morning flight.

Most of the readers here are likely to be among the expatriate community of diplomats, NGO workers and journalists.

Thousands of Australian fans queued in frocks, capes and trademark spectacles of the boy wizard to be among the first to take home Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

At Dymocks, in Sydney’s CBD, fans flooded through the doors from 7am to collect their pre-order tickets and line up.

More than 350,000 copies were expected to sell across Australia in a a single day.


Oxford’s Facebook snooping

After exams, students at the venerable English university traditionally drop their serious ways and indulge in a spasm of "trashings" – rowdy revels that include dousing classmates in foam, eggs and flour.

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In recent years, students have taken to posting photos of the mess on Facebook.

Disciplinary officials at Oxford have caught on – and have begun emailing students fines of STG40-STG100 ($A94-$A235)for breaking campus rules, says Martin McCluskey, president of the Oxford University Students Union.

Mr McCluskey sent an email to all members of the student union warning them that they are being spied upon by school officials trolling through Facebook profiles containing photos of "trashings."

‘Underhanded’

"It's fairly disgraceful and underhand," he says.

"Disciplinary procedures are supposed to be transparent."

A university spokesman confirmed the practice, saying officials began searching Facebook after receiving complaints of unruly student behaviour.

The 800-year-old university has been issuing fines for misdemeanours such as spraying fluids and hurling eggs since 2004.

"The University Proctors have told the students that they are welcome to meet their friends after their exams but that students who create a mess in the street with food or alcohol, or who indulge in anti-social behaviour contrary to University regulations, will be disciplined," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity, in line with university policy.

The student union advised students with Facebook accounts to change their privacy settings to prevent staff and faculty from viewing their profiles and photographs.

30 million users worldwide

Facebook has an estimated 30 million users around the world – and has seen a surge in popularity coincide with an increase in the number of users busted by Facebook photos and comments.

Last week, Amy Polumbo, a beauty queen in the US, was made to sweat over whether she would be stripped of her Miss New Jersey crown.

Organisers had been sent photos Polumbo's Facebook page showing her acting "not in a ladylike manner" – including one in which her boyfriend appears to be biting her breast through her shirt.

In April, five students at a Toronto school were banned from an end-of-the-year trip after disparaging remarks about a teacher were found on Facebook.

Disciplinary email

Alex Hill, 21, a philosophy and mathematics student at Oxford, said she was among students to receive a disciplinary email.

Ms Hill says the email stated that three of her photos provided evidence she had engaged in "disorderly" conduct.

"They gave me links to three photos on Facebook where I've got shaving foam all over me as examples of my disorderly conduct," she says.

"I think it's an appalling thing to do."


'Honour killing' dad gets life

The 2006 murder of 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod, who was strangled after two hours of torture and sexual abuse, was the latest in an increasing trend of so-called "honour killings" in Britain, home to about 1.

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8 million Muslims.

Ms Mahmod was a member of an Iraqi Kurd family which had emigrated to Britain in 1998.

Her father, Mahmod Mahmod, and uncle Ari Mahmod, were sentenced after being found guilty of ordering the killing.

A third man, Mohamad Hama, who had pleaded guilty to taking part in the killing, was sentenced to at least 17 years in prison.

Ms Mahmod's family accused her of shaming them by ending an abusive arranged marriage, becoming too Westernised and falling in love with a man who did not come from their village.

The elder Mahmods ordered the killing after discovering she was having a relationship with an Iranian Kurd.

‘Barbaric’

"This was a barbaric and callous crime," says Judge Brian Barker.

"You are hard and unswerving men to whom apparently the respect from the community is more important that your own flesh and blood."

The court had heard evidence from her boyfriend, Rahmat Sulemani, and her sister, Bekhal, who fled the family in fear of her own life.

Police inaction

During the trial, the jury was told how the victim's attempts to get help were dismissed by police.

She first went to police in December 2005, when she suspected her uncle was trying to kill her and her boyfriend.

She sent the police a letter naming the men she thought would later kill her.

On New Year's Eve 2005, she was lured by her father to her grandmother's home, where her father forced her to gulp down brandy and approached her in a menacing manner.

She escaped by breaking a window, and was treated at a hospital.

One police officer, who now faces investigation, considered arresting Banaz Mahmod for damaging her grandmother's window.

Video of victim

Mr Sulemani recorded video testimony at the hospital in which Banaz Mahmod said she was "really scared".

This was later played in court.

After leaving the hospital, she tried to convince her family the relationship was over, but the couple were spotted together.

The killing occurred several days later, and her body was disposed of in a suitcase.


Envoy Blair begins peace talks

He has begun the task of helping Palestinians build solid foundations for their future state by offering ideas to Israeli leaders designed to stabilise the shaky government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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Israeli foreign minister Tsipi Livni says the Blair mission on behalf of the Quartet of Mideast mediators comes at a critical time, with the possibility of creating a change of direction after years of stalemate in peacemaking.

Blair's limited mandate from the four powers – the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia – is to help the Palestinians develop their economy, build governing institutions and to lay the groundwork for statehood.

But he has been instructed to leave aside the underlying issues of the 60-year-old Middle Eastern conflict, such as borders, Palestinian refugees and the governance of Jerusalem, leading some to doubt how much of an effect he can have.

Listen-and-learn mission

Israel, though, says the importance of his task should not be under-rated.

"Anyone who believes that nation-building is a peripheral issue doesn't understand the process," said Livni's spokesman, Mark Regev, after Blair's first meeting with her.

Regev said Blair and Livni exchanged ideas, and Blair's first trip was more than a listen-and-learn mission.

"He's listening, but he's not coming as a newcomer," Regev said. Blair "has extensive knowledge of the area. He is well aware of the concerns of both parties. He is well positioned to help the process."

Creating the conditions of good governance has been complicated by the feud among the Palestinians that led to the forcible takeover of Gaza by the Islamist Hamas movement in a bloody five-day war.

Abbas's Fatah movement now spearheads a moderate government in the West Bank while Hamas has control of Gaza.

On Tuesday, Blair travels to the West Bank to meet Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, before winding up his maiden foray with a dinner at the home of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.


NY renters being spied on

The complaints concern one of the country’s largest apartment complexes, the twin developments of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, comprising 110 buildings in a campus-like East Side setting.

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It is also one of the city’s largest stocks of rent-stabilised housing.

Tenants lucky enough to hold a lease on one of its 8,000 regulated units pay a fraction of the market rate. The savings allow a lifestyle unavailable to many middle-class New Yorkers.

Landlords have two ways to legally hike the rent more than a token amount annually: Persuade tenants to leave, or prove they live elsewhere.

Tenants say the global real-estate firm Tishman Speyer, which bought the complex last year for $US5.4 billion ($A6.53 billion), is engaged in a campaign to do both.

Over the past few months, hundreds of tenants say they received non-renewal notices on their leases over suspicions that they reside elsewhere for at least 183 days a year.

Private eyes

The charges are based on evidence apparently culled by private investigators, from public records, property deeds, and credit applications databases. Leaseholders were stunned by the scope of the information.

“It’s like they’re spying on us!” said Jeanette Besosa, who works at the United Nations.

Ms Besosa was accused of keeping residences in Florida, Pennsylvania and Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighbourhood.

She’s now assembling a thick binder of records demonstrating the

Pennsylvania home is a weekend retreat, the Washington Heights townhouse is an investment property, and the Florida address is her son’s rented college apartment.

Suzanne Ryan said the company ordered her family out of Peter Cooper Village by the end of May after discovering that she and her husband owned a Long Island beachfront house.

“It’s a little Cape. We had fixed it up ourselves,” Ryan said. But the family used it sporadically as a summer beach house, she said, and their residence was in the city where her two children attend Catholic school.

City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, who lives in the complex, said residents had packed a series of legal notices.

“These are scary letters to get,” he said. “I think there are a number of legal, legitimate tenants who are getting caught up in this pursuit.”

Tishman Speyer declined to comment on specific cases, but said in a written statement that it was routine for city landlords to contact tenants suspecting of illegally holding leases.

“If residents feel a notice has been sent in error, there is a process in place to address each case individually,” the statement said.

“We only send notices when we believe there is true cause.”

Some tenants say they were given a chance to produce tax returns, voting records and credit card bills to demonstrate residency. Others face a trip to housing court, possibly with the expense of a lawyer.

Rent abuse rampant

Real estate experts say people shouldn’t instantly condemn Tishman.

Abuse of rent stabilisation rules is common in New York.

Some leaseholders move out of town and illegally sublet their apartments for a hefty profit. Others hold on to units they don’t need for years, using them as weekend getaways or passing them on to friends.

A few private eyes have built entire businesses out of following renters around and scouring public records to prove they don’t actually live in the apartments they lease.

Some landlords go as far as to install hidden cameras in hallways to prove that a leaseholder has moved out, said Mitch Kossoff, a lawyer representing property owners.

The incentive to catch a tenant cheating, he added, could be powerful: A vacancy means the landlord can immediately hike rents at least 20 per cent.

And any apartment where the legal monthly rent rises above $US2,000 ($A2,420) can be removed from the stabilisation rolls forever – a change worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to its owner.

Many tenants believe that was Tishman’s ultimate goal with its purchase, converting units to expensive luxury condominiums.

“They must have bought this place for too much money, and now they’re trying to throw everybody out and raise the rents,” said Ms Besosa’s husband, Rafael Rodriguez.


Japan spits dummy on whaling

It failed in its bid to lift a moratorium on commercial whaling at the end of the stormy 75-nation IWC meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

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Earlier it had announced it will kill 50 humpback whales from stocks that migrate along the Australian and New Zealand coasts.

It then offered a compromise of shelving the humpback hunting plan if its request for whale hunting by the Japanese coastal community is allowed.

Japan's proposal was submitted under IWC rules allowing aboriginal subsistence whale hunting quotas. It said that small-scale whalers have depended on hunting as far back as the 17th century.

Japan has been campaigning to lift the whaling moratorium ever since it was imposed 21 years ago. But this year, it argues that its traditional coastal community have the same right to pursue whaling as natives in the United States and Russia.

The commission has already agreed that Greenland can increase its aboriginal quota of minke whales to 200 as well as hunt fin and bowhead whales.

Greenland, a semiautonomous Danish territory, had originally wanted to add humpback whales but met adamant opposition from critics who noted that the huge humpbacks and bowheads have low reproduction cycles.

Commercial ban upheld

Meanwhile the commission reaffirmed a 21-year ban on commercial whaling, essentially snubbed a symbolic resolution passed last year that the ban was meant to be temporary and was no longer needed.

This year's resolution also noted there should be no change in restrictions prohibiting the international trade in the meat and other parts of large whales regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The Japanese remain under fire from environmentalists, for allegedly exploiting an IWC loophole allowing whaling for scientific research.

Japan kills about 1,000 whales a year under its scientific program and then sells the meat.

Boycott splits IWC

In another sign of the commission's deepening rift, Japan and 26 other nations boycotted a vote on a non-binding resolution urging Japan to suspend "lethal aspects" of its scientific whaling program.

The measure, proposed by New Zealand and sponsored by other anti-whaling nations led by the United States, Britain, Australia, France and South Africa, passed 40-2.

Russia and Norway voted against it while China abstained.

"It was a clear division showing the different philosophical camps that are here in the IWC," New Zealand's conservation minister Chris Carter told reporters.

Japan called the move a "hate" resolution, in another example of IWC meetings that are characterised by strong language and emotional arguments.


Vatican going solar

An engineer says the roof of the Paul VI auditorium will be redone next year, with its cement panels replaced with photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity.

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Vatican engineer Pier Carlo Cuscianna says the cells will produce enough electricity to illuminate, eat or cool the building.

The excess energy will feed into the network providing the Vatican offices with power.

The Paul VI auditorium is used for the pontiff's general audiences in winter and in bad weather during the rest of the year. It is also used for concerts.

The plan was approved after a feasibility study found that installling solar panels was economically convenient.

The pope calls wiser use of resources

Last summer, Benedict called on Christians to unite to take "care of creation without squandering its resources and sharing them in a convivial manner."

He said lifestyle choices were damaging the environment and making "the lives of poor people on Earth especially unbearable."

Paul VI auditorium

The modernistic hall, at the southern end of Vatican City, was built in 1969, designed by architect Pier Luigi Nervi.

The cement panels on its roof have deteriorated and were due to be replaced anyway, said Mr Cuscianna.

The auditorium "was born half-ecological," Mr Cuscianna said noting that Mr Nervi used cement panels on its 6,000-square-yard flattened vaulted roof in part to help keep pilgrims cool.

The engineer said the new roof panels would be the same shape and almost the same color as the cement panels they are replacing, minimizing the aesthetic impact.

The Vatican is also considering placing solar panels on other buildings, although St Peter's Basilica and other historical landmarks will not be touched.

The Vatican is setting an example to the rest of Italy, which has been slow in harnessing solar.