U.S. Citizen Accused Of Plotting Terror Attacks In Armenia

[‘I have not had any group and do not have one, I have had an ideology, which the public has approved of’: interview with Robert Koorkian ]


Robert Koorkian, a.k.a., “RK”, a.k.a., “Martin Avagyan”

[Terrorist group – ‘Sasna Tsrer 2’ calls to burn properties of Republicans]

U.S. Citizen Accused Of Plotting Terror Attacks In Armenia

 

Armenia's National Security Service

Armenia’s National Security Service

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Authorities in Armenia have issued an arrest warrant for a U.S. citizen of Armenian descent who they claim plotted “terrorist attacks” against the South Caucasus nation’s senior state officials.

According to Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), they have asked security services in the United States to help them prevent the crimes allegedly planned by the unnamed individual residing in America.

In a statement released on Thursday, the NSS said the individual whom it identified as “R. K.” opened in September a Facebook account to promote a radical group campaigning for a violent overthrow of Armenia’s government. It said the account user posing as “Martin Avagyan” posted messages calling for bombings, arson attacks and even assassinations of Armenian government and law-enforcement officials that would destabilize the situation in the country and thus put “illegal pressure” on its government.

The group called Fighters for Justice (MHA) has also sought to recruit through the social media platform disgruntled Armenians willing to carry out such attacks, according to the NSS.

The security agency claimed that R.K. also actually “prepared for terrorist acts” through “accomplices” in Armenia. It said it is now taking measures to identify them.

The suspect has been formally charged under corresponding articles of the Armenian Criminal Code. A Yerevan court has allowed the NSS to arrest him or her pending investigation, said the statement.

“Given that the suspect is a U.S. citizen, resides in the U.S. and their place of residence has been established, Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General has forwarded this information to relevant U.S. bodies in order to prevent the planned crimes,” it added.

The Facebook page cited by the NSS contains numerous posts and reposts extremely critical of Armenia’s political leadership. One of them is a purported September 24 statement by Fighters for Justice (MHA) saying that the nationalist group will use “guerilla methods” to “punish the pillars of the ruling regime.” It said separately that senior figures of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia and police officers guilty of human rights abuses will be the “targets” of the campaign.

In a December 6 post, “Martin Avagyan” declared that the MHA has embarked on “the second phase of the armed struggle” launched by three dozen gunmen that seized a police station in Yerevan in July 2016. “Join the guerilla struggle, follow MHA statements and act accordingly,” it said.

The gunmen demanded that President Serzh Sarkisian free the jailed leader of their Founding Parliament opposition movement, Zhirayr Sefilian, and step down. They laid down their arms after a two-week standoff with security forces which left three police officers dead.

Later on Thursday, the Yerevan daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” identified the accused man as Robert Koorkian and posted an interview with him on its website. Koorkian did not deny opening the “Martin Avagyan” account but insisted that he never plotted any violence.

“I did not and do not have any group,” said the California resident. “What I have is thoughts which people like and which have terrified the authorities.”

“They say that they have a monopoly on beating up and torturing people, while I say no,”

Koorkian also told the paper that U.S. law-enforcement officers have already questioned him in connection with the Armenian arrest warrant. “Yes, they came and interrogated me, and I explained in detail the conditions of total dictatorship in which the people of Armenia live now,” he said, adding that the officers took no further action “for now.”

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Family of Murdered Maltese Journalist Facing Same Fate?

[Journalist Behind Panama Papers Leak, Blown Up in Her Car In Malta]

Enemies of the State – Ranier Fsadni

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

In its response to the Caruana Galizia family’s legal demands, the government has stopped just short of declaring the Caruana Galizias to be enemies of the State. It has accused the widower and sons of the murdered journalist of a one-sided contemptuous attack on the Maltese State, intended to undermine its sovereignty, credibility and authority nationally and internationally.

Which is rather close to what enemies of the State like to do, at least when getting started.

At the heart of accusation and counter-accusation lies the court case begun by the Caruana Galizias two days ago. The family want Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta removed from the investigation into the assassination. The family says his involvement could prejudice its chances of obtaining justice.

In the sights of the government, however, is a much longer charge sheet drawn up by the family’s British legal advisors, the major firm of Doughty Street Chambers. It’s a 22-page document that declares the family’s human rights have been systematically broken: Daphne Caruana Galizia had insufficient police protection in the last period of her life; her family’s rights have been given scant attention by the police since the murder; and the investigation is being compromised.

Although accusation and counter-accusation have received wide coverage, some public confusion about the issues remains. The government has treated the Caruana Galizias’ charges as grave, but many of the government’s own supporters have dismissed them as trivial: the carping of a family of divas, behaving like the unreasonable hotel guest who, having received emergency accommodation during a hurricane, complains about the absence of room service.

Well, is the Caruana Galizia family simply carping when it complains of not having a police liaison officer to keep them abreast of developments, and of learning new information through the media or Twitter?

The question arises because of a dual misunderstanding. One follows from the Doughty Street Chambers’ demand for an apology.

In legal terms that means an admission of wrongdoing. But a demand for an apology is often associated with complaints about customer service. It might thus appear that the family is throwing a hissy fit about proper communication channels, despite having seen an international investigation and three men arraigned for the execution of the murder.

In fact, the families of murder victims have rights with respect to proper handling of information (the same way that the families of deceased hospital patients have certain rights to information and privacy). But the more serious misunderstanding is another.

The Caruana Galizia family’s relation to the police is not just as victim of a crime. Each family member is also a potential murder target

In this case, the family’s relation to the police is not just as victim of a crime. Each family member is also a potential murder target. They could have access to the same information that probably (and here probability is enough) led to the assassination. It has been reported that Matthew, Andrew and Paul Caruana Galizia have been independently advised to stay away from Malta for the time being.

In other words, being kept informed by the police about developments in the case – certainly before the rest of the world knows about it – is essential to the family members’ security (or at least their sense of security). They need to know as much as they can, as quickly as possible. They are not carping about a missing luxury; they are distressed by life and death matters.

They also need to be able to interpret the police leaks to the press. The family has assumed these leaks were detrimental to the successful closure of the case (some leaks, for example, gave clues to where certain vital information might be). It’s possible that the police were actually using these leaks as part of an investigative strategy. But you can’t blame the family for fearing the worst.

It has declared that the police left it in the dark and did not acknowledge several communications. By the time the family turned down the offer of a meeting on November 30, relations had long deteriorated to outright mistrust.

It’s unsatisfactory for the government simply to dismiss this part of the accusations as a one-sided attack. If it blames Doughty Street Chambers for forming an opinion only on what the Caruana Galizia family said, then the police should state its version of the facts.

Was the Caruana Galizia family really left without a police liaison officer? Were its communications really ignored for long periods?

If true, is it usual for the families of murder victims not to have a liaison officer? Selecting the Caruana Galizia family for special treatment is one kind of failing; the routine absence of a liaison officer for anyone is another, particularly if the blame is to be shared with preceding administrations.

The government, however, reserved its ire for the demand that the remainder of the case be led by external, impartial investigators because, in the words of Doughty Street Chambers: “Agents of the State may have had direct involvement in [the] assassination. It is clear that State authorities bear responsibility for the death or that they are, or may be, in some way implicated.”

From this the government has correctly concluded that the family holds it in utter contempt (if that wasn’t clear enough already), although it’s not correct that the family is also showing contempt for the magisterial inquiry and the courts.

The family’s point is principally about the police investigation: the search for whoever ultimately ordered the murder. The family doesn’t trust the police to be impartial and objective if the trail leads to someone close to the government. The police has already shrugged off investigating such people, when suspicions of money-laundering were brought to its attention by the State’s financial intelligence agency.

The government comes to another two correct conclusions.

One is that the family is effectively saying that the Maltese police are disqualified from leading an impartial investigation. However, once more, it is not correct to assume the family is demanding the investigation is led by non-Maltese. A team led by a retired police commissioner like John Rizzo would also be an external investigation.

The second correct conclusion the government draws is that the credibility and sovereignty of the Maltese State is being called into question.

That is exactly what the Caruana Galizia family is doing. It is openly stating that it does not rule out that the person(s) who ordered the assassination is a key figure in the government. Nor does it count on the police pursuing the truth wherever it leads.

However, the Caruana Galizias are laying the blame for the loss of credibility and sovereignty of the Maltese State at the door of the government. It’s evident they believe that the State, and the sovereignty of its Constitution, have been undermined by crony appointments.

The fact it has hired a prominent international legal firm shows it’s not making that accusation lightly. The Caruana Galizia family isn’t attacking the Maltese State. It is simply declaring its belief that the State is no longer its own master; that it’s the creature of those who are meant to be its servants.

In fact, the family stopped just short of declaring the government an enemy of the State.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

North Korea says naval blockade would be ‘act of war’

North Korea says naval blockade would be ‘act of war’, vows action

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday warned it would take “merciless self-defensive” measures should the United States enforce a naval blockade, which Pyongyang sees as “an act of war”, the isolated nation’s state media said.

Citing a foreign ministry spokesman, the North’s KCNA news agency said a naval blockade would be a “wanton violation” of the country’s sovereignty and dignity.

U.S. President Donald Trump was taking an “extremely dangerous and big step towards the nuclear war” by seeking such a blockade, it added. It was not immediately clear what U.S. proposal the agency was referring to.

“Should the United States and its followers try to enforce the naval blockade against our country, we will see it as an act of war and respond with merciless self-defensive counter-measures as we have warned repeatedly,” the agency said.

Pentagon Gives MD Helicopters, Scan Eagle Drones in $120M US Aid to Lebanon

Scan Eagle UAV

MD Helicopters, Scan Eagle Drones in $120M US Aid to Lebanon

MD 530G Attack Helicopter

Lebanon will get six MD 530G light attack helicopters, six Scan Eagle drones and communication and night vision equipment under a United States government $120 million aid program.

The aid is intended to boost border security and counter-terrorism work, the US ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard said on Wednesday after she met Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, local media reported.

The United States has given the Lebanese Armed Forces more than $1.5bn in assistance over the past 10 years, the embassy said.

Washington said it hopes to strengthen the Lebanese army to stop the spread of violence over the border from neighboring Syria and help it become the sole military force defending the country.

Looking To Portugal For the Road Leading Out of the Opoid Crisis

Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it?

Since it decriminalised all drugs in 2001, Portugal has seen dramatic drops in overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime.

 

By

When the drugs came, they hit all at once. It was the 80s, and by the time one in 10 people had slipped into the depths of heroin use – bankers, university students, carpenters, socialites, miners – Portugal was in a state of panic.

Álvaro Pereira was working as a family doctor in Olhão in southern Portugal. “People were injecting themselves in the street, in public squares, in gardens,” he told me. “At that time, not a day passed when there wasn’t a robbery at a local business, or a mugging.”

The crisis began in the south. The 80s were a prosperous time in Olhão, a fishing town 31 miles west of the Spanish border. Coastal waters filled fishermen’s nets from the Gulf of Cádiz to Morocco, tourism was growing, and currency flowed throughout the southern Algarve region. But by the end of the decade, heroin began washing up on Olhão’s shores. Overnight, Pereira’s beloved slice of the Algarve coast became one of the drug capitals of Europe: one in every 100 Portuguese was battling a problematic heroin addiction at that time, but the number was even higher in the south. Headlines in the local press raised the alarm about overdose deaths and rising crime. The rate of HIV infection in Portugal became the highest in the European Union. Pereira recalled desperate patients and families beating a path to his door, terrified, bewildered, begging for help. “I got involved,” he said, “only because I was ignorant.”

In truth, there was a lot of ignorance back then. Forty years of authoritarian rule under the regime established by António Salazar in 1933 had suppressed education, weakened institutions and lowered the school-leaving age, in a strategy intended to keep the population docile. The country was closed to the outside world; people missed out on the experimentation and mind-expanding culture of the 1960s. When the regime ended abruptly in a military coup in 1974, Portugal was suddenly opened to new markets and influences. Under the old regime, Coca-Cola was banned and owning a cigarette lighter required a licence. When marijuana and then heroin began flooding in, the country was utterly unprepared.

Pereira tackled the growing wave of addiction the only way he knew how: one patient at a time. A student in her 20s who still lived with her parents might have her family involved in her recovery; a middle-aged man, estranged from his wife and living on the street, faced different risks and needed a different kind of support. Pereira improvised, calling on institutions and individuals in the community to lend a hand.

In 2001, nearly two decades into Pereira’s accidental specialisation in addiction, Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a local commission – a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker – about treatment, harm reduction, and the support services that were available to them.

The opioid crisis soon stabilised, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. The data behind these changes has been studied and cited as evidence by harm-reduction movements around the globe. It’s misleading, however, to credit these positive results entirely to a change in law.

Portugal’s remarkable recovery, and the fact that it has held steady through several changes in government – including conservative leaders who would have preferred to return to the US-style war on drugs – could not have happened without an enormous cultural shift, and a change in how the country viewed drugs, addiction – and itself. In many ways, the law was merely a reflection of transformations that were already happening in clinics, in pharmacies and around kitchen tables across the country. The official policy of decriminalisation made it far easier for a broad range of services (health, psychiatry, employment, housing etc) that had been struggling to pool their resources and expertise, to work together more effectively to serve their communities.

The language began to shift, too. Those who had been referred to sneeringly as drogados (junkies) – became known more broadly, more sympathetically, and more accurately, as “people who use drugs” or “people with addiction disorders”. This, too, was crucial.

It is important to note that Portugal stabilised its opioid crisis, but it didn’t make it disappear. While drug-related death, incarceration and infection rates plummeted, the country still had to deal with the health complications of long-term problematic drug use. Diseases including hepatitis C, cirrhosis and liver cancer are a burden on a health system that is still struggling to recover from recession and cutbacks. In this way, Portugal’s story serves as a warning of challenges yet to come.

Despite enthusiastic international reactions to Portugal’s success, local harm-reduction advocates have been frustrated by what they see as stagnation and inaction since decriminalisation came into effect. They criticise the state for dragging its feet on establishing supervised injection sites and drug consumption facilities; for failing to make the anti-overdose medication naloxone more readily available; for not implementing needle-exchange programmes in prisons. Where, they ask, is the courageous spirit and bold leadership that pushed the country to decriminalise drugs in the first place?


In the early days of Portugal’s panic, when Pereira’s beloved Olhão began falling apart in front of him, the state’s first instinct was to attack. Drugs were denounced as evil, drug users were demonised, and proximity to either was criminally and spiritually punishable. The Portuguese government launched a series of national anti-drug campaigns that were less “Just Say No” and more “Drugs Are Satan”.

Informal treatment approaches and experiments were rushed into use throughout the country, as doctors, psychiatrists, and pharmacists worked independently to deal with the flood of drug-dependency disorders at their doors, sometimes risking ostracism or arrest to do what they believed was best for their patients.

In 1977, in the north of the country, psychiatrist Eduíno Lopes pioneered a methadone programme at the Centro da Boavista in Porto. Lopes was the first doctor in continental Europe to experiment with substitution therapy, flying in methadone powder from Boston, under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, rather than the Ministry of Health. His efforts met with a vicious public backlash and the disapproval of his peers, who considered methadone therapy nothing more than state-sponsored drug addiction.

In Lisbon, Odette Ferreira, an experienced pharmacist and pioneering HIV researcher, started an unofficial needle-exchange programme to address the growing Aids crisis. She received death threats from drug dealers, and legal threats from politicians. Ferreira – who is now in her 90s, and still has enough swagger to carry off long fake eyelashes and red leather at a midday meeting – started giving away clean syringes in the middle of Europe’s biggest open-air drug market, in the Casal Ventoso neighbourhood of Lisbon. She collected donations of clothing, soap, razors, condoms, fruit and sandwiches, and distributed them to users. When dealers reacted with hostility, she snapped back: “Don’t mess with me. You do your job, and I’ll do mine.” She then bullied the Portuguese Association of Pharmacies into running the country’s – and indeed the world’s – first national needle-exchange programme.

A flurry of expensive private clinics and free, faith-based facilities emerged, promising detoxes and miracle cures, but the first public drug-treatment centre run by the Ministry of Health – the Centro das Taipas in Lisbon – did not begin operating until 1987. Strapped for resources in Olhão, Pereira sent a few patients for treatment, although he did not agree with the abstinence-based approach used at Taipas. “First you take away the drug, and then, with psychotherapy, you plug up the crack,” said Pereira. There was no scientific evidence to show that this would work – and it didn’t.

He also sent patients to Lopes’s methadone programme in Porto, and found that some responded well. But Porto was at the other end of the country. He wanted to try methadone for his patients, but the Ministry of Health hadn’t yet approved it for use. To get around that, Pereira sometimes asked a nurse to sneak methadone to him in the boot of his car.

Pereira’s work treating patients for addiction eventually caught the attention of the Ministry of Health. “They heard there was a crazy man in the Algarve who was working on his own,” he said, with a slow smile. Now 68, he is sprightly and charming, with an athletic build, thick and wavy white hair that bounces when he walks, a gravelly drawl and a bottomless reserve of warmth. “They came down to find me at the clinic and proposed that I open a treatment centre,” he said. He invited a colleague from at a family practice in the next town over to join him – a young local doctor named João Goulão.

Goulão was a 20-year-old medical student when he was offered his first hit of heroin. He declined because he didn’t know what it was. By the time he finished school, got his licence and began practising medicine at a health centre in the southern city of Faro, it was everywhere. Like Pereira, he accidentally ended up specialising in treating drug addiction.

A nurse hands out methadone to addicts in Lisbon.
A nurse hands out methadone to addicts in Lisbon. Photograph: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

The two young colleagues joined forces to open southern Portugal’s first CAT in 1988. (These kinds of centres have used different names and acronyms over the years, but are still commonly referred to as Centros de Atendimento a Toxicodependentes, or CATs.) Local residents were vehemently opposed, and the doctors were improvising treatments as they went along. The following month, Pereira and Goulão opened a second CAT in Olhão, and other family doctors opened more in the north and central regions, forming a loose network. It had become clear to a growing number of practitioners that the most effective response to addiction had to be personal, and rooted in communities. Treatment was still small-scale, local and largely ad hoc.

The first official call to change Portugal’s drug laws came from Rui Pereira, a former constitutional court judge who undertook an overhaul of the penal code in 1996. He found the practice of jailing people for taking drugs to be counterproductive and unethical. “My thought right off the bat was that it wasn’t legitimate for the state to punish users,” he told me in his office at the University of Lisbon’s school of law. At that time, about half of the people in prison were there for drug-related reasons, and the epidemic, he said, was thought to be “an irresolvable problem”. He recommended that drug use be discouraged without imposing penalties, or further alienating users. His proposals weren’t immediately adopted, but they did not go unnoticed.

In 1997, after 10 years of running the CAT in Faro, Goulão was invited to help design and lead a national drug strategy. He assembled a team of experts to study potential solutions to Portugal’s drug problem. The resulting recommendations, including the full decriminalisation of drug use, were presented in 1999, approved by the council of ministers in 2000, and a new national plan of action came into effect in 2001.

Today, Goulão is Portugal’s drug czar. He has been the lodestar throughout eight alternating conservative and progressive administrations; through heated standoffs with lawmakers and lobbyists; through shifts in scientific understanding of addiction and in cultural tolerance for drug use; through austerity cuts, and through a global policy climate that only very recently became slightly less hostile. Goulão is also decriminalisation’s busiest global ambassador. He travels almost non-stop, invited again and again to present the successes of Portugal’s harm-reduction experiment to authorities around the world, from Norway to Brazil, which are dealing with desperate situations in their own countries.

“These social movements take time,” Goulão told me. “The fact that this happened across the board in a conservative society such as ours had some impact.” If the heroin epidemic had affected only Portugal’s lower classes or racialised minorities, and not the middle or upper classes, he doubts the conversation around drugs, addiction and harm reduction would have taken shape in the same way. “There was a point whenyou could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’”

Portugal’s policy rests on three pillars: one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.

“The national policy is to treat each individual differently,” Goulão told me. “The secret is for us to be present.”


A drop-in centre called IN-Mouraria sits unobtrusively in a lively, rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood of Lisbon, a longtime enclave of marginalised communities. From 2pm to 4pm, the centre provides services to undocumented migrants and refugees; from 5pm to 8pm, they open their doors to drug users. A staff of psychologists, doctors and peer support workers (themselves former drug users) offer clean needles, pre-cut squares of foil, crack kits, sandwiches, coffee, clean clothing, toiletries, rapid HIV testing, and consultations – all free and anonymous.

On the day I visited, young people stood around waiting for HIV test results while others played cards, complained about police harassment, tried on outfits, traded advice on living situations, watched movies and gave pep talks to one another. They varied in age, religion, ethnicity and gender identity, and came from all over the country and all over the world. When a slender, older man emerged from the bathroom, unrecognisable after having shaved his beard off, an energetic young man who had been flipping through magazines threw up his arms and cheered. He then turned to a quiet man sitting on my other side, his beard lush and dark hair curling from under his cap, and said: “What about you? Why don’t you go shave off that beard? You can’t give up on yourself, man. That’s when it’s all over.” The bearded man cracked a smile.

During my visits over the course of a month, I got to know some of the peer support workers, including João, a compact man with blue eyes who was rigorous in going over the details and nuances of what I was learning. João wanted to be sure I understood their role at the drop-in centre was not to force anyone to stop using, but to help minimise the risks users were exposed to.

“Our objective is not to steer people to treatment – they have to want it,” he told me. But even when they do want to stop using, he continued, having support workers accompany them to appointments and treatment facilities can feel like a burden on the user – and if the treatment doesn’t go well, there is the risk that that person will feel too ashamed to return to the drop-in centre. “Then we lose them, and that’s not what we want to do,” João said. “I want them to come back when they relapse.” Failure was part of the treatment process, he told me. And he would know.

João is a marijuana-legalisation activist, open about being HIV-positive, and after being absent for part of his son’s youth, he is delighting in his new role as a grandfather. He had stopped doing speedballs (mixtures of cocaine and opiates) after several painful, failed treatment attempts, each more destructive than the last. He long used cannabis as a form of therapy – methadone did not work for him, nor did any of the inpatient treatment programmes he tried – but the cruel hypocrisy of decriminalisation meant that although smoking weed was not a criminal offence, purchasing it was. His last and worst relapse came when he went to buy marijuana from his usual dealer and was told: “I don’t have that right now, but I do have some good cocaine.” João said no thanks and drove away, but soon found himself heading to a cash machine, and then back to the dealer. After this relapse, he embarked on a new relationship, and started his own business. At one point he had more than 30 employees. Then the financial crisis hit. “Clients weren’t paying, and creditors started knocking on my door,” he told me. “Within six months I had burned through everything I had built up over four or five years.”

Addicts waiting for methadone at a mobile drug clinic in Lisbon.
Addicts waiting for methadone at a drug treatment project in Lisbon. Photograph: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

In the mornings, I followed the centre’s street teams out to the fringes of Lisbon. I met Raquel and Sareia – their slim forms swimming in the large hi-vis vests they wear on their shifts – who worked with Crescer na Maior, a harm-reduction NGO. Six times a week, they loaded up a large white van with drinking water, wet wipes, gloves, boxes of tinfoil and piles of state-issued drug kits: green plastic pouches with single-use servings of filtered water, citric acid, a small metal tray for cooking, gauze, filter and a clean syringe. Portugal does not yet have any supervised injection sites (although there is legislation to allow them, several attempts to open one have come to nothing), so, Raquel and Sareia told me, they go out to the open-air sites where they know people go to buy and use. Both are trained psychologists, but out in the streets they are known simply as the “needle girls”.

“Good afternoon!” Raquel called out cheerily, as we walked across a seemingly abandoned lot in an area called Cruz Vermelha. “Street team!” People materialised from their hiding places like some strange version of whack-a-mole, poking their heads out from the holes in the wall where they had gone to smoke or shoot up. “My needle girls,” one woman cooed to them tenderly. “How are you, my loves?” Most made polite conversation, updating the workers on their health struggles, love lives, immigration woes or housing needs. One woman told them she would be going back to Angola to deal with her mother’s estate, that she was looking forward to the change of scenery. Another man told them he had managed to get his online girlfriend’s visa approved for a visit. “Does she know you’re still using?” Sareia asked. The man looked sheepish.

“I start methadone tomorrow,” another man said proudly. He was accompanied by his beaming girlfriend, and waved a warm goodbye to the girls as they handed him a square of foil.

In the foggy northern city of Porto, peer support workers from Caso – an association run by and for drug users and former users, the only one of its kind in Portugal – meet every week at a noisy cafe. They come here every Tuesday morning to down espressos, fresh pastries and toasted sandwiches, and to talk out the challenges, debate drug policy (which, a decade and a half after the law came into effect, was still confusing for many) and argue, with the warm rowdiness that is characteristic of people in the northern region. When I asked them what they thought of Portugal’s move to treat drug users as sick people in need of help, rather than as criminals, they scoffed. “Sick? We don’t say ‘sick’ up here. We’re not sick.”

I was told this again and again in the north: thinking of drug addiction simply in terms of health and disease was too reductive. Some people are able to use drugs for years without any major disruption to their personal or professional relationships. It only became a problem, they told me, when it became a problem.

Caso was supported by Apdes, a development NGO with a focus on harm reduction and empowerment, including programmes geared toward recreational users. Their award-winning Check!n project has for years set up shop at festivals, bars and parties to test substances for dangers. I was told more than once that if drugs were legalised, not just decriminalised, then these substances would be held to the same rigorous quality and safety standards as food, drink and medication.


In spite of Portugal’s tangible results, other countries have been reluctant to follow. The Portuguese began seriously considering decriminalisation in 1998, immediately following the first UN General Assembly Special Session on the Global Drug Problem (UNgass). High-level UNgass meetings are convened every 10 years to set drug policy for all member states, addressing trends in addiction, infection, money laundering, trafficking and cartel violence. At the first session – for which the slogan was “A drug-free world: we can do it” – Latin American member states pressed for a radical rethinking of the war on drugs, but every effort to examine alternative models (such as decriminalisation) was blocked. By the time of the next session, in 2008, worldwide drug use and violence related to the drug trade had vastly increased. An extraordinary session was held last year, but it was largely a disappointment – the outcome document didn’t mention “harm reduction” once.

Despite that letdown, 2016 produced a number of promising other developments: Chile and Australia opened their first medical cannabis clubs; following the lead of several others, four more US states introduced medical cannabis, and four more legalised recreational cannabis; Denmark opened the world’s largest drug consumption facility, and France opened its first; South Africa proposed legalising medical cannabis; Canada outlined a plan to legalise recreational cannabis nationally and to open more supervised injection sites; and Ghana announced it would decriminalise all personal drug use.

The biggest change in global attitudes and policy has been the momentum behind cannabis legalisation. Local activists have pressed Goulão to take a stance on regulating cannabis and legalising its sale in Portugal; for years, he has responded that the time wasn’t right. Legalising a single substance would call into question the foundation of Portugal’s drug and harm-reduction philosophy. If the drugs aren’t the problem, if the problem is the relationship with drugs, if there’s no such thing as a hard or a soft drug, and if all illicit substances are to be treated equally, he argued, then shouldn’t all drugs be legalised and regulated?

Massive international cultural shifts in thinking about drugs and addiction are needed to make way for decriminalisation and legalisation globally. In the US, the White House has remained reluctant to address what drug policy reform advocates have termed an “addiction to punishment”. But if conservative, isolationist, Catholic Portugal could transform into a country where same-sex marriage and abortion are legal, and where drug use is decriminalised, a broader shift in attitudes seems possible elsewhere. But, as the harm-reduction adage goes: one has to want the change in order to make it.


When Pereira first opened the CAT in Olhão, he faced vociferous opposition from residents; they worried that with more drogados would come more crime. But the opposite happened. Months later, one neighbour came to ask Pereira’s forgiveness. She hadn’t realised it at the time, but there had been three drug dealers on her street; when their local clientele stopped buying, they packed up and left.

The CAT building itself is a drab, brown two-storey block, with offices upstairs and an open waiting area, bathrooms, storage and clinics down below. The doors open at 8.30am, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Patients wander in throughout the day for appointments, to chat, to kill time, to wash, or to pick up their weekly supply of methadone doses. They tried to close the CAT for Christmas Day one year, but patients asked that it stay open. For some, estranged from loved ones and adrift from any version of home, this is the closest thing they’ve got to community and normality.

“It’s not just about administering methadone,” Pereira told me. “You have to maintain a relationship.”

In a back room, rows of little canisters with banana-flavoured methadone doses were lined up, each labelled with a patient’s name and information. The Olhão CAT regularly services about 400 people, but that number can double during the summer months, when seasonal workers and tourists come to town. Anyone receiving treatment elsewhere in the country, or even outside Portugal, can have their prescription sent over to the CAT, making the Algarve an ideal harm-reduction holiday destination.

After lunch at a restaurant owned by a former CAT employee, the doctor took me to visit another of his projects – a particular favourite. His decades of working with addiction disorders had taught him some lessons, and he poured his accumulated knowledge into designing a special treatment facility on the outskirts of Olhão: the Unidade de Desabituação, or Dishabituation Centre. Several such UDs, as they are known, have opened in other regions of the country, but this centre was developed to cater to the particular circumstances and needs of the south.

A man receives clean syringes after being given methadone at a clinic in Lisbon.
A man receives clean syringes after being given methadone at a clinic in Lisbon. Photograph: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Pereira stepped down as director some years ago, but his replacement asked him to stay on to help with day-to-day operations. Pereira should be retired by now – indeed, he tried to – but Portugal is suffering from an overall shortage of health professionals in the public system, and not enough young doctors are stepping into this specialisation. As his colleagues elsewhere in the country grow closer to their own retirements, there’s a growing sense of dread that there is no one to replace them.

“Those of us from the Algarve always had a bit of a different attitude from our colleagues up north,” Pereira told me. “I don’t treat patients. They treat themselves. My function is to help them to make the changes they need to make.”

And thank goodness there is only one change to make, he deadpanned as we pulled into the centre’s parking lot: “You need to change almost everything.” He cackled at his own joke and stepped out of his car.

The glass doors at the entrance slid open to a facility that was bright and clean without feeling overwhelmingly institutional. Doctors’ and administrators’ offices were up a sweeping staircase ahead. Women at the front desk nodded their hellos, and Pereira greeted them warmly: “Good afternoon, my darlings.”

The Olhão centre was built for just under €3m (£2.6m), publicly funded, and opened to its first patients nine years ago. This facility, like the others, is connected to a web of health and social rehabilitation services. It can house up to 14 people at once: treatments are free, available on referral from a doctor or therapist, and normally last between eight and 14 days. When people first arrive, they put all of their personal belongings – photos, mobile phones, everything – into storage, retrievable on departure.

“We believe in the old maxim: ‘No news is good news,’” explained Pereira. “We don’t do this to punish them but to protect them.” Memories can be triggering, and sometimes families, friends and toxic relationships can be enabling.

To the left there were intake rooms and a padded isolation room, with clunky security cameras propped up in every corner. Patients each had their own suites – simple, comfortable and private. To the right, there was a “colour” room, with a pottery wheel, recycled plastic bottles, paints, egg cartons, glitter and other craft supplies. In another room, coloured pencils and easels for drawing. A kiln, and next to it a collection of excellent handmade ashtrays. Many patients remained heavy smokers.

Patients were always occupied, always using their hands or their bodies or their senses, doing exercise or making art, always filling their time with something. “We’d often hear our patients use the expression ‘me and my body’,” Pereira said. “As though there was a dissociation between the ‘me’ and ‘my flesh’.”

To help bring the body back, there was a small gym, exercise classes, physiotherapy and a jacuzzi. And after so much destructive behaviour – messing up their bodies, their relationships, their lives and communities – learning that they could create good and beautiful things was sometimes transformational.

“You know those lines on a running track?” Pereira asked me. He believed that everyone – however imperfect – was capable of finding their own way, given the right support. “Our love is like those lines.”

He was firm, he said, but never punished or judged his patients for their relapses or failures. Patients were free to leave at any time, and they were welcome to return if they needed, even if it was more than a dozen times.

He offered no magic wand or one-size-fits-all solution, just this daily search for balance: getting up, having breakfast, making art, taking meds, doing exercise, going to work, going to school, going into the world, going forward. Being alive, he said to me more than once, can be very complicated.

“My darling,” he told me, “it’s like I always say: I may be a doctor, but nobody’s perfect.”

A longer version of this piece appears on thecommononline.org. Research and travel for this piece were made possible by the Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award

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Central European Gas Hub explosion halts Russian gas transit to Austria

Central European Gas Hub explosion halts Russian gas transit to Austria

The blast that rocked the gas hub at Baumgarten in Austria has reportedly left one dead and several injured, forcing the operator OMV to shut the facility

MOSCOW, December 12. /TASS/. Transit deliveries of Russian gas to Austria via Slovakia are temporarily suspended because of the explosion on the gas hub near Baumgarten an der March (Lower Austria) occurred on Tuesday, Slovensky Rozhlas radio station said on Tuesday.

Gas deliveries to the Czech Republic are implemented in full scope, CTK news agency said at the same time.

Natural gas supplies to Austrian regions are implemented normally, Austria’s EAA Gruppe said in its turn.

“Provision of gas to Austria after the explosion in Baumgarten is taking place from reserves in Austrian gas storages. Enterprises of EAA Gruppe prudently accumulated large gas volumes for its consumers in required quantity,” press service of EAA Gruppe said.

The explosion on the territory of the gas hub resulted in a major fire and complete stoppage of gas transportation over this gas pipeline to other country, Fire and Rescue Service of Lower Austria region said on Tuesday. The explosion occurred because of a technical malfunction, the police said.

The number of people who were wounded in the result of the explosion on the territory of a gas distribution station of Austria’s OMV near Baumgarten an der March grew to 21 people, the local police reported.

“According to the latest information, 21 people were wounded, one of them is in serious condition, one person was killed,” the police said.

The contingency affected the largest Austrian gas terminal dealing with distribution of Russian gas in Europe. Causes of the incident are investigated.

Gas supplies to Italy

Gas supplies from Russia to Italy have been temporarily interrupted, but may be resumed later in the day, SNAM gas transportation company said on Tuesday.

“Snam informs that, following the accident at a stretch of the Austrian network managed by the operator Gas Connect, gas import flows from Russia have been temporarily interrupted. On the basis of the information currently available, supplies could resume today,” the report said.

Former Facebook Executive: ‘You Don’t Realize It, But You Are Being Programmed’

Former Facebook Executive: ‘You Don’t Realize It, But You Are Being Programmed’

 

chamath

A former Facebook executive, who openly admits to not using social media, has come out about the role he played in “ripping apart the fabric of society.”  Chamath Palihapitiya has publicly declared that he didn’t really understand “the consequences” of what he was doing.

This isn’t the first time a social media powerhouse has come forward with regret for helping create a social media platform either. Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, opened up about his regrets over helping create social media as we now know it last month. Parker has said that social media creates “a social-validation feedback loop” by giving people “a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.”

Palihapitiya, who worked for Facebook from 2005-2011, expressed his concerns during a recent public discussion at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He told the audience, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” 

“So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It [social media] is eroding the core foundation of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice president of user growth. “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because of the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” Parker said. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Palihapitiya, who is a millionaire thanks to his role in Facebook’s growth, also admitted it wasn’t about the Russian ads. We’ve done this damage to ourselves and fueled an addiction of sorts. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he told the audience said. “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem—this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.” And Palihapitiya admitted to feeling guilty for his role. “I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds—even though we feigned this whole line of, like, there probably aren’t any bad unintended consequences. I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of, we kind of knew something bad could happen. But I think the way we defined it was not like this.”

Palihapitiya said he doesn’t use social media because he “innately didn’t want to get programmed.” As for his kids: “They’re not allowed to use this sh*t.” That seemed to strike a nerve too.  Palihapitiya admitted that social media is “programming” the behaviors of users. “Your behaviors—you don’t realize it but you are being programmed. It was unintentional, but now you gotta decide how much you are willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence,” he told the students in the crowd. “And don’t think, ‘Oh yeah, not me, I’m fucking genius, I’m at Stanford.’ You’re probably the most likely to f*cking fall for it. ‘Cause you are f*cking check-boxing your whole Goddamn life.”

The consequences of a social media addiction were unknown until recently. Now, it certainly seems almost as harrowing as an alcohol addiction. With one in six Americans now on anti-depressants and desperately seeking attention through social media, could Palihapitiya be onto something? Has social media damaged the social fabric of our society?