Tuesday, March 31, 2009

KRouge prison chief asks victims for forgiveness

AFP - Tuesday, March 31

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - - Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch admitted responsibility for his crimes at his UN-backed trial and asked the families of the regime's victims for forgiveness.


"May I be permitted to apologise to the survivors of the regime and also the loved ones of those who died brutally during the regime. I ask not that you forgive me now, but hope you will later," Duch told the court.

"As a member of the (Khmer Rouge) I recognise responsibilty for what happened at Tuol Sleng," he said, speaking in Khmer language.

Prosecutors Tuesday gave harrowing details of the torture and execution of thousands of Cambodians as they laid their case against the Khmer Rouge regime's prison chief for the first time.

Inmates at the notorious jail run by Duch had their nails pulled out and electrodes attached to their genitals, while some were subjected to live autopsies or had the blood drained from them until they died, prosecutors said.

Only a handful of people are known to have survived Tuol Sleng prison, which is now a genocide museum lined with photographs of some of the more than 15,000 men, women and children who died there in the 1970s.

Prosecutors at Cambodia's long-delayed UN-backed tribunal said Kaing Guek Eav -- a former maths teacher also known as Duch -- played a central role as chief of the security apparatus for the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime.

"For 30 years, a whole generation of Cambodians have been struggling to get answers about their families' fates," Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang told the court, as Duch jotted notes in the dock.

"Today in this courtroom before the Cambodian people and the world, at long last this process begins and justice will be done."

During a brief recess, Tuol Sleng survivor Bou Meng told reporters video footage shown by prosecutors, which included a corpse chained to a bed, reminded him of how he lost his wife at the prison.

"I cannot forgive Duch because of my wife's life. I want to beat him to death, but I respect the law and now is the time to use it," said Bou Meng, who was spared because his skills as an artist were deemed useful to the regime.

International co-prosecutor Robert Petit said that people detained at Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, had been tortured "under the accused's direct orders and sometimes by his own hand."

"The policy was that no one could leave S21 alive," Petit told the court.

"Victims were beaten with rattan sticks and whips, electrocuted, had toenails and finger nails pulled out, were suffocated with plastic bags forcibly tied over their heads and were stripped naked and had their genitals electrocuted," Petit said.

"The accused has stated that beatings by a stick was used the most because other forms of torture took too much time."

Duch, 66, has denied personally torturing or executing prisoners but has taken responsibility for presiding over the prison in Phnom Penh. He is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder.

Duch, who faces life in jail, said he acted under orders from superiors in the Khmer Rouge, which rose to power as a spinoff from the conflict in Vietnam and emptied Cambodia's cities to take society back to a rural "Year Zero."

Up to two million people died during its nearly four years in power.

But Chea Leang contended that Duch himself played a central role, running the central prison and a nationwide network of 195 security centres, which systematically starved, tortured and executed hundreds of thousands of people.

"S21 formed an integral and indeed vital role in a widespread attack on the population of Cambodia. The accused's crimes were part of this attack," she added.

"Prisoners would be tortured until they confessed to being enemies, implicating their friends, colleagues, and neighbours, creating a new list of traitors to be arrested, tortured and smashed," she said.

Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998, and many in Cambodia believe the UN-sponsored tribunal is the last chance to bring those regime figures still alive to justice.

Duch himself is expected to address the court about his role and publicly ask forgiveness from Cambodians. He became a born-again Christian during the 1990s and was arrested in 1999 after years in hiding.

The tribunal was formed in 2006 after nearly a decade of wrangling between the United Nations and Cambodian government, and has faced controversy over allegations of corruption and political interference.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge fighter, has been accused of trying to protect the regime's former figures from facing justice.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Female vampire

ROME – An archaeological dig near Venice has unearthed the 16th-century remains of a woman with a brick stuck between her jaws — evidence, experts say, that she was believed to be a vampire. The unusual burial is thought to be the result of an ancient vampire-slaying ritual. It suggests the legend of the mythical bloodsucking creatures was tied to medieval ignorance of how diseases spread and what happens to bodies after death, experts said.

The well-preserved skeleton was found in 2006 on the Lazzaretto Nuovo island, north of the lagoon city, amid other corpses buried in a mass grave during an epidemic of plague that hit Venice in 1576.

"Vampires don't exist, but studies show people at the time believed they did," said Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University who studied the case over the last two years. "For the first time we have found evidence of an exorcism against a vampire."

Medieval texts show the belief in vampires was fueled by the disturbing appearance of decomposing bodies, Borrini told The Associated Press by telephone.

During epidemics, mass graves were often reopened to bury fresh corpses and diggers would chance upon older bodies that were bloated, with blood seeping out of their mouth and with an inexplicable hole in the shroud used to cover their face.

"These characteristics are all tied to the decomposition of bodies," Borrini said. "But they saw a fat, dead person, full of blood and with a hole in the shroud, so they would say: 'This guy is alive, he's drinking blood and eating his shroud.'"

Modern forensic science shows the bloating is caused by a buildup of gases, while fluid seeping from the mouth is pushed up by decomposing organs, Borrini said. The shroud would have been consumed by bacteria found in the mouth area, he said.

At the time however, what passed for scientific texts taught that "shroud-eaters" were vampires who fed on the cloth and cast a spell that would spread the plague in order to increase their ranks.

To kill the undead creatures, the stake-in-the-heart method popularized by later literature was not enough: A stone or brick had to be forced into the vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death, Borrini said.

That's what is believed to have happened to the woman found on the Lazzaretto island, which was used as a quarantine zone by Venice. Aged around 60, she died of the plague during the epidemic that also claimed the life of the painter Titian.

Much later, someone jammed the brick into her mouth when the grave was reopened. Borrini said that marks and breaks left by blunt instruments on several among more than 100 skeletons found by the archaeologists show that the grave was reused in a later epidemic.

Such a reconstruction of events is plausible, as is the link to the superstitions about "shroud-eaters," said Piero Mannucci, the vice president of the Italian Society of Anthropology and Ethnology.

"Maybe a priest or a gravedigger put the brick in her mouth, which is what was normally done in such cases," Mannucci said.

The anthropologist, who did not take part in Borrini's research, said that at a time when bacteria were unknown, such superstitions were a way for the terrified population to explain the waves of plague epidemics that killed millions during the Middle Ages. Jews were also often accused of spreading the disease.

Borrini said the discovery shows that vampires in popular culture were originally quite different from the elegant, aristocratic blood-drinker depicted in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula" and in countless Hollywood revisitations.

"The real vampire of tradition was different," he said. "It was just a decomposing body."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Da Vinci decoded

Da Vinci decoded - 2 March 2009

A drawing obscured by handwriting for five centuries in one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks may be a youthful self-portrait of the genius, according to Italian experts who 'aged' the sketch to compare it with confirmed later self-portraits.
A detail of the page of da Vinci's Codex Of The Flight Of Birds and a sketch made by Italian state TV channel RAI's graphic department are seen in this picture released on Saturday. Hidden under layers of thick writing, the sketch was spotted by Italian scientific journalist Piero Angela.



Building plan of City Hall

Ensconced within the National Archives, this blueprint was the work of municipal architect F.D. Meadows. Then known as the Municipal Building, City Hall was constructed from 1926 to 1929 and housed departments in charge of services such as water, electricity, gas, roads and street lighting.

The Singapore stone

A fragment of a large boulder about 3m high and 3m wide that originally stood at the entrance of the Singapore River, near present-day Fullerton Hotel.

Believed to date as far back as the 10th century, it bore an inscription which remains undeciphered to this day.

East Javanese-style gold ornaments

Housed in the National Museum, these precious artefacts, including an armlet and rings set with diamonds, were found at Fort Canning Hill in 1928 by labourers working on a reservoir.

The relics are proof that the island was under the political and cultural ambit of the East Java-based 14th-century kingdom of Majapahit.

Glass plate negatives by Percy Reginald Hill

A notable donation last year to the National Library from the family of the late Percy Reginald Hill, who worked as a chartered accountant in Singapore and Malaya during the early 20th century.

From photographs by Mr Hill, the 60 glass plate negatives show scenes of daily life in early Singapore and Malaya.

Portrait of Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham

Done by renowned artist John Singer Sargent in 1904, the portrait (left) of the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States adorns the National Museum and is a legacy from the Raffles Museum, its predecessor.

Singapore's national treasures - March 1 2009

Raffles' letters, books and paintings among heritage items
By Tan Dawn Wei

Among what could be deemed artefacts from once-sleepy olde Singapore would be the letters penned by Sir Stamford Raffles.

Imagine if these had been looted, auctioned to foreign buyers, and lost to the country forever.

Indeed, recent anger in China centred on the sale of two imperial Chinese cultural relics looted during the second Opium War in 1860. Last Wednesday, despite China's protests, the bronze rat and rabbit sculptures were sold by auction house Christie's for 28 million euros (S$55 million) to unidentified bidders at a Paris auction.

While Singapore is a young nation, what few artefacts it has are precious still.

Some of the Raffles Letters might have been looted if not for quick-witted action by its keepers. When Japanese soldiers occupied Singapore during World War II, private homes, businesses and public institutions were looted.

But keepers at the then-Raffles Library and Museum hid historical valuables. Sir Stamford's letters, for instance, were hidden in the museum's rafters.

Still, not much is known about what other cultural relics are still here - or out there.

'It could take years to compile a list,' said Dr Kevin Tan, president of the Singapore Heritage Society.

The National Heritage Board (NHB), which runs Singapore's main museums and is responsible for collecting, preserving and displaying the country's heritage assets, said it does not have ready information about Singapore's cultural relics in foreign hands.

But many heritage items important to Singapore are safely here, thanks to successful acquisitions.

A sizeable and rare collection of Raffles' letters, books and artefacts came back to Singapore after it was put up for sale by London-based rare books dealer Maggs Bros on behalf of an anonymous seller.

Prominent businessman Tang Wee Kit of the CK Tang family snapped up this precious collection in two separate sales in London in 2004 and 2005, forking out £560,000.

In 1995, Mr Goh Geok Khim, founder of stockbroking giant, GK Goh Securities, bought a collection of 477 paintings accumulated by William Farquhar, Singapore's first Resident.

He donated the collection, worth $3 million then and purchased through Sotheby's, to the then-Singapore History Museum.

The National Library Board (NLB) has also bought four letters, signed by Raffles, from the open market for an undisclosed sum.

Neither NHB nor NLB would divulge their acquisition budgets. But it has been reported that the total acquisition budget for all the museums was $3million in 2007.

According to NHB's annual report, its acquisitions from government and non-government grants amounted to $5.6 million in the last financial year while donations were valued at $2.3 million. It now has more than 100,000 artefacts, either bought, donated or on loan.

The library has a rare materials collection with more than 6,000 items, mostly 19th- and early 20th-century publications issued by Singapore's earliest printing presses.

'We do our due diligence, when acquiring important items, by checking to ensure that they are not stolen, for example, on Interpol's stolen art register, and also declaring our interest to acquire, to the heritage authorities in the country of origin,' said Dr Kenson Kwok, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum.


Footprints that are 1.5 million years old

WASHINGTON: - Footprints uncovered in Kenya show that as early as 1.5 million years ago, an ancestral species - almost certainly Homo erectus - had already evolved the feet and walking gait of modern humans.

An international team of scientists, in a report published yesterday in the American journal Science, said that the well-defined prints in an eroding bluff east of Lake Turkana 'provided the oldest evidence of an essentially modern humanlike foot anatomy'.

The experts said the find also added to evidence that painted a picture of Homo erectus as the prehumans who took long evolutionary strides - figuratively and, now it seems, also literally.

Where the individuals who made the tracks were going, or why, is beyond knowing by the cleverest scientists.

The variability of the separation between some steps, researchers said, suggests that they were picking their way over an uneven surface, muddy enough to leave a mark - an unintended message from an extinct species for the contemplation of its descendants.