Portuguese parliament passes gay marriage law

Gay rights advocates in Portugal are toasting the future, after parliament voted to legalise same sex marriage. But it was a bittersweet victory, as Portuguese MPs rejected proposals to allow adoption by gay couples.

It’s seen as a landmark decision nevertheless, which Prime Minister José Socrates said was important to modernising the country.

“This law corresponds in the best way to the spirit and the words of the Constitution,” he said. “With this law we’ll be respecting individual freedoms, promoting the equality of all citizens and eliminating discrimination.”

Despite disappointment on the adoption vote, campaigners are seeing it as a temporary setback. They are determined to build on today’s success, which they say sets a clear example to others.

But not everyone is happy in this staunchly Catholic country, which only legalised abortion two years ago.

Although the legislation now has to be ratified by Portugal’s conservative president, its passage into law is all but enshrined.


Technical problems persist for Eurostar

More than 230 passengers were stuck for over an hour beneath the English Channel after the latest in a series of breakdowns to plague the Eurostar rail service.

It was not clear if it was the weather or a mechanical fault that caused the affected train to break down 11 kilometers from the tunnel exit on the British side. It was on its way to London from Brussels.

Another three trains had to be turned back to stations in both the English and French capitals and knock-on delays are expected over the next few days.

It is the second time in three weeks that technical problems have left passengers disgruntled.

One man waiting in Gare du Nord station in Paris said: “The only thing I think is a bit of a shame is that the business class people can wait inside (the waiting lounge) and the rest have to wait outside here. They say there’s not anough space in there but people who are coming out say there is. That’s a bit of a shame really.”

Services ground to a halt for three days in the busy run-up to Christmas, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded and prompting widespread criticism from the public and even from the French president.

Two French women jailed on drugs charges freed on Christmas pardon

Two French women walked free from jail in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday after 18 months behind bars for drug smuggling, a French government spokeswoman said.

Sarah Zaknoun, 19, and Celine Faye, 20, were “very, very happy” to be free, said the spokeswoman for Alain Joyandet, the French development minister who was on the Caribbean island to greet them.

The two were sentenced to eight years in jail last year after being found with six kilograms (13 pounds) of cocaine in their luggage, which they said was planted on them without their knowledge.

They were freed in a Christmas pardon granted last week by Dominican President Leonel Fernandez.

Joyandet warned: “This nice Christmas tale must not make us forget that drug traffickers continue to destroy lives and abuse the naivety of our youngsters,” according to his spokeswoman.

The two women were due to speak by telephone with French first lady, the ex-model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Joyandet said her intervention was decisive in their release.

China executes British national accused of drug trafficking

A British man convicted of drug smuggling in China has been executed, the Foreign Office has confirmed.

Akmal Shaikh, 53, of London, had denied any wrongdoing and his family said he was mentally ill.

The execution took place despite repeated calls from his family and the British government for clemency.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was appalled and condemned the execution “in the strongest terms”.

Mr Shaikh is the first EU national to be executed in China in 50 years.

French discos can stay open all night under new rules

AFP – Discotheques across France can now stay open until 7:00 am under new regulations that business leaders said Monday would liven up Paris and other French cities.

The measure seeks to harmonise closing hours for bars across France and cut down the number of party goers who drive from one area to the next in search of a place to spend the night on the dance floor.

The new rules published in the government gazette at the weekend state that any establishment that serves alcohol and has a dance floor can now stay open until seven in the morning.

But last call will be at 5:30 am, allowing for a one-and-half-hour “dry period” when no alcohol will be served.

The Synhorcat trade group of bar owners described the new regulations as a “major victory that will help reduce the risk of road accidents from drunk driving across France.”

“This harmonisation will discourage young people from getting behind the wheel of their cars to find a bar that is open,” said Didier Chenet, president of Synhorcat.

“It will also make Paris and other French tourist destinations more dynamic especially since they were seen as cities that shut down early compared to Berlin, London or Barcelona,” he said.

Mass turnout in Uzbekistan parliament polls

AFP – Voters in Uzbekistan flocked to the polls Sunday for parliamentary elections where all four competing parties are supportive of the government of President Islam Karimov, officials said.

Over 17 million voters had registered for the vote to elect the 150-seat lower house of parliament, the Oliy Majlis, in the Central Asian state with the authorities sending millions of text messages to get people out to vote.

Turnout reached 87.8 percent by the close of polling stations at 8:00 pm (1500 GMT), a spokesman for the central election commission said.

Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan for the past two decades after becoming Communist party boss in 1989 under the Soviet Union and then its first post-independence president in 1991.

The president, who earlier this month described the elections as a test of democracy, said the polls showed Uzbekistan was “moving towards the establishment of a democratic society.”

“From this point of view, everything that has been done in this period, especially since 2000, has given a new impulse,” he told reporters including an AFP correspondent after casting his vote.

No one should think that I am trying to show off something that does not exist, he added. “I admit that in our parliament there is very weak control over the executive power. I think we should change this.”

According to the central election commission, over 270 observers from 36 countries and missions of four international organisations are monitoring the polls.

But pan-European security group the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is deploying a smaller election assessment mission instead of a full observer mission, citing democratic shortcomimgs.

Uzbekistan’s “current political spectrum does not offer the electorate a genuine choice between competing political alternatives,” it said in October.The elections come as Uzbekistan is being increasingly courted by the United States as an important ally in the Central Asian region due to its strategic transport links with conflict-torn Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, tensions have flared between Tashkent and its former Soviet master Moscow over Russian plans to install a new Russian military base in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, which is close to the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

In televised pre-election debates, parties mostly accused each other of usurping government achievements and programmes but also cautiously touched on corruption and unemployment issues.

“I’m going to vote against them all. None of the MPs have met with voters since the last elections” in 2004, said Rano, a housewife, 34.

Others however showed more enthusiasm. “I like the programme of this party and their ideas. There are many young people in its ranks,” said Mashrab Urinov, 22, a student, voting for the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (UzLiDep).

Uzbekistan formally legitimized factional opposition in the parliament after 2004 elections to answer Western criticism that there is no real political opposition in the tightly controlled ex-Soviet republic.

International rights groups criticized Uzbekistan for stepping up pressure on rights activists ahead of the election. But the authorities reject the accusations.

The number of seats in the lower house of Uzbekistan’s parliament was in 2008 increased from 120 to 150, with 15 seats automatically going to the country’s Ecological Movement.

The Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan was founded in August 2008 and is composed of activists from the pro-government environmentalist groups and health sectors.Karimov in December 2007 won a new seven-year term in presidential elections with over 88 percent of the vote.

One of the world’s biggest cotton producers, with extensive gas and mineral reserves, Uzbekistan also boasts an ancient history including Samarkand, one of the world’s oldest cities.

Eurotunnel defends its actions

Eurotunnel has launched a strong defence of its actions during the problems in the Channel Tunnel last week, saying it had been unfairly criticised for how it reacted.

In a bulletin to its shareholders issued on Christmas, it said its customer, Eurostar, had been in an unprecedented crisis since last Friday, and Eurotunnel was not to blame for the temporary suspension of services on Eurostar trains.

Hundreds of passengers were trapped in the tunnel for hours when five high-speed trains became immobilised after extremely cold conditions in northern France led to snow affecting their electronics. Passengers later spoke of nightmare conditions of cold and hunger.