AAA Mich.: Gas prices down 9 cents from last week

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — AAA Michigan says gasoline prices have fallen roughly 9 cents during the past week to a statewide average of about $ 3.24 per gallon.

The auto club said Monday the average is about 28 cents per gallon less than last year at this time.

Of the Michigan cities it surveys, AAA Michigan said the cheapest price for self-serve unleaded fuel is in the Saginaw and Bay City areas, where it’s about $ 3.11 a gallon. The highest average is in the Ann Arbor area at about $ 3.29.

Dearborn-based AAA Michigan surveys 2,800 Michigan gas stations daily.

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Why Al Jazeera deal doesn't seem right


  • Al Gore sold Current to al Jazeera and could net an estimated $70 million

  • Howard Kurtz: Gore's Current network failed to gain an identity or viewers

  • He says it's odd that the former vice president is selling to an oil-rich potentate

  • Kurtz: Al Jazeera may have a tough time getting traction with U.S. viewers

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- So Al Gore starts a liberal cable network, which turns into a complete and utter flop, then sells it to a Middle East potentate in a deal that will bring him an estimated $70 million.

Is America a great country or what?

There is something highly unusual -- OK, just plain weird -- about a former vice president of the United States doing this deal with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz

Al Jazeera, owned by said emir's government, is trying to buy its way into the American television market by purchasing Current TV for a half billion dollars. The only thing stranger would be if Gore had sold Current to Glenn Beck -- oh wait, Beck did try to buy it and was told no way within 15 minutes.

So the sale was in part about ideology, which opens the door to examining why Gore believes Al Jazeera gives "voice to those who are not typically heard" and speaks "truth to power."

Bill O'Reilly, on Fox News, calls the network "anti-American." Fox pundit Dick Morris says Gore has sold to a fount of "anti-Israel propaganda." Such labels are rooted in the network's role during the height of the war on terror, when it aired smuggled videos of Osama bin Laden and was denounced by Bush administration officials.

Watch: How Lance Armstrong lied to me about doping

But Al Jazeera English, the spinoff channel launched in 2006, doesn't have the same reputation. In fact, no less a figure than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has praised it as "real news," and the channel has won journalism awards for its reporting on the Arab Spring and other global events.

To be sure, the main Al Jazeera network gives a platform to such figures as Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He's the Muslim cleric in Egypt who, The Washington Post gas reported, frequently appears on air to castigate Jews and America and has praised suicide bombings. But when I went to the home page of Al Jazeera English the other day, there was video of David Frost, the acclaimed British journalist who now works for the main network, interviewing Israeli President Shimon Peres.

That's not to say Al Jazeera America, the working name for the new channel, won't have its own biases. Al Jazeera English is sometimes determined to paint the U.S. in a negative light.

During a report on President Barack Obama signing a renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which entails a legitimate controversy over civil liberties, the reporter said flatly that the law "violate(s) U.S. constitutional rights in the name of national security."

Watch: Can Al Jazeera make it in the American market?

Dave Marash, the ABC News veteran who once worked for Al Jazeera English, told me the network has a "post-colonial" view of America and its stories can be infused with that attitude.

And there are real questions about how independent these channels are from the Qatar government that helps bankroll them. The director-general of Al Jazeera, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, is a member of the country's royal family and has no background in journalism.

Such details add to the odd spectacle of the ex-veep, who would have been running Mideast policy had he won a few more votes in Florida, selling -- and some say selling out -- to the emir. Not to mention that the crusader against climate change is taking petrodollars from an empire built on oil, the bete noire of environmentalists.

Watch: Hey Fox, Hillary Clinton was sick after all

But what is Al Jazeera buying? The network is going to have a tough time cracking the American market.

Its earlier reputation makes the company highly controversial, and other cable carriers might follow the lead of Time Warner Cable (which is no longer owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner) in refusing to carry it. These carriers agreed to air Current TV, after all, and contracts generally require them to approve a major change in programming.

Global politics aside, it may just be bad business. There's a reason Al Jazeera English, which will supply 40% of the content to the new channel, has barely gotten a foothold in the United States. Most Americans aren't lusting for a steady diet of international news.

Watch: Did Nancy Pelosi go too far in photoshopping picture of congresswomen?

There's no denying that Gore, a onetime newspaper reporter who had testy relations with the press during his 2000 campaign, presided over a lousy cable channel. No one quite knew what Current was during the years when it aired mostly low-rent entertainment fare and was famous mainly for North Korea taking two of its correspondents, including Lisa Ling's sister Laura, into custody.

Then Gore tried to relaunch it as a talking head channel to the left of MSNBC, hiring Keith Olbermann -- a relationship that ended with his firing and mutual lawsuits -- along with the likes of Eliot Spitzer and Jennifer Granholm, former Michigan governor. Gore himself offered commentary during major political events.

It was the utter failure of that incarnation of Current that prompted Gore and co-founder Joel Hyatt to put the thing up for sale.

Some detractors have slammed Gore for hypocrisy because, while he has advocated higher taxes on the rich, he tried to get the Al Jazeera deal done by December 31 to avoid the Obama tax hike. (The sale didn't close until January 2.) I don't see a problem trying to legally take advantage of changes in the tax code, no matter what your political stance.

Nor do I want to prejudge Al Jazeera America. The marketplace will decide its fate.

But there is something unsettling about Gore making off with such a big payday from a government-subsidized channel after making such bad television. Nice work if you can get it.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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Magical run for Irish ends in rout

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — On a flawless South Florida night, Notre Dame players saw a legend emerge in present time. To their bone-deep disbelief, it was not them.

The eruption of confetti and joy surrounded them, and their shock and desolation filled the spaces in between. A program lost for a quarter-century might not be directionless, but the top looked far away from here.

A moment the Irish believed they were meant to have, a perfect season driven toward this, ended in a quiet walk out of sight and into another year of what might be. Alabama is the national champion, again, the SEC's marauding run extended to a seventh straight year with a 42-14 humiliation of Notre Dame on Monday, the Irish's first loss also their most excruciating.

Twenty-four years since that last title in 1988, and 24 years spent wandering through losses and death and empty promise. The light at the end of it all was that crystal football hoisted skyward. It remained far, far beyond their grasp at Sun Life Stadium and claimed by a different reborn college football dynasty.

It was an oppressive deluge of unprepared and nerve-racked play from the start, the most yards surrendered by Notre Dame (13-1) all year and the most points surrendered by Notre Dame in a bowl game ever. Eddie Lacy rampaged for 140 yards, AJ McCarron threw for 264 and four touchdowns and Alabama (13-1) did, basically, whatever it wanted.

Alabama players called a meeting shortly after their arrival in Florida, and some mused that it reflected a fracture in the focus of the defending champs. But the stoicism the Crimson Tide demonstrated all week turned out to be determination to kick the ever-loving tar out of the Irish on Monday.

It required Alabama only five plays to find the end zone. Lacy was the sledgehammer — and the Irish helped by leaning into the swing with two penalties — and it was 7-0 after the longest touchdown drive and the first first-quarter touchdown allowed by Notre Dame all season.

The Irish's answer was a three-and-out. Then it was more Lacy and more evisceration, with the junior's 20-yard run setting up a 3-yard McCarron touchdown pass to tight end Michael Williams to make it 14-0. Then another punt, then more curb-stomping, this time 25-yard and 28-yard McCarron completions setting up a T.J. Yeldon touchdown run.

One play into the second quarter, Alabama had evacuated nearly all hope from the building for Notre Dame. It was a 21-0 lead, arrived at brutally, with special indifference to destiny and fortune. Alabama was destroying everything Notre Dame built over a brilliant season, stomping validation into a million little pieces.

Just before halftime, McCarron clinically moved Alabama down the field, lofting a 27-yard pass to Christion Jones and then dumping one off to Lacy, who spun and spun and rumbled into the end zone for a 28-0 lead. The resilient Irish had no answers, the stout defense had no chance.

There was a flicker of promise to begin the second half, and Alabama safety HaHa Clinton-Dix snuffed it out with an acrobatic interception. From there, a bad night for the Irish defense got worse. Alabama started a 92-yard march that ended with McCarron hitting a completely uncovered Amari Cooper for 34 yards and a 35-0 lead.

Notre Dame finally responded with an 85-yard drive to an Everett Golson 2-yard option keeper for a touchdown to make it 35-7, ending the Tide's 108-minute shutout streak in BCS championship appearances. When McCarron answered with another scoring toss to Cooper, all that was left was getting out alive and figuring where to go from here.

After that last title in 1988, won by another unlikely champion in the third year of an energizing coach's tenure, the pall descended. After Lou Holtz, it was Bob Davie and George O'Leary's resume and Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis' decided schematic advantage, and it was nothing but false positives and failed plans.

Then Brian Kelly arrived in the winter of 2009. If the cloud lifted, it was still hazy at times. There was Matt James and Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg and sideline tirades and temporary fractures in the locker room amid two passable eight-win seasons. There was no definable reason to expect a title run to happen this year, and then it did.

It seemed, regardless of the outcome Monday, Notre Dame might be a fully functional college football leviathan humming along. Then came the mighty Tide and a dent in the validation. The Irish making it this far proves a great deal. The Irish absorbing such a bracing setback means they must prove much more.

So off they went, dazed and empty-handed. All around them the new college football dynasty celebrated. All around them, Notre Dame saw what it desperately wanted to become.

Off they went, into the tunnels, a brilliant season ending well short of legend. And the Irish would do what everyone before them had done for a quarter-century, and wake up in the morning just waiting to get back.

Twitter @ChiTribHamilton

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Ex-governor in North Korea with Google chief; seeks American's release

SEOUL (Reuters) - Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt began a controversial private mission to North Korea on Monday that will include an effort to secure the release of an imprisoned American.

The trip comes after North Korea carried out a long-range rocket test last month and as, according to satellite imagery, the reclusive state continues work on its nuclear testing facilities, potentially paving the way for a third nuclear bomb test.

Footage from North Korean state television showed Richardson and Schmidt at the Pyongyang airport on Monday evening.

"We are going to ask about the American who's been detained. A humanitarian private visit." Richardson said.

Richardson's efforts to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour guide who was detained last year will mark the latest in a series of high-profile visits over the years to free Americans detained by Pyongyang.

The delegation comprised Schmidt, his daughter, Richardson and Google executive Jared Cohen, according to South Korean news media and it arrived in Pyongyang on a flight from the Chinese capital, Beijing.

The mission has been criticized by the United States due to the sensitivity of the timing. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and the isolated and impoverished state remains technically at war with U.S. ally South Korea.

"We continue to think the trip is ill-advised," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington. Last week she said the main U.S. objection was that the trip came so soon after North Korea's much-criticized December 12 rocket launch.

South Korea is in the midst of a transition to a new president who will take office in February, while Japan, another major U.S. ally in the region, has a new prime minister.

A U.S. official said the trip's timing was particularly bad from the Obama administration's point of view because it comes as the U.N. Security Council ponders how to respond to the North Korean missile launch.

"We are in kind of a classical provocation period with North Korea. Usually, their missile launches are followed by nuclear tests," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"During these periods, it's very important that the international community come together, certainly at the level of the U.N. Security Council, to demonstrate to North Korea that they pay a price for not living up to their obligations."

Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has made numerous trips to North Korea in the past that have included efforts to free detained Americans. The reasons for Schmidt's involvement in the trip are not clear, though Google characterized it as "personal" travel.

Schmidt did not respond to requests for comment.

Richardson told CBS television last Friday that he had been contacted by Bae's family and that he would raise the issue while in North Korea.

Pyongyang's most notable success was securing a visit from former President Bill Clinton in 2009 to win the release of two American journalists.

Last year, Jared and Schmidt met defectors from North Korea, a state that ranks bottom in an annual survey of Internet and press freedom by Reporters Without Borders.

Media reports and think tanks say that officials from the North Korean government went to Google's headquarters in 2011, something the U.S. technology giant declined to comment on.

(Additional reporting by Cho Meeyoung and WASHINGTON Bureau; Editing by Michael Perry, Ron Popeski and David Brunnstrom)

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RG3 hurt, Seattle tops Redskins 24-14 in playoffs

LANDOVER, Md. (AP) — Russell Wilson raced ahead to throw the final block on Marshawn Lynch's fourth-quarter, go-ahead touchdown run, doing just enough to get in the way of the Washington Redskins safety near the goal line.

Less than a minute later, Robert Griffin III's knee buckled as he tried to field a bad shotgun snap, the pain so bad that he didn't even try to recover the ball.

The last rookie quarterback standing in the NFL playoffs is Wilson — the third-round pick who teamed with Lynch on Sunday to lead the Seattle Seahawks to a 24-14 victory over Griffin and the Redskins.

"Marshawn always tells me, 'Russ, I got your back, no matter what,'" Wilson said. "So I just try to help him out every once in a while."

And the latest debate over the wisdom of keeping an injured franchise player on the field — when he's obviously nowhere near his best — starts with coach Mike Shanahan, who let Griffin keep going until the QB could absolutely go no more.

"I think I did put myself at more risk," Griffin said. "But every time you get on the field, you're putting yourself on the line."

Lynch ran for 132 yards, and Wilson completed 15 of 26 passes for 187 yards and ran eight times for 67 yards as Seahawks overcame a 14-0 first-quarter hole — their biggest deficit of the season — and will visit the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons next Sunday.

Meanwhile, Griffin was headed for an MRI exam to determine the extent of the damage on his re-injured right knee. He was already playing with a big black brace, having sprained the lateral collateral ligament about a month ago against the Baltimore Ravens. He hadn't looked his usual self in the two games he had played since, and he was obviously hobbled after falling awkwardly while throwing an incomplete pass in the first quarter Sunday.

In the fourth quarter, Griffin labored on a 9-yard run that made him look 32 years old instead of 22.

"He said, 'Hey, trust me. I want to be in there, and I deserve to be in there,'" Shanahan said. "I couldn't disagree with him."

Shanahan said he'll probably second-guess himself over his decision. He has the entire offseason to do so. And, whatever the injury, Griffin at least has time to recover.

Wilson, on the other hand, will carry on. The day began with three rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs, but No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck was eliminated when Indianapolis lost to Baltimore.

Seattle is riding a six-game winning streak, having left behind any doubts that the team can hold its own outside the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks were 3-5 on the road in the regular season and had lost eight straight road playoff games, the last win coming in 1983 against the Miami Dolphins.

"It was only two touchdowns, but it's still a big comeback and, in this setting and the crowd, it's a marvelous statement about the guys' resolve and what is going on," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "It's not about how you start but how you finish."

Seattle's defense shut down the Redskins after a rough start. Washington had 129 yards in the first quarter and 74 for the rest of the game. Griffin was 6 for 9 for 68 yards and two touchdowns after 15 minutes; he was 4 for 10 for 16 yards with one interception the rest of the way.

"It was hard to watch RG3 tonight," Carroll said. "It was hard on him. He was freaking gallant."

The numbers were reversed for the Seahawks, who rediscovered Lynch in the second quarter and put together three consecutive scoring drives to pull within a point, 14-13, at halftime.

Steven Hauschka, who injured his left calf during the first half and had to relinquish kickoff duties, nevertheless sandwiched field goals of 32 and 29 yards around a 4-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Michael Robinson. Wilson fumbled on the TD drive, but the ball was fortuitously scooped up by Lynch, who ran for a 19-yard gain.

The Seahawks controlled the second half, but then it was Lynch's turn to fumble — at Washington's 1-yard line. The Redskins recovered this one, and the Seahawks had another drive get to Washington's 28 before a sack forced a punt — rather than a long field goal attempt by an injured kicker.

But the Seahawks kept coming. Wilson led the way for two big change-of-direction runs by Lynch in the game, the second one a 27-yard scoring run with 7:08 remaining.

A 2-point conversion gave the Seahawks a 21-14 lead, and then came the moment that essentially put the outcome to rest.

On the second play of the Redskins' next possession, Griffin's knee bent the wrong way on a second-and-22 at the Washington 12. He lay on the ground as the Seahawks pounced on the ball.

Griffin walked off the field under his own power, but he was done for the night. By the end of the game, he was sitting alone on the white sideline bench, his brace discarded on a bench next to him.

With good field position, the Seahawks kicked a short field goal to give them the insurance they needed. Fellow rookie Kirk Cousins, subbing for Griffin, was unable to rally the Redskins in the final minutes.

"Despite the fact that we have a 'nobody' team," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said, "a team not full of first-rounders and things like that, we have a lot of guys that play at a high level."

NOTES: DE Chris Clemons, Seattle's best pass rusher, hurt his left knee in the third quarter and did not return. He will undergo an MRI. "We're concerned about it," Carroll said. ... Redskins LG Kory Lichtensteiger re-injured his sprained left ankle in the first quarter. ... The playoff meeting between the two teams was the third, but first outside Seattle. The Seahawks won 20-10 in January 2006, and 35-14 in January 2008. Those were the last two postseason games played by the Redskins. ... Redskins LT Trent Williams shoved Sherman in the face as the teams met on the field after the final whistle. "It was a dirty move by Trent Williams," Sherman said. "I can understand why he's frustrated; it's the end of their season." Williams took responsibility and said he acted in an "immature manner." Later, Sherman tweeted that he received "a very classy text" message from Williams and there's "no ill will either way."


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Asian shares drift, Basel ruling supports banks

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Asian stocks drifted on Monday as investors booked profits from a New Year rally that had pushed markets to multi-month highs, but financial stocks gained after global regulators decided to relax draft plans for tough new bank liquidity rules.

Commodity prices mostly held firm, supported by data showing the U.S. economy continuing on a path of slow but steady recovery that propelled Wall Street stocks to a five-year high.

The dollar sat close to a two-and-a-half-year high against the yen as investors adjusted to the possibility of more monetary stimulus in 2013 from the Bank of Japan and less from the U.S. Federal Reserve.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus>, which had reached its highest level since August 2011 on Thursday, was flat, while Tokyo's Nikkei share average <.n225> retreated after touching a 23-month high in early trade to stand down 0.2 percent. <.t/>

"Investors have been carefully waiting for the timing to take profits as they believed the market can't keep rising," said Yutaka Miura, a senior technical analyst at Mizuho Securities.


The MSCI benchmark's financial sector sub-index <.miapjfn00pus> gained 0.5 percent after the Basel Committee of banking supervisors agreed on Sunday to give banks four more years and greater flexibility to build up cash buffers so they can use some of their reserves to help struggling economies.

HSBC Holdings Hong Kong shares rose 1.3 percent, while Australia and New Zealand Banking Corp gained 0.6 percent. <.hk><.ax/>

Shares in Japanese exporters were supported by a weaker yen, which traded around 88.05 to the dollar, a little firmer on the day, after the U.S. currency rose as far as 88.40 yen, its highest in nearly two-and-a-half years, on Friday.

The dollar posted a gain of around 2.7 percent against the yen last week, its biggest weekly rise in more than a year. Its gains had accelerated after minutes from the Federal Reserve's December meeting showed some policymakers has mulled ending the Fed's bond-buying program as early as this year.

By contrast, many investors are now betting that Japan's new government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will push to weaken the yen and drive through aggressive fiscal stimulus, and pressure the Bank of Japan to do the same on the monetary side.

The dollar ticked up slightly against the euro, which traded around $1.3060.

The U.S. benchmark S&P 500 index <.spx> closed at its highest level since December 2007 on Friday after data showed a steady pace of jobs growth and brisk expansion of the services sector in the world's biggest economy.

That offered support to growth-sensitive commodities, with copper edging up 0.2 percent to around $8,100 a tonne, while Brent crude oil gained 0.2 percent to around $111.50 a barrel and U.S. crude stood flat just above $93.

(Editing by Eric Meijer)

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Biofuels cause pollution, not as green as thought – study

OSLO (Reuters) – Green schemes to fight climate change by producing more bio-fuels could actually worsen a little-known type of air pollution and cause almost 1,400 premature deaths a year in Europe by 2020, a study showed on Sunday.

The report said trees grown to produce wood fuel – seen as a cleaner alternative to oil and coal – released a chemical into the air that, when mixed with other pollutants, could also reduce farmers’ crop yields.

“Growing biofuels is thought to be a good thing because it reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” said Nick Hewitt, who worked on the study with colleagues from England’s Lancaster University.

“What we’re saying is ‘yes, that’s great, but biofuels could also have a detrimental effect on air quality’,” he added.

The report, in the journal Nature Climate Change, looked into the impact of a European Union scheme to slow climate change by producing more biofuels.

Hewitt told Reuters there would be a similar impact wherever biofuels were produced in large quantities in areas suffering air pollution, including the United States and China.

Poplar, willow or eucalyptus trees, all used as fast-growing sources of renewable wood fuel, emit high levels of the chemical isoprene as they grow, the study said. Isoprene forms toxic ozone when mixed with other air pollutants in sunlight.

“Large-scale production of biofuels in Europe would have small but significant effects on human mortality and crop yields,” said Hewitt.

“As far as we know, no one has looked at the air quality of growing biofuel crops before,” he added.

The report estimated that ozone from wood-based energy to meet the European Union’s 2020 goal would cause nearly 1,400 premature deaths a year, costing society $ 7.1 billion.

The European plan would also would reduce the annual value of wheat and maize production by $ 1.5 billion since ozone impairs crop growth, the study added.


Siting new biofuel plantations far away from polluted population centres would help limit ozone formation, the study suggested. Genetic engineering might be used to reduce isoprene emissions, it said.

Ozone can cause lung problems and is blamed for killing about 22,000 people a year in Europe. Overall air pollution, mainly from fossil fuels, causes about 500,000 premature deaths in Europe a year, according to the European Environment Agency.

Sunday’s study did not compare the potential damage caused by biofuels to the impact on human health from producing coal, oil or natural gas as part of policies to slow global warming. “We’re not in a position to make that comparison,” Hewitt said.

He noted that the main reason to shift to biofuels was to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, mainly from fossil fuels, that U.N. studies project will become ever more damaging this century.

The United Nations’ World Health Organization estimates global warming has caused more than 140,000 deaths annually worldwide since the 1970s.

The biggest impact was recorded in developing nations where the floods, droughts and other disasters blamed on climate change left millions suffering from diarrhea, malnutrition, malaria and dengue fever.

Burning biofuels is viewed as neutral for climate change because plants soak up carbon when they grow and release it when they burn or rot. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, add carbon to the atmosphere from underground stores millions of years old.

Biofuels are often blamed for causing food price spikes by competing for cropland. Responding to such criticisms, the European Commission said last year it aimed to limit crop-based biofuels – such as from maize or sugar – to five percent of transport fuels.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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U.S. isn't ready for superstorms

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy

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Chicago Ridge fire official put on leave after attack charges

A Chicago Ridge fire official has been charged in a Tinley Park home invasion that has rattled neighbors. CBS 2's Dana Kozlov reports.

A Chicago Ridge deputy fire chief Sunday evening was being held on $150,000 bond after prosecutors alleged that he broke into a neighbor's home wearing a ski mask and carrying a knife.

Gary Swiercz, 49, of the 8100 block of West 168th Place in Tinley Park, has been charged with attempted murder, home invasion, aggravated unlawful restraint, aggravated attempted criminal sexual assault and residential burglary, authorities said.

Cook County Circuit Judge Adam Bourgeois Jr. also ordered electronic monitoring if Swiercz posts bail.

Swiercz, who has been with the department for about 24 years, was placed on paid leave Saturday, Chicago Ridge Mayor Gene Siegel said. Swiercz started in the department as a firefighter, earning the rank of deputy chief about five years ago, the mayor said.

"I am surprised and shocked and do extend our best wishes to the victim," Siegel said. "That was an awful thing that she had to endure.

"There was never anything in his history that would make you think something like this would happen," he added. "I don't think there was any indication that something was wrong … It's really weird and hard to believe that this happened. That he could have done something like this."

Swiercz allegedly broke into the home of a woman in his condo building early Saturday while wearing a ski mask and carrying a folding knife. He also had duct tape, rope, a sex toy and lubricant, Assistant State's Attorney Dan Calandriello said in court.

Prosecutors alleged during a bond hearing that Swiercz put his hand on the woman's mouth while she was sleeping, then put a 3-inch blade to her throat and threatened to slash it. He held her hands together and forced her into the kitchen, where he pushed her against a cabinet, Calandriello said.

He threw her to the ground, grabbed her by the hair and slammed her to the ground multiple times, authorities allege. She suffered a swollen lip and a knot to the back on her head, Calandriello said.

Swiercz fled through the rear door of the home, and witnesses saw him throwing items into a Dumpster, Calandriello said.

Swiercz's attorney, Colleen McSweeney Moore, called the incident "out of character" for the deputy fire chief. She speculated in court that a medication error could have played a role in the incident, but in an interview outside court she could not elaborate.

Swiercz served as the fire chief in Worth between 2005 and 2008, his attorney said.

Police were called to the condo building about 2:35 a.m. Saturday on a report of a home invasion, the Tinley Park police said. Upon arriving at the scene, police said they found Swiercz in the condominium parking lot and took him into custody. The woman was treated for minor injuries at the scene, police said.

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Activists wary as India rushes to justice after gang rape

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - It's no surprise the Indian street wants faster, harsher justice for sexual crimes after a horrific gang rape that rocked the nation, but some activists worry the government will trample fundamental rights in its rush to be in tune with popular rage.

Last month's rape of a physiotherapy student on a moving bus and her death on December 28 in hospital triggered a national debate about how to better protect women in India, where official data shows one rape is reported on average every 20 minutes.

Many women's rights groups are cautiously hopeful the protests and outrage that followed the crime can be channeled into real change - fast-track courts for sexual offences and a plan to hire 2,500 new women police in Delhi are measures already in the works.

But legal experts and some feminists are worried that calls to make rape punishable with death and other draconian penalties will cramp civil liberties and are unconstitutional. They say India needs better policing and prosecutions, not new laws.

"If there are not enough convictions, it is not because of an insufficiency of law, but it is the insufficiency of material to base the conviction on," said retired Delhi High Court judge R.S. Sodhi.

Five men have been charged with the student's rape and murder and will appear before a New Delhi court later on Monday. They are due to be tried in a newly formed fast-track court in the next few weeks. A teenager also accused will likely be tried in a juvenile court.

Ahead of Monday's court appearance the five still had no defense lawyers - despite extensive interrogations by the police, who have said they have recorded confessions - after members of the bar association in the South Delhi district where the case is being heard vowed not to represent them.


The men will be assigned lawyers by the court before the trial begins, but their lack of representation so far could give grounds for appeal later should they be found guilty - similar cases have resulted in acquittals years after convictions.

"The accused has a right to a lawyer from point of arrest - the investigations are going on, statements being taken, it is totally illegal," said Colin Gonsalves, a senior Supreme Court advocate and director of Delhi's Human Rights Law Network.

Senior leaders of most states on Friday came out in support of a plan to lower to 16 the age that minors can be tried as adults - in response to fury that the maximum penalty the accused youth could face is three years detention.

A government panel is considering suggestions to make the death penalty mandatory for rape and introducing forms of chemical castration for the guilty. It is due to make its recommendations by January 23.

"The more you strengthen the powers of the state against the people, the more the possibility you create a draconian regime," said Sehjo Singh, Programme and Policy Director with ActionAid in India and an expert on Indian women's social movements.

"We want to raise the bar of human rights in India, we want to raise the standards, not lower them."

The Indian Express newspaper warned against "knee-jerk" reaction and said any change to the juvenile law "must come after rigorous and considered debate. It cannot be a reaction to a fraught moment".

Courts are swamped with a backlog of cases in the country of 1.2 billion people and trials often take more than five years to complete, so the launch by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir of six fast-track courts in the capital to deal with sexual offences was widely greeted as a welcome move.

Several other states including Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are now looking at following Delhi's example.

But Gonsalves says while the courts are a good idea on paper, similar tribunals in the past delivered dubious verdicts and put financial pressure on the rest of the justice system.


India set up 1,700 fast-track courts in 2004, but stopped funding them last year because they turned out to be costly. The courts typically work six days a week and try to reduce adjournments that lead to long delays in cases.

"The record of the fast-track courts is mixed," Gonsalves said. Conviction rates rose, he said, but due process was sometimes rushed, leading to convictions being overturned.

"Fast-track courts were in many ways were fast-track injustice," he said.

The real problem lie with bad policing and a shortage of judges, Gonsalves said. India has about a fifth of the number of judges per capita that the United States has.

Indian police are often poorly trained and underpaid, and have sometimes been implicated in organized crime. Rights groups complain the mostly male officers are insensitive to victims of sexual crimes.

Resources for, and expertise in, forensic science is limited in most of the country's police forces and confessions are often extracted under duress. The judiciary complains it is hard to convict offenders because of faulty evidence.

Human Rights Watch said reforms to laws and procedures covering rape and other sexual crimes should focus on protection of witnesses and modernizing support for victims at police stations and hospitals.

The rights organization has documented the continued use of archaic practices such as the "finger test" used by some doctors on rape victims to allegedly determine if they had regular sex.

"Reforms in the rape laws - these are needed. But not in terms of enhancing punishment," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.

"Why they are not investigated, why there are not enough convictions, those are the things that need to be addressed."

(Additional reporting by Satarupa Bhattacharjya, Shashank Chouhan and Annie Banerji; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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