Monday, July 13, 2009

Japanese turn to communists in downturn
They have seen the part-time employees clock out one last time and the foreign labourers' contracts not renewed. They know there is no staffing fat left to trim and have seen the axes beginning to fall in companies where previously the dark-suited salaryman has been untouchable.
"It's very hard right now," says Keisuke Obata, a 42-year-old employee of a major manufacturing company based in Tokyo. "I've never seen things so bad, and all we hear from the company and the politicians is that we have to try a little harder and endure for a little longer."

Obata has been on a reduced working week since January, has seen his pay cut and his summer bonus similarly shrivel. The company is appealing for people to take voluntary redundancy.
"It makes you think," he admits. "But there are not many other jobs out there and I have commitments."
Men like Obata, who has given two decades of service to his company yet is on the verge of being summarily dismissed, are finding their previously unswerving commitment to their employers eclipsed by the instinct for self-preservation.
With a mortgage and three young children to provide for, Obata has heard the message that has gradually spread across the shop floor and entered the domain of the white-collar workers. Communism, they say, might just have the answer.
"Companies are only interested in their profits and protecting their management," says Tatsuya Yoshida, an employee of a Tokyo-based transport company. "They do not care about their staff. They see us as disposable."
The last time 42-year-old Yoshida voted, he backed the New Komeito Party.
The junior member of the two-party coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party, it draws its support mainly from the ranks of the Sokka Gakkai Buddhist organisation and is presently the third largest party in the Japanese Diet.
According to the latest opinion polls, however, it has been overtaken by the Japanese Communist Party. And workers like Yoshida are doing all they can to spread the word.
"I used to have pressure from my family to vote for New Komeito, but Japan needs real change and I've had enough of politicians making promises that they soon break," he says.
Yoshida ticks his main concerns off the fingers of his left hand: protecting his job, ensuring his two sons have enough money to go to a good university, ensuring that everyone has a minimum standard of living and protecting Article 9 of Japan's constitution, which renounces war.
Other parties have made those promises, and more, in opposition, he points out, but "forgotten" them as soon as they are in a position of power.
"The opposition is effectively a pseudo-LDP and even if they do win the next election I see no chance of improvements in the political, economic or social situation in Japan," Yoshida says, pointing a finger at the Democratic Party of Japan until recently headed by a former LDP politician who was forced to resign for taking illegal donations from a construction company.
"How can we trust these people with our futures?," he said.
Public prosecutors indicted Ichiro Ozawa's personal secretary for accepting the funds, but stopped short of arresting the DPJ leader.
"People are coming to us because the JCP does not accept donations from companies or organisations," says Yoshida. "That is why we can speak out against big corporations."
And despite sticking to its principles on donations, the JCP is the second-best fund-raising party in the country. Only the ruling LDP does better.
Rampant corruption combined with the spiralling unemployment caused by the global economic downturn has given the party a huge new support base.
Party officials say that more than 14,000 people have joined the cause in the last 18 months, a quarter of whom are under 30. Similarly, circulation of the party newspaper, Akahata (Red Flag) has risen to 1.6 million copies.
The LDP, on the other hand, has seen its membership collapse from a peak of 5 million to just 1 million today.
"Many workers are being deprived of the right to work with dignity," Kazuo Shii, the charismatic 54-year-old chair of the JCP, told a press conference in March. "This is the cruelest form of behaviour under 'capitalism without rules.'
"Most people working on temporary contracts are disposable workers, forced to endure exploitative and unstable working conditions as well as discrimination," he said, describing conditions as "a revival of slave labour and a modern-day form of cruelty."
"I am indignant that temporary workers are being forced to toil in such inhumane conditions at corporations such as Toyota and Canon," he said.
According to the party, the number of workers earning less than Y2 million (£13,885) a year has risen to more than 10 million.
This increase in grass-roots support has been boosted by a manga version of Karl Marx's "Das Kapital," which sold more than 6,000 copies in the two days after it was released in December, and revival of interest in a 1929 novel titled "Kanikosen" that told of a rebellion among workers on a crab processing ship off northern Japan.
Despite the recent surge in its fortunes, Shii and his supporters accept that the JCP will not have a majority in the Diet in the near future. They will fight the national elections, of course, but they are focusing much of their attention on winning hearts and minds at the local level.
"In general, Japanese people do what they are told by more powerful people," says Yoshida. "We do not want to cause disharmony with the people around us. So we obey when we are told what to do and do not give our own opinions. This is why we have the same political parties running the country since the end of the war.
"Even though the communists only have 3.3 per cent in the latest opinion polls, more than 31 per cent of the people said they were undecided," he points out. "We aim to increase our support one vote at a time and we want our politicians to tell the Diet what the people are really thinking."
The approach is showing signs of working; in late April, JCP candidate Hiroshi Shikanai was elected mayor of the city of Aomori, overcoming his LDP opponent and incumbent.
A key issue in the campaign was the state of the regional economy, which will undoubtedly be at stake again when the country goes to the polls in the next few months.
Keisuke Obata has cancelled his plans for a trip to Hawaii with his family later this year and is instead planning to take them on a camping trip by the lakes around Mount Fuji.
He said he was looking forward to some time away from the office and a little peace to contemplate his future, both professional and political.

Afghanistan: Our troops are giving their lives to safeguard a rigged election
All wars have anthems for doomed youth. Afghanistan is no exception. At a memorial service yesterday, senior officers paid tribute to the eight British soldiers who died in the worst day of attrition since the Falklands.
Of the three youngest, William Aldridge had a gift for friendship, Joseph Murphy was a fine artist and James Backhouse, who wanted to be a fitness instructor, could run faster than the wind. Like his two comrades, he was 18 years old. Like them, he was, according to his superiors' eulogies, prepared to kill and to be killed.

Helmand province is not the Somme, but Wilfred Owen's lament for squandered life has seemed, back in the UK, to echo down the years. "What candles may be held to speed them all?/Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes/Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes."
Owen blamed the state for sacrificing the young. Now, once again, government is deemed culpable as every parent sees, in the faces of the juvenile dead, an image of his or her own child. "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" Owen asked.
Almost a century later, there is no shortage of funeral hymns. Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, says Gordon Brown has "catastrophically" under-equipped the Armed Forces. For the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg challenges the PM to show the sacrifices of lives "have not been in vain". The Army demands extra troops and more equipment.
With the Taliban getting smarter and 15 British troops dead so far this month, Afghanistan is a dimestore war. In four decades, the defence budget has fallen from 6.5 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent, while Tony Blair's imperial ambitions committed troops to four major conflicts, of which Iraq was inexcusable and Afghanistan, on the current showing, unwinnable.
Mr Brown's critics imply that he is trying to fight a Prada war at Lidl prices. Although he disputes this, defence spending is undeniably out of kilter with reality. The PM's likely concession on Trident – cutting back on warheads and perhaps reducing the new fleet – is a feeble compromise that will not free up significant sums for the frontline. Nor is it likely that taxes will rise to boost defence.
But even if a war chest were to be found, there is little clarity about what we're fighting for: the end of brutal and repressive Taliban mandates or, as Mr Brown says, to stop terror being exported to the UK. With al-Qaeda moving sinously across the globe, the second goal looks hopeless.
The real question is whether the Afghan war can ever be won by military means alone, and the answer, as David Miliband has always recognised, is No. In stirring up trouble for the Government, the generals and the Tories risk peddling a delusion. Yes, extra helicopters may save some lives (though by no means all), but the truth about Afghanistan risks being obscured by political opportunism. Even vast injections of money, hardware and manpower would not, by themselves, subdue the Taliban or procure victory.
A political solution is the only guarantee of success, yet that objective is barely spoken of. In the US and the UK, next month's presidential election attracts almost no mention. Since the temporary increase in British troops is specifically to provide cover for the ballot, this silence is suspicious, if not downright sinister.
The appalling regime of Hamid Karzai is western leaders' grubby little secret. Mr Karzai, who boasts of being Washington's (and thus Britain's) man, presides over the fifth most corrupt government in the world. As well as turning a blind eye to last year's alleged loss, through abuse, of two thirds of his country's annual revenue amounting to $1.6 billion, Mr Karzai has failed the vulnerable and the trusting.
Naturally, Western leaders cannot impose an alternative placeman to sort out his narco-state. But, in a field of around 40 challengers, two credible candidates stand out. One, Abdullah Abdullah, is the former foreign secretary; the other, Ashraf Ghani, is the one-time finance minister and former chancellor of Kabul University.
Although Dr Ghani, once tipped to become UN Secretary General, has the only coherent agenda and a well-orchestrated e-campaign, the odds are greatly against him, and other contenders, because the election commission is stacked with Mr Karzai's henchmen.
Disgracefully, neither Washington nor London has publicly demanded a level playing field or complained that the election for which British soldiers are dying is effectively rigged. Meanwhile, Dr Ghani, who has no official protection, is making a swift transition from Washington technocrat to politician. His billboards in Mr Karzai's home town of Kandahar have been vandalized with acid and removed; supporters in Britain say he is putting his life at risk.
Until a few days ago, it looked impossible that Dr Ghani would ever institute his 10-year framework enshrining the rule of law, good governance and co-operation with local groups and the international community. But suddenly, Washington is growing nervous. As chilly signals about Mr Karzai reach Kabul, the president is hiding in his palace, declining to appear on the campaign trail or debate on television with his rivals.
Educated voters, informed by independent TV and radio, are disgusted by his pardon of drug-dealers and his ties to militia leaders. The UN and the Afghan human rights commission have logged many complaints about state interference in the election amid a dawning hope that Mr Karzai may not win outright in the first ballot. If he fails on August 20, then his network of powerful allies may collapse, leaving either of his main rivals a chance of victory.
Should Mr Karzai cling to power, which is still much the likeliest outcome, then it is just conceivable that the US "surge" will be enough to broker a deal with the Taliban. More probably, corruption will continue and insurgents will gloat at the prospect of a long war whose history will be written in British blood.
Our government must urgently address national security and the misfit between yesterday's under-funded defence strategy and today's myriad dangers. As Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University, says, the colonial era ended in 1947 with the partition of India. Mr Blair failed to notice the shift, and Mr Brown is left to pick up the pieces.
The omens could hardly be grimmer. Not only are the military objectives hazy, but a campaign costing $20 billion a month has no political direction. Voters here, as in Afghanistan, deserve the truth. We are pouring blood and money into a black hole, and the flow will not be staunched unless a political solution is found.
Until then, 18 year-olds with the fresh faces of your sons, or mine, will fight and fall. They do not require passing-bells, or candles; only good equipment and the guarantee that they are the brave architects of a better future. No civilised nation should ask its soldiers, young or old, to die for less.

Swat IDPs skeptical of return plan

PESHAWAR: The displaced persons, who lost their houses and family members during the conflict and military operation in Swat, are skeptical of the repatriation plan announced by the government and demand compensation for their losses.

They are critical of the government plan citing various reasons including the presence of militants in different parts of Kabal and Matta tehsils of Swat.

Some of them claim that they have personal enmity with militants in their respective areas and they cannot go back till complete elimination of militants.

‘Militants had killed three of our female family members on Feb 4 on minor issue of providing drinking water to security forces. Since then we have been living in Charssada as we have now personal enmity with those people,’ said Bukht Munir, hailing from Dagai village of Matta, a stronghold of militants.

He added that they had received information from their areas that militants had still been roaming around.

According to his account of the incident, around 15 to 20 militants had attacked their residence when they were not around and killed his mother and two sisters-in-law (wives of his two brothers). The attackers had also taken away their vehicle and made hostage two of his relatives, who were released after payment of money.

‘So far we have not been given any compensation by the federal or provincial government and we have now been living in miserable conditions,’ he said.

Mohammad Zada, another displaced person, said that they had no place to go back as their houses were destroyed during bombing by jetfighters. Mr Zada lost eight of his family members in the bombing including his wife, four children, a daughter-in-law, a grand daughter and a guest.

‘I am a poor labourer and had gone to Mardan along with my son when the incident took place on May 10 soon after the military operation was launched,’ he said, adding that the remaining members of his family had now been residing at a school in Charssada district.

Three other houses situated near his residence at Shofin village were also destroyed in which five persons were killed. One of the inmates of those houses, Ghulam Mohammad, a distant relative of Mr Zada, said that their area had yet to be cleared of militants as it was situated near Peuchar valley, the headquarters of militants.

‘When the house of Mohammad Zada was hit we rushed to retrieve bodies from the debris and in the meantime jets returned and bombed my house,’ he said. The bodies were mostly dismembered beyond recognition.

Another displaced person, who did not want to be named, said that militants had been lurking around in various areas and their leadership had still been intact. ‘How could we return to our areas when a dreaded commander Ibne Amin and his brother Ibne Aqeel have still been seen there? People are scared of them and scores of other commanders,’ he added.

A social activist from Swat, Ishaq Khan, said that people mostly demanded that the operation should be taken to its logical conclusion, which also included targeting of militant leadership. ‘People want that Maulana Fazlullah and other leaders of the militants should be apprehended and they should be interrogated to know as to who are the masterminds behind them,’ he said.

Despite all the apprehensions, he said, people wanted to go back as they did not want to live life of an IDP.

Last month, NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti had announced that they had approved a package for the citizens affected by sectarianism, army operation and terrorism.

He had announced that Rs300,000 would be given for each killed person, Rs200,000 for each permanently disabled person, Rs300,000 in the case of complete destruction of house to the owner and Rs50,000 for partly destructed house.

However, the mechanism for providing that compensation has yet to be adopted.

Displaced families being transported back to Swat

JALOZAI CAMP: Only a fraction of nearly two million Pakistanis displaced in the onslaught against the Taliban went home on the first day of an organised return Monday, with many fearful about security.

The government laid on buses and trucks to return displaced families on Monday, the first day of large-scale organised returns but only a fraction of the families earmarked for voluntary return actually left the camps.

Azam Khan, a senior official in the government’s emergency response unit said 192 families out of an estimated 2,680 left three camps on Monday.

‘We expect an increase in coming days,’ Khan told reporters at Charsadda, where 22 out of a planned 247 families left for the northwest Swat district.’

Dozens of displaced people blocked a road outside one Charsadda camp vowing not to return until they received ATM bank cards on which they can draw 25,000 rupees of financial aid to rebuild their lives.

Crops were left to rot during the two-month offensive and the local economy has been shattered by a two-year uprising to enforce sharia law in Swat.

‘Some people did not receive their ATM cash cards and they refused to go until they got this card,’ said Khan.

But those who returned to Swat spoke of their joy in returning despite the uncertainty about peace that many expressed back in the camps.

‘Everybody is so happy. They are crying tears of joy,’ Sakhawat Shah, a 25-year-old English student, told AFP by telephone after reaching Landakai.

‘My room was destroyed in the shelling. My computer and books were also damaged but I’m not worried because if I’m alive I can buy more books.’

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told a gathering of aid organisations working for displaced people the operation to return people to their homes was a ‘huge challenge’, his spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

‘We resolve not to abandon our brothers and sisters in this hour of trial.

We will take every possible step to help them resume normal life in their
homes,’ Babar quoted the president as saying.

Pakistan launched the offensive in the northwest districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Swat after armed Islamist militants advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad last April in defiance of a peace deal.

Pakistan says more than 1,700 militants were killed but official death tolls are impossible to confirm independently and many suspect that the Taliban simply melted away into the mountains as after past operations.

The government says it has worked hard to restore electricity and running water in main towns since the fighting but analysts warn that much needs to be done to sustain the returnees.

‘They will start living a normal life if the environment is secure and their fundamental needs are addressed. Secure environment means army, police and civil administration,’ said independent analyst Imtiaz Gul.

AFP reporters said they saw just over 200 people leaving Jalozai and the nearby camp of Charsadda but officials swept aside concerns.

‘Twenty-four buses reached Swat. These are full of displaced people,’Bashir Ahmad Bilour, a senior provincial cabinet minister, told reporters.

‘We hope the situation will improve in the coming days and that people will come back with the passage of time,’ he said.

But Shamsher Ali, a 55-year-old shopkeeper, also said he was worried after previous military operations failed to crush the Taliban.

‘The army promised us twice before that they cleared the area but then Taliban came again and again to Swat. Perhaps this time the Taliban will come again to Swat,’ he said.

Rs 24 b for rehabilitation of Malakand IDPs: Bilour

PESHAWAR : NWFP Senior Minister, Bashir Ahmad Bilour Monday said that government has reserved an amount of Rs. 24 billion for rehabilitation of operation hit Malakand division. Talking to newsmen at Charsadda after seeing off repatriating IDPs to their homeland, Bashir Bilour said the amount of Rs. 24 billion would be provided by the center to provincial government in four installments. Bashir Bilour said after completion of return of IDPs, government would start work on rehabilitation of Malakand division. The Malakand division would be made as a model division in the province, Bilour added. He said in order to ensure lasting peace in the area, government would double the number of Police force. Similarly, he added, Frontier Corps and Frontier Constabulary would be strengthened in the region. Bashir Bilour said the number of tehsils would be increased to seven from the existing two. Similarly, the number of police stations would also be enhanced. The government, he added, would appoint 2500 retired armed personnel to form a special security force in the area. Similarly, 7000 persons would be recruited from communities under the Community Policing Programme for Malakand division. In response to a question about setting up of Army Cantonement in Swat, Bilour said land is being searched for this purpose. He said presence of Army in Malakand division is necessary unless lasting peace is ensured and the region is purged from militants.

Dr. Regina Benjamin is surgeon general choice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Obama announced Monday his choice for surgeon general -- Dr. Regina Benjamin, a 52-year-old family practice doctor who has spent most of her career tending to the needs of poor patients in a Gulf Coast clinic in Alabama.

"When people couldn't pay, she didn't charge them," Obama said. "When the clinic wasn't making money, she didn't take a salary for herself."

He called Benjamin "a relentless promoter" of programs to fight preventable illness.

Benjamin cited the toll of preventable illness as the reason her family was not with her at the announcement: Her father died with diabetes and high blood pressure; her older brother and only sibling died at age 44 of an HIV-related illness; her mother died of lung cancer after taking up smoking as a girl; her mother's twin brother could not attend because he is at home "struggling for each breath" after a lifetime of smoking.

"I cannot change my family's past, but I can be a voice to improve our nation's health for the future," she said.
Benjamin received a bachelor's degree in 1979 from Xavier University of Louisiana, attended Morehouse School of Medicine from 1980 to 1982, and received a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1984.

She completed her residency in family practice at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in 1987.

Her medical training was paid for by a federal program, the National Health Service Corps, under which medical students promise to work in areas with few doctors in exchange for free tuition, one year of service for every year of paid tuition.

Benjamin founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990 in the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, and has served as its CEO since.

Like many of her patients, the clinic has suffered its own life-threatening challenges. It was heavily damaged by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It also burned to the ground several years ago. But Benjamin rebuilt it after each setback and has continued to offer medical care to the village's 2,500 residents.

Her commitment to them has meant making house calls during the rebuilding, mortgaging her house and maxing out her credit cards, Obama said.

"Regina Benjamin has refused to give up; her patients have refused to give up," he said.

Many of her family practice patients are immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos who make up a third of Bayou La Batre's population, and many of them are uninsured.

Benjamin's expertise goes beyond medicine; she earned a master's in business administration in 1991 from Tulane University. But her focus has not been on making money for herself, she said.

"My priority has always been the needs of my patients," she said. "I decided to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay."

Benjamin said she has worked for years to scrape together the resources needed to keep the clinic doors open and found "it has not been an easy road. ... It should not be this hard for doctors and other health care providers to care for their patients."

She praised Obama "for putting health care reform at the top of your domestic agenda," and said she hopes, if confirmed by the Senate, "to be America's doctor, America's family physician."

"As we work toward a solution to this health care crisis, I promise to communicate directly to the American people, to help guide them through whatever changes come with health care reform. I want to make sure that no one falls through the cracks," she said.

A call to the clinic, where Benjamin was working last week, found it in full swing. "We are just packed in with patients right now, and I'm the only one at the front office," said a breathless woman who then hung up.

Benjamin has served as the associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama's College of Medicine and as president of the State of Alabama Medical Association, from 2002-2003.

She was the first African-American woman board member of the American Medical Association, and she just served a term as chairwoman of the group's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs.

The position of surgeon general, whose effectiveness is largely in its use as a bully pulpit, requires Senate confirmation.

Sotomayor Pledges 'Fidelity to the Law'

Sonia Sotomayor, the first nominee to the Supreme Court by a Democratic president in 15 years, told the Senate Judiciary Committee today, on the opening day of her confirmation hearing, that her judicial philosophy can be distilled to just a few words: "fidelity to the law."

As a federal trial judge and appellate judge during the past 17 years, Sotomayor said, she has sought to "strengthen both the rule of law and faith in the impartiality of our justice system."

Her statement came at the end of the first day of her confirmation hearing, a day filled with opening statements from each senator on the committee, in which they strived to define Sotomayor. Democrats set about portraying her as a seasoned jurist with a "modest" and restrained approach, while Republicans sought to cast doubt on her impartiality, saying her statements and rulings have been unduly influenced by her own background.

Despite the drama and ceremony that accompany any Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) quickly put the proceedings in context in his opening statement: "Unless you have a complete meltdown," he told the nominee, "you are going to get confirmed."

Today was the first time that Sotomayor, 55, who rose from projects of the South Bronx to a member of U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, has spoken publicly since President Obama selected her May 26, the first Latina nominated to serve on the nation's highest court.

Sotomayor, speaking firmly in a voice tinged with her native Bronx, recounted for the senators her now-familiar biography, the child of poor parents who moved from Puerto Rico. "The progression of my life has been uniquely American," she said.

"Over the past three decades, I have seen our judicial system from a number of different perspectives -- as a big-city prosecutor, a corporate litigator, a trial judge and an appellate judge," Sotomayor said.

She said that she decided more than 450 cases as a federal district court, before her elevation to the appellate court -- a position, she said, in which she has decided "a wide range of constitutional, statutory, and other legal questions."

"Throughout my 17 years on the bench, I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions," she said. "Those decisions have been made not to serve the interests of any one litigant, but always to serve the larger interest of impartial justice. . . . In each case I have heard, I have applied the law to the facts at hand. My personal and professional experience help me listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case."

Senators will not begin their questioning of Sotomayor, which will form the bulk of the hearing, until Tuesday morning.

For now, Republicans tried to make the first Supreme Court hearing of the Obama administration as much a referendum on the president as on the nominee, 55. Republicans also sought to cut into the political mileage Democrats have accrued through Obama's nominating the first Hispanic to the nation's highest court, with some citing Miguel Estrada, a Hispanic lawyer whose appeals-court nomination by President George W. Bush was blocked by Democrats in 2002 and 2003.

Republicans also emphasized a speech Sotomayor gave at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001, widely cited by her detractors in the weeks since her nomination. In it, she said that she hoped that a "wise Latina" judge might make better decisions than a white man. The committee's ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions (Ala.), said that her remarks in that speech were not an anomaly, saying that Sotomayor had said similar things in public "at least five times over the course of a decade."

And Sessions was one of several Republicans who criticized Sotomayor's role in a case, Ricci v. DeStefano, in which the Supreme Court late last month overturned a decision by three 2nd Circuit judges. The high court ruled that white firefighters had been discriminated against when the city of New Haven, Conn., withdrew a promotional test in which minority candidates scored worse than whites.

"I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, anyone who will not render justice impartially," Sessions said. "Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law," he said. "In truth, it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom."

Democrats countered that Sotomayor's years on the federal bench, first as a U.S. district judge before joining the appellate court in 1998, have been characterized by what Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) her home-state senator, called "judicial modesty."

Schumer said: "Judge Sotomayor puts rule of law above everything else. Given her extensive and even-handed record, I'm not sure how any member of this panel can sit here today and seriously suggest that she comes to the bench with a personal agenda."

Schumer noted that she had dissented from her colleagues on the court less frequently than Samuel A. Alito Jr. had during his years as an appellate judge before he was nominated by Bush and became the last justice confirmed to the Supreme Court, 4 1/2 years ago. That record, the senator said, "shows that she is in the mainstream. She's agreed with Republican colleagues 95 percent of the time. She has ruled for the government in 83 percent of immigration cases against the immigration plaintiff. She has ruled for the government in 92 percent of criminal cases. She has denied race claims in 83 percent of the cases and has split evenly on employment cases between employer and employee."

In a similar vein, Schumer and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) both predicted that she would prove less ideological on the Supreme Court than Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who had said at his own confirmation hearing in 2005 that a judge's role was to be merely an umpire. Durbin said, "It's hard to see home plate from right field," and added that Roberts's action on the court have been a "triumph of ideology over common sense."

Five minutes before the hearing began this morning, Sotomayor wore a broad smile and a royal blue jacket and black skirt as she walked into the packed hearing room of the Hart Senate Office Building, accompanied by the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

In leading off the hearing, Leahy portrayed Sotomayor as a nominee with an uncommonly extensive judicial résumé. "She is the first nominee in well over a century to be nominated to three different federal judgeships by three different presidents," Leahy said.

And he compared Sotomayor to Thurgood Marshall, the court's first African American justice, and Sandra Day O'Connor, its first female member.

Conservatives and some Republicans, Leahy said, have attempted to "twist her words and her record. . . . Ideological pressure groups have attacked her before the president had even made his selection," Leahy said. "They then stepped up their attacks by threatening Republican senators who do not oppose her.

"In truth," he said, "we do not have to speculate about what kind of a justice she will be because we have seen the kind of judge she has been. She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence."

Democrats are betting that an overly zealous assault on Sotomayor by Republican senators could anger Latinos and accelerate the shift of Hispanic voters away from the party, particularly in the South and West. Conservatives are hoping to use the Sotomayor hearings as a way to motivate their base if they can successfully portray her as an activist judge whose "empathy" for certain groups guides her rulings more than court precedent or the written law.

Before today, Republican senators had given mixed signals on how hard they plan to press Sotomayor, with supporters saying harsh questioning would be politically risky. But pressure from the conservative base mounted this morning. Jay Sekulow, the influential head of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, issued a statement saying that the Senate "must fulfill its constitutional role in providing advice and consent and that means asking the tough, in-depth questions about Judge Sotomayor's view of the Constitution and her judicial philosophy."

Sessions was careful not to strike too barbed a tone in his opening statement, saying that the hearing would be "respectful" and would consisted of "a thoughtful dialogue and maybe some disagreements."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who leads the GOP's campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, cited three speeches Sotomayor has given in recent years in which, he said, she advocated in favor of judges changing the law, even a "radical change," and advanced the idea of foreign courts as basis for domestic rulings.

"We thank you for your candor in these speeches," Cornyn told the nominee. "Not every judicial nominee is so open about their judicial philosophy. Yet many Americans wonder what these various statements mean -- and what you're trying to get at with these remarks. And many more wonder whether you are the kind of judge who will uphold the written Constitution -- or the kind of judge who will veer us even further off course -- and towards new rights invented by judges rather than ratified by the people."

Republicans repeatedly jabbed at Obama. At one point, Graham recalled the president's role in Supreme Court confirmations of the recent past, when he was in the Senate. "When he was here," Graham said of the president, "he set in motion a standard, I thought, that was more about seeking the presidency than being fair to the nominee.

"When he said, 'The critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge's heart,' translated, that means, "I'm not going to vote against my base, because I'm running for president.' " Graham said.

The hearing had barely begun before it was interrupted by a brief protest. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was giving her opening remarks, an abortion protester in the back of the room punctuated the somber quiet by screaming out, "Senator, what about the unborn?" A few seconds later, just before he was promptly hauled out of the room by a security guard, he referred to "unborn Latinos."

According to Sgt. Kimberly Schneider of the U.S. Capitol Police, 48-year-old Robert M. James was charged with disruption of Congress. James, of Centreville, said later that he was trying to remind GOP senators "of their principles," adding, "This is one of these rare moments when attention is focused in a singular way." Standing outside the Hart building alongside noted antiabortion opponent Randall Terry, James said, "the unborn have no one to speak for them. This is our opportunity -- that someone who can speak for them will stand up and defend them."

Almost two hours later, another abortion protester interrupted the opening statement of Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). Andrew R. Beacham, 27, of Indiana, was also charged with disruption of Congress. And in the afternoon, two others tried to disrupt the proceedings as they were leaving the hearing room.

Leahy sharply rebuked the gallery after each outburst, saying at one point, "Judge Sotomayor deserves respect, to be heard. These Senators deserve the respect of being heard."

Sotomayor's handlers said there would be "watch parties" in more than 30 states, with supporters gathering to hear from the woman they hope will replace retiring Justice David H. Souter. In Washington, the Hispanic Bar Association planned to gather at a law office to watch Sotomayor's opening statement.

Yesterday, sources predicted that a surprise could come late today, if several Republican senators announce their support for Sotomayor's nomination. That would effectively seal her appointment to the court and make the only question how many votes she will receive.

Among those who some court watchers say could make an early announcement are Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, the only Latino Republican in the chamber, and Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

Meanwhile, both political parties have released a list of witnesses who will appear before the Judiciary Committee later in the week. The Republican witnesses will include a former president of the National Rifle Association, a firefighter from New Haven, Conn., and an antiabortion activist, reinforcing the themes that GOP senators hope to cement as the hearings close by the end of the week. Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, wrote recently in the Washington Times that "Justice Sotomayor's lack of reflection combined with her record of abortion activism shows that, with her on the court, the unborn would be at greater risk than ever before."

The Democratic list includes David Cone, a former Major League Baseball pitcher who watched as Sotomayor helped resolve baseball's strike; Michael R. Bloomberg (I), the mayor of New York; and Michael J. Garcia, a former U.S. attorney appointed by President George W. Bush.

Obama called Sotomayor yesterday after he returned from a three-nation overseas trip, the White House announced. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement that Obama "complimented the Judge for making courtesy calls to 89 Senators in which she discussed her adherence to the rule of law throughout her 17 years on the federal bench" and "expressed his confidence that Judge Sotomayor would be confirmed to serve as a Justice on the Supreme Court for many years to come."

Sotomayor is expected to meet for a short time with senators in a closed-door luncheon, most likely on Thursday. The meeting is standard procedure for Supreme Court nominees.

But otherwise, the judge will be before the cameras the entire time.

Blast kills 15 in Mian Channu

MULTAN :An explosion at the home of a local cleric in Punjab killed 15 people on Monday, trapping casualties under the rubble of dozens of flattened homes, officials said.

It was not immediately clear why the explosives detonated on the outskirts of Mian Channu, about 90 kilometres (55 miles) east of Multan city.

"The blast took place inside the house of a local cleric. Children used to come to his house for religious education," local district police chief Kamran Khan told reporters.

"Rescue teams have recovered 15 dead bodies. Dozens are injured. The blast was apparently due to some type of explosives inside the house," Khan added.

A doctor at the local hospital confirmed the death toll.

"We received 15 dead bodies. Thirty-five people are injured," Doctor Naeem Sadiq told AFP by telephone.

Khan said 20 to 25 homes collapsed in the explosion.

A senior local administration official, Qazi Ashfaq Ahmad, told the private Geo television station that several homes collapsed.

"It was a huge blast. We do not know how it happened but it was a severe one," witness Mohammad Baber told AFP.