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Michigan cuts jobless benefits

by six weeks to lowest in nation

Michigan, whose unemployment rate has topped 10 percent longer than that of any other state, is about to set another record. Its new Republican governor, Rick Snyder, signed a law Monday that will lead the state to pay fewer weeks of unemployment benefits next year than any other state.

Democrats and advocates for the unemployed expressed outrage that a such a hard-hit state will become the most miserly when it comes to how long it pays benefits to those who have lost their jobs. All states pay up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, before extended benefits paid by the federal government kick in. Michigan’s new law means that starting next year, when the federal benefits are currently set to end, the state will stop paying benefits to the jobless after 20 weeks. The shape of future extensions is unclear.

Republicans and business groups said that cutting benefits was necessary because the state’s unemployment trust fund, which was ill-prepared to cope with the Great Recession, is insolvent. The state owes the federal government nearly $4 billion that it borrowed to keep its program afloat, and unemployment taxes on businesses have already been raised, and will need to be raised more, to repay the money. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce called the new law “a huge win for job providers” and said it could save up to $300 million a year.

—Michael Cooper, The New York Times

UN human rights group calls

on China to release lawyer

BEIJING — A U.N. human rights agency has demanded that the Chinese government immediately release a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who has been detained for nearly a year, according to a statement released Monday by an advocacy group. The lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, had said he was tortured when he was detained in 2007, and again for 14 months that ended in March 2010.

“The U.N. Working Group held that the detention violated international law because Gao’s disappearance was punishment for exercising his fundamental human rights and because the government failed to meet even the minimum international standards for due process,” the group said in a written statement. That statement was first sent to the Chinese government in July, and was made public Monday by Freedom Now, an advocacy group that has worked on Gao’s case.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate response.

China Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, said last week that at least 23 people had been detained in relation to mysterious calls that surfaced on the Internet for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China, modeled after the recent Tunisian uprising.

—Edward Wong, The New York Times

Kabul Bank is portrayed as private ATM for Afghan elite

KABUL, Afghanistan — When a brother of the Afghan president wanted to invest in a cement factory, he took out a $2.9 million loan; he also took out $6 million for a town house in Dubai. When the bank’s chief executive wanted to invest in newly built apartments in Kabul, he took almost $18 million.

The terms were hard to beat: no collateral, little or no interest. And no repayment due date.

Those are just a few of the loans detailed in a damning internal report by Afghanistan’s own Central Bank, which depicts the Afghan political elite as using Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest financial institution, as its private piggy bank.

The report also suggests that Kabul Bank’s long-term finances are in much more dire shape than previously understood, a condition that explains why the Central Bank has been discussing putting the bank into receivership. The International Monetary Fund is pressing for receivership as a condition of renewing its program with Afghanistan. Without the IMF’s blessing, some major donors are required by their own laws to withhold aid from the country.

Whether the Afghan government will approve the dissolution of the bank is not yet clear, but whatever its future, as the Central Bank outlines in its report, there will be high costs for the Afghan government, which will have to make good on the non-performing loans in order to keep depositors whole.

—Alissa J. Rubin and Rod Nordland, The New York Times

India reports gains in wild 
tiger population

NEW DELHI — India said Monday that it was making progress in saving endangered tigers, with a new nationwide survey estimating a 20 percent increase in their numbers in the wild over the last five years.

The survey, released by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, put India’s current tiger population at 1,706, compared with 1,411 in 2006. The new figure is an extrapolation based on photographic evidence in sample sites, along with other indicators.

India is home to about half of the world’s wild tigers. Their numbers had declined sharply for decades, largely because of poaching and the pressures of development encroaching on their natural habitat.

“These numbers give us hope for the future of tigers in the world,” Jim Leape, the international director of the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement. “India continues to play an integral role in the tiger’s recovery.”

Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister, cautioned that the country faced a major challenge in providing enough habitat for tigers to roam wild. He said that the survey concluded that the amount of land occupied by tigers was shrinking, squeezing their living space.

“There is a decrease in tiger occupancy, which shows that tiger corridors are under biggest threat,” Ramesh said here Monday at an international conference on tiger conservation, according to Indian news media reports.

A majority of India’s tigers live in the country’s 39 reserves, but the survey found that more than a quarter of them live outside the reserves. The survey was the first to include the Sundarbans, the region of mangrove forests on the border of India and Bangladesh, where 70 tigers were counted.

—Jim Yardley, The New York Times