Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Covering the Madrid Bombing Trial
We got here early, around 6:30 am local time. One of the first crews outside the courthouse, even before the main police contingent, although there was security. The courthouse security chief told us to move our cars -- unloading lots of equipment to our “live shot” position under a tent --- away from the court building, as in, RIGHT NOW, por favor ("please," in Spanish; he was courteous, as always). Not as cold as we had expected it to be, one layer of coats, not two, would do.

As daylight came, more police, and well, more police. Security constantly changing at the courthouse where the Madrid train bomb trial was held earlier this year and where the verdict and sentence are delivered. Sometimes they let accredited journalists -- only one per media -- come and go in and out of the building. Today is different. You're in, or you're out. No back and forth. Lots of concern by security and court officials that nothing, but nothing, happen here except the expected verdict and sentencing of the 28 defendants. One of them is in Italy serving a different terrorism sentence, he attends by video conference. Around 10 am, the main contingent of victims came in a large Guardia Civil bus under tight security, a caravan of heavily armed paramilitary Civil Guards surrounding them, sirens blaring. The defendants are hustled in a side door to the court, away from the media cameras.

Outside, I saw a lawyer representing a Chilean woman whose husband died in the bombings, one of the 191 people killed in the attacks on the Madrid commuter trains on March 11, 2004. Under Spanish law, private party plantiffs, like this woman, can hire a lawyer to do a parallel prosecution to the state prosecutors. It can be effective. Prosecutors in June, in revising their charge list, dropped all charges against one Spanish defendant, Javier Gonzalez Diaz, age 55. He earlier had been charged with supplying explosives for the attacks. But a private party plantiff, representing a large group of victims, maintained charges against him. So he will have to wait until the verdict, like the other defendants, to see if he's a free man or not.

Victims Row: as victims and others file into the lobby of the court, two leaders of the largest victims association, Pilar Manjon and Jesus Ramirez, are surrounded by journalists, and they're complaining they've been given just 3 passes to be inside the courtroom for the reading of the verdict. They say other victims groups, which represent a much smaller number of victims than their "Victims Association of 11-M" (as in March 11), got the same number. Ramirez told me only last Friday he expected to have 30 from his group here. Manjon, the president of the association, announces they won't use the three, and instead of them will be in a separate part of the court building, together, to hear the sentence. Manjon lost a son, who died on one of the trains. Ramirez lost 40 percent of his hearing in the blast and hasn't returned to work. Court officials and Manjon's group apparently were talking until the last minute to see if more victims might be allowed to sit in court.

There's always something - the court press room has a high-speed wireless connection. I couldn't connect, called the CNN computer support technician in Madrid, we talked it through, couldn't get anywhere, decided it was impossible, and I plugged in a backup, slower, external device that allows at least some connection. It didn't work, but when I plugged it in, I suddenly got the high-speed wireless I'd been looking for anyway.

-- From Al Goodman, CNN Madrid Bureau Chief.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Carnival turns to carnage

Bhutto’s return had been transformed into a wretched, blood-soaked tableau.

I knew we were heading in the right direction, because of the convoy of ambulances speeding the other way, ferrying the wounded to hospital. As we approached, it suddenly became clear that this was a major attack in which many, many people had perished.

On the central barrier of the highway, I saw the first of the bodies: A bearded man, lying frozen on the floor, his hands clasped together, his mouth slightly open, his bare feet black with dirt.

As I walked forward, into the knot of traffic and bystanders, I started to see more bodies, some lying face down, some carefully arranged in rows. And then I noticed the body-parts. There was a foot, a scrap of scalp, with hair matted in blood and a glistening pile of intestines.

At the epicenter of the bombing, rivulets of blood were running across the road, ambulance sirens competed with each other, making conversation impossible. My feet scrunched on broken glass, and then slipped on human flesh.

There was an acrid, overwhelming smell of explosives. The wounded were still being loaded on to stretchers by harassed paramedics. It was chaotic and horrifying. There were still hundreds of PPP supporters standing and watching, some shouting into their mobile phones, others helping to move the dead.

In the center of the road, the blackened skeleton of a burnt out car smoldered. Next to it, a badly damaged police truck, and then 20 feet away, was the bus that had been carrying Benazir Bhutto. It was burnt and peppered with shrapnel, the windscreen had been cracked and the driver’s cab was damaged.

Benazir’s photo stared out from the side, watching the awful carnage impassively.

We'd been watching this motorcade earlier in the evening, and I remember thinking what an easy target it represented. It was moving at a walking pace, mobbed by thousands of people. There were nowhere near enough police to hold back the crowds. An attack seemed inevitable. All that surprised me was that it took so long for them to strike.

A full 10 hours after she landed, the carnival of Bhutto’s return had suddenly been transformed into a wretched, blood-soaked tableau.

In a lengthy press conference the next day, Benazir Bhutto tried to strike a defiant tone, talking about fighting for democracy and freedom, and resisting the extremists.

But her critics are furious at her refusal to heed police warnings and scale back her procession.

The editorial pages of the Dawn newspaper in Karachi raise similar questions. "It must be asked of the PPP leaders: Was the slow crawl necessary?" asks the main editorial.

A letter printed opposite puts it more bluntly: "Why was Ms. Bhutto allowed to proceed, putting so many lives in jeopardy? Was it so important to make a display of public strength for the benefit of western benefactors on whose nod Ms. Bhutto was returning, that the massacre of hundreds of people was considered an acceptable loss?"

These are questions which may damage her standing as the countdown begins to January’s parliamentary elections.

But Benazir Bhutto seems determined for her campaign to go ahead amid this taut atmosphere, with the very real threat of further attacks.

-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Ex-Beatle mania

Paul McCartney may have just given the performance of his lifetime, but if he did no one saw it.

Such was the secrecy cloaking the court proceedings as he and estranged wife Heather Mills tried to pick apart their failed marriage that the only information to leak out to the crowd of waiting journalists was that the ex-Beatle had been to the toilet. Twice.

Most had been expecting a perfunctory meeting, the details of the divorce having been thrashed out in months of a very public battle fought across front pages of Britain’s tabloid newspapers.

But hours after the pair entered the court building to argue over how McCartney’s multimillion-dollar fortune would be carved up, there was still no news.

As dusk followed a crimson sunset over London’s rooftops, the waiting press pack got increasingly jittery, jumping up at the slightest movement behind the courtroom railings in the hope of a glimpse of the unhappy couple.

The tortuous wait was also giving rise to tortuous puns as newspaper sub editors raided the Beatles back catalog for suitable song titles to use in headlines. (“We Can’t Work It Out,” and “The Long and Winding Road” duly appeared in print the following morning.)

Darkness arrived, but the lights of the courtroom burned on. Clearly things we’re going as badly inside as they were for those waiting glumly outside.

The moment, when it came, was an anti-climax. First McCartney then Mills sped past in separate cars, both triggering a ten second adrenaline rush of camera flashbulbs and breathless live reporting.

The photographs gave only a tiny insight into the day’s events. Mills was unseen, hiding beneath a blanket in a car with blanked out windows.

McCartney meanwhile, was seen with a half-smile on his face and one arm raised to reveal his wristwatch. Clearly he hasn’t quite lost everything.

-- From CNN's Barry Neild
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Countdown to death

Pause, rewind, stop, play: Instantly we’re back on the night of August 31, 1997, spirited in time through a web of security cameras to the final moments before Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash.

In the drab surroundings of London’s Royal Courts of Justice, it’s easy to get drawn back into the events of that night as the video footage reels along, showing second-by-second as Diana and her lover Dodi al Fayed try to escape a hotel besieged by paparazzi.

The video, shot by more than 30 cameras, was presented as evidence in the inquest into Diana’s death -- a drawn out court proceeding that began this week but is expected to last six months.

The plodding pace and the largely mundane images of security staff moving along hotel hallways seem a far cry from the near-hysterical outpouring of grief that followed the events of a decade ago. (Outside the courtroom, there is just one solitary fanatic dressed in a pin stripe suit, with the word “Diana” scrawled in blue across his forehead.)

Yet the tension builds as Inspector Paul Carpenter of the Metropolitan Police, the chief narrator of the video evidence, monotones the exact time of each event
-- the seconds inexorably counting down to the moment of death.

There’s a flicker of emotional relief when Henri Paul, the driver who also died in the car crash, is seen entering a toilet, the camera remaining focused on the
door. “He’s in there for two minutes and 10 seconds,” deadpans Carpenter, drawing a murmur of laughter.

Then we see the footage of Dodi and Diana making their exit through a rear entrance to the hotel. Having taken a service elevator, they pause behind a doorway waiting for the all-clear to dash to their car.

In the 10 minutes they wait with their backs to the camera, Dodi places his arm around Diana who, in perhaps the single most intimate moment between the couple captured on camera, briefly intertwines her fingers with his.

Viewed publicly for the first time, 10 years on, it’s an astonishing moment.

The woman who was a focus for almost the entire world’s media both before and after her death, forced to wait in a dreary corridor, and in that time very vividly displaying her affection for the man she died alongside.

Carpenter makes no comment on this, other than to continue his ominous countdown: "The time is now 16 minutes and 57 seconds past midnight."

Soon she would be dead.

-- From CNN's Barry Neild
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Video shows Myanmar beatings

We’d been trying to get the proof of what’s going on in Myanmar for days. CNN hasn’t been allowed into the country, so we’d been forced to rely on a secretive network of dissidents operating across the Thai-Myanmar border.

I’d spent hours on the phone and in front of my computer, talking to dozens of protesters. We’d established links with westerners as well, in the diplomatic community, among charities, aid organizations and holiday-makers.

Everything was pointing to atrocities against the pro-democracy movement, but little was backed up by hard and fast evidence. But then we got word that one dissident had obtained some incriminating footage showing riot police beating protesters as they were loaded into a truck.

We waited for agonizing hours for the video to arrive. It didn’t disappoint -- almost 10 minutes of footage showing a protest which ended with brutal beatings. It wasn't an atrocity, but it certainly was the most dramatic footage we’d seen so far.

Watch the video

The men and women, who got the material to us, have undoubtedly risked their lives. But what depresses me most is seeing those protesters loaded quietly into the trucks. The only sound: The mocking caws of ravens in the sky above. Where were they taken? What happened next? If the soldiers were willing to beat them in public, what would they do behind a prison wall?

And now the “G” word has made its first appearance in the deluge of e-mails I am receiving about Myanmar. It was not from a hysterical activist, but from a senior editor in CNN, wondering if genocide is now under way in Myanmar. The terrible thought, had been sparked by an upsetting e-mail from a monk, claiming to have witnessed hundreds of monks being beaten to death at a monastery. Genocide is defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction of an ethnic, religious or national group. It's the sort of definition that is pedantically debated in the U.N., while people are slaughtered in the world's trouble-spots.

Myanmar's Buddhist monks are now noticeably absent from the streets. Worried residents have contacted us saying the monks have all but disappeared in some parts of Yangon. Some are concerned they are being massacred, away from the camera-phones and bloggers who have kept the world informed about what’s going on. It’s a claim that, at present, is impossible to prove; impossible to believe even. But then I watch those pictures of police beating protesters ... and I wonder.

-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
So far and yet so close

An hour after leaving his office, the South Korean president arrives at the heavily-fortified border between the two Koreas. After stepping over brightly painted demarcation line, he gets into a car again and drives two-and-a-half hours to the North Korean capital.

The distance, or actually the lack of, never fails to amaze me every time I or anyone gets into a car to head to North Korea.

While stepping over the demarcation line, the South Korean president talked about bringing down the wall between the two Koreas. There may not be anything like the Berlin Wall between the two Koreas, but this trip proves once again just how high the "invisible wall" is.

Just a couple of symbolic examples:

No otherhead of state would make the type of trip the South Korean president is making into the North. His people have no idea what will be the official agenda for talks, no idea what the exact schedule for meetings will be. For that matter, no concrete idea who he will be meeting. Thus, the venue for the welcome ceremony was fixed only minutes before the president's motorcade arrived. The president also had no confirmation that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il would be there to greet him until just before his motorcade stopped and there he was!

Ant talk about your digital divide! The North Korean government is "graciously" allowing the South delegation of 300 to bring with them, 30 cell phones and use 12 Internet lines. South Korea is one of the world's most wired countries, and more than 90 percent of the population uses a cell phone! The South’s delegation itself includes the head of the world's leaders in this area, LG, and Samsung Electronics!

Can any two countries be so far apart, and yet, so, so close!

-- From Seoul bureau chief and correspondent Sohn Jie-Ae
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