Weekly Briefing

Russia: espionage

"There's more politics than intelligence in this scandal," sighed Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Russian newspaper known for its links to the Kremlin, as the FBI arrested 11 alleged Russian spies. The arrests came days after the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, met Barack Obama, sparking talk of a "reset" of ties.

The western media have been more excited, reporting on "deep cover" operations and data transfers. But the US has not rebuked Russia, and the suspects are not charged with espionage but money laundering and failing to register as a foreign country's representatives.

Meanwhile, Lebanon provides a reminder that spies never really went away. A man accused of spying for Israel has been arrested. He faces a life in prison with hard labour or death if found guilty of contributing to Lebanese deaths.

Thailand: by-election

Almost 500 anti-government protesters - arrested in Bangkok in May following a two-month period of civil unrest - remain in police custody, some on charges as serious as terrorism. But one has been released, so that he could register as a candidate for a by-election due on 25 July. Korkaew Pikulthong, who will stand for the Puea Thai Party, is banned from recording audio or visual campaign materials, but his candidacy brings new legitimacy to the "red-shirt" movement.

The general election that the demonstrators called for is yet to materialise, but the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, must call one by the end of 2011. In the meantime, the fight for this seat is expected to be fierce.

Guinea: democracy

Even if Guinea's presidential election on 27 June had been a disaster - and reports say it was anything but - it would still have been the country's most democratic in more than 50 years. Since gaining independence in 1958, Guinea had endured a series of autocrats. When elections were held, they had been corrupt.

A clash last year between soldiers and protesters calling for the country's then-leader, Moussa Camara, to step down, led to horrific violence. But the UN investigation that followed also resulted in the junta's dissolution.

Guinea's transitional leader, Sekouba Konate, banned all serving politicians from running. He reminded the candidates that they would choose the country's fate : "Peace, freedom and democracy, or chaos and instability." With more than three-quarters of voters turning out for the polls, the will to achieve the former was clear.

New Zealand: smoking

"This is a prison. It's not home. It's actually a prison," said Judith Collins, the corrections minister, of the smoking ban in New Zealand's prisons, due to start in July 2011. "It will be a total ban across all prisons. Not in the cells, not even out in the yard."

Stern words. But neither punishment nor concern for the prison population's health seems to be the primary motivating factor. Instead, fittingly, it's the law. Many Kiwi prisoners now share cells, raising the risk that non-smokers forced to share with Fag-Ash Lils might sue.
Just as well the problem isn't cigarettes themselves. Research from the US - where more than half of prisons forbid smoking - shows bans merely add a new product line to the black market.

US: Marilyn's chest

Some like it irradiated, apparently. The three X-rays of Marilyn Monroe's chest that came up for auction on 27 June were expected to sell for a few thousand dollars, but in the end two anonymous bidders saw fit to spend $45,000 between them on the images - labelled Marilyn DiMaggio, her married name - of the actress's thoracic cavity.

Suddenly, the $190,000 spent at an auction the same day on one of Michael Jackson's crystal-studded gloves seems a prudent investment. At least the buyer can get some wear out of that.