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Revered Iranian Cleric Passes, Funeral Offers Venue for New Anti- Government Protests

Aired December 21, 2009 - 12:00   ET


STAN GRANT, CNN INT'L. ANCHOR, PRISM (voice over): Tens of thousands of protestors, many chanting anti-government slogans are at the funeral of a top Iranian cleric.

Trying to get back on track the French president tells Eurostar to get moving.

And from the inauguration of U.S. President Obama to the death of super star Michael Jackson, it was an eventful year. In our "Prism Segment" tonight, what was the biggest story of 2009?

From CNN Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates, this is PRISM, where we take a story and look at it from multiple perspectives. I'm Stan Grant.

The first of the news tonight, the funeral of a senior cleric in Iran has turned into a protest against the government. Tens of thousands of people joined the funeral procession in the holy city of Qom. The Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who died Sunday, at the age of 87. Many in the procession chanted protest slogans, in a way, that too was a tribute to Montazeri, who was a outspoken critic of the recent presidential election and the crackdown on demonstrators that followed.

Iranian authorities have forbidden foreign media from covering the funeral in Qom, but our Shirzad Bozorgmehr is standing by for us in Tehran, with the government's reaction. He joins us not by phone. And Shirzad take us through that reaction.

SHIRZAD BOZORGMEHR, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Stan, I'm sorry, I didn't hear your question, could you repeat it please?

GRANT: Yes, Shirzad, just give us a sense of what the reaction has been to these protests?

BOZORGMEHR: Well, the only reaction we have had, if you mean official reaction, and that would come from the supreme leader, himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who gave a relatively good account of what Montazeri was all about. That he was a good teacher, a good (AUDIO GAP) cleric. This was unexpected, because the two did not see eye-to-eye politically for a long time, and Ayatollah Montazeri had been forced to sit at home most of the time and not get involved in politics. So, the gesture on the part of the supreme leader of Iran, the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, suggests that the Iranian officials are trying to come to some kind of a compromise with the opposition. This could work, you know, for both sides for the best, Stan.

GRANT: Shirzad, tell us a little bit more about Ayatollah Montazeri and what has prompted such a big protest?

BOZORGMEHR: Well, Ayatollah Montazeri was a senior theologian and was one of the most closest allies of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. He supported Ayatollah Khomeini throughout his quest for changing the regime of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the previous regime. And after the revolution he became a kind of a right-hand man to the Ayatollah Khomeini. But then they had a falling out over a family issue and a member of the family who was involved in some terrorist activities that was alleged by the others in the government. So, Khomeini and Montazeri kind of had a falling out.

And ever since then he was pushed aside in Iranian politics and did not take direct participation in the (INUADIBLE), but he did come out against the regime especially after the election. And he was the highest ranking member of the clergy to do so. And therefore he was kind of revered by his followers and by the opposition members.

GRANT: Shirzad, thank you very much for bringing us up to date on that. Shirzad Bozorgmehr, joining us live from Tehran, on the phone.

Now Europe's burst of winder weather have left dozens of people dead across the continent. Poland appears to have the highest toll, with at least 42 deaths on the plummeting temperatures. Authorities say most of the victims were homeless. Weather related deaths are also reported in Ukraine, Germany and Austria.

The deep freeze has also caused huge headaches for Eurostar rail passengers. But there is some hope on the horizon. Eurostar officials say service through the channel tunnel will be partially restored on Tuesday. Now, the announcement was welcome news to the thousands of passengers stranded on both sides of the English Channel. Paula Newton joins us from St. Pancras Station in London.

And, Paula, some relief, is it going to be enough?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Obviously, in trying to get the passengers back on these trains they will start to deal with some of the backlog, but you are talking about upwards of 100,000 passengers who may have been affected.

Now, this does comes as good news, Stan, but there are still many, many passengers who have holidays ruined, family plans are in a shambles, it is still a very difficult time. Again, the snow and the deep freeze, temperatures Stan, not unprecedented, which is why a lot of people were angry. Let's listen now to Richard Brown, the head of Eurostar, explaining what comes next.


RICHARD BROWN, CEO, EUROSTAR: The measures the engineers have identified to fix the problem are working. We are therefore planning to operate, to reopen services tomorrow, subject to the tests that we will run this afternoon. If those all go well, we will operate the service tomorrow. Inevitably, it will be a somewhat limited service, because we have to modify the trains to make sure that they are reliable in service. And we will not be able to do all 27 of our trains set.


NEWTON: Now, if you consider the backlog that they already have and the fact that they are not going to be full service, there are still going to be some trying times here at these stations in Brussels and Paris, and here in London for some time to come.

Stan, what was the problem? They say a lot of the winterization, whether it is little tweets, modifications to the train to make sure they can withstand the snow and the deep temperatures. This year, for whatever they did differently it just didn't work through this kind of a deep freeze. And that has been the problem.

You know, President Nicholas Sarkozy, of France, joining passengers, frustrated passengers saying, look, we want those trains back on the rails tomorrow, or else. Not sure what the or else is, at this point, but hopefully, hopefully, people will be back on those trains and they can try and get some order out of chaos here at the station, Stan.

GRANT: Paula, thank you very much for that. Paula Newton joining us live there from St. Pancras Station, in London.

Now, let's take a look at some facts our Eurostar. The passenger rail service is jointly owned by railroad entities in the U.K., France and Belgium. In 2008 it carried a record 9.1 million passengers. That works out to about 25,000 per day. It sold $993 million in tickets. And it can travel at speeds exceeding 300 kilometers per hour.

Holiday travelers in the U.S. can sympathize with Eurostar customers. Airport terminals on the East Coast are crowded with passengers trying to book new flights. Record snow fall forced the cancellation of flight across the U.S. Few cities were hit as hard as Washington, the capitol saw flights canceled at three area airports.

Federal offices are still closed today, unfortunately, developing storms could complicate holiday travel in other parts of the U.S. on Tuesday. So with all of that, let's take a look at the global weather picture. Lola Martinez is at the CNN World Weather Center.

And Lola, let's start with the U.S., what is the picture there.


GRANT: Now they sought asylum in Cambodia, but were sent back to China, why the Uyghurs were deported. And the possible punishment they could face.

And from the war in Afghanistan to the massive arrests and protests in Iran, we ask what was the year's top story? That is ahead in our "Prism Segment".


GRANT: U.S. President Barack Obama took a another step toward fulfilling a major campaign promise with the transfer of a dozen more detainees from the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. Department of Justice says the 12 detainees were transferred to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somaliland. That brings the number still being held at the controversial prison camp to less than 200. The White House says it will eventually transfer up to 100 detainees to a prison in the U.S. state of Illinois.

China is providing Cambodia with $1 billion in aid, just two days after Phnom Pen deported 20 Uyghurs seeking asylum. Critics are condemning the move as an apparent breach of international conventions. John Vause has more on the situation.


JOHN VAUSE, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Government officials here in Beijing have now confirmed that 20 Uyghurs asylum seekers are back in China after being expelled from Cambodia over the weekend. The Uyghurs are ethnic Muslims who fled China's western Shinjang (ph) region about a month ago. Riots there, earlier this year, between the Uyghur Muslims and the Chinese Han population left almost 200 people dead. Chinese officials had called the 20 Uyghurs wanted criminals.

The U.S. State Department said China had requested the return of the asylum seekers. But a spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing said the Uyghurs were deported from Cambodia because they had entered that country illegally and were being expelled under Cambodia's immigration laws. Human rights groups, though, fear for the safety of those 20 Uyghurs saying they face persecution here in China, possibly even the death penalty. China has handed out 17 death sentences in the wake of those riots earlier this year. Almost all of those who have been sentenced to die have been Uyghur Muslims.

The day after the Uyghurs were expelled, China's vice president arrived in Cambodia, the last stop on a four nation Asian tour. Last year, China was Cambodia's biggest source of direct investment and it's biggest foreign aid donor. John Vause, CNN, Beijing.


GRANT: A new threat from North to South Korea. The North has declared what it calls a firing zone in disputed waters off its west coast. The area has been the site of several clashes, including one just last month. Pyongyang is now warning South Korean ships like these to say away. Today's announcement is North Korea's latest rejection of the sea border drawn up by the U.N. at the end of the Korean War. Pyongyang wants the border moved farther south.

Swine flu, the death of Michael Jackson, the inauguration of America's first black president? All huge stories. In our "Prism Segment" tonight, a look back at the defining moments for 2009.

GRANT: Welcome back our "Prism Segment" this evening we tackle a subjective story for you. The top stories of 2009, what were they for you? Of course, it all depends on who you ask. Let's start on the streets of London.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably President Obama's election is probably quite massive. Because he's quite a change from George Bush, but talking about him. Nothing other than that, I think something like President Obama is a bit more important than (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 2009 the biggest thing? It's got to be Obama, isn't it? Really, nothing else as big as that, is there? Biggest country in the world, most powerful man in the world, what's bigger than that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The biggest will probably have been the global realization that there is global warming and everybody waking up to it. I think that is probably the biggest thing as far as I'm concerned.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Barack Obama as the president of United States.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because it is really important. And I like him. I don't know. It is the first thing that I come up with in my mind.


GRANT: Now, some of you have given us your thoughts on the top story of 2009 on Twitter.

Khalid writes: "Obama got the Nobel prize for peace, gave speech in support of war. Such contradiction amazing, isn't it?"

Dan writes, "The death of Michael Jackson."

ABluePearl writes: "Biggest story of the year, Iran election."

And Jay writes, "Story of the year: Obama takes office."

Certainly dominating a lot of both lists. Now the Associated Press has put out two lists for top stories for 2009. This first ranking is based on voting by member editors and news directors. They chose the U.S. economy, Barack Obama's inauguration, a close second, the U.S. health care debate, followed the U.S. auto industry's steep decline, and swine flu in the top five stories.

For the first time on Facebook, any one who vote, and the top five stories they choose, yes, Barack Obama's inauguration, followed by the U.S. economy, Michael Jackson's death was third, the safe landing of the U.S. Airways Jet in the Hudson River, in New York, remember that? That is number four. And swine flue rounding out the top five.

The popular web only magazine, is out with its list of top 10 stories for 2009. Slate is a primarily a current events and culture issues driven site, with a largely U.S. following.

Slate asked its readers to rate the top stories and here is how they came out: On top, once again, the inauguration of President Barack Obama, with 16 percent of the vote. Second was health care reform with 14 percent of the vote. The economy and recovery efforts came in third, with 12 percent. The decision to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, was fourth on the list, 9 percent of the votes there, at fifth, in the reader poll was the alleged election fraud and protest in Iran, at 7 percent. Michael Jackson's death, 6 percent, in sixth place. And the vote over the swine flu pandemic, was on reader's minds at 5 percent of the vote.

President Obama's nomination of the first Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court, came in eighth with 4 percent of the vote. Climate change was ninth, with 3 percent. And finally the increasing U.S federal deficit ranked as the 10th biggest story of the year with 3 percent of the vote.

There are a few surprises; stories that are not on the list. Joining us from CNN Washington, is Melonyce McAfee, she is an editor and writer at Slate.

And, Melonyce, let's start with the biggest picture. How you compile a list like this. Is it a mixture of the big historic events and the water cooler conversation.

MELONYCE MCAFEE, EDITOR, WRITER, SLATE MAGAZINE: Exactly, Stan, we wanted to sort of mix in the big news events that everybody is talking about around the water cooler that are important to everyone in America, and that affects them like health care reform and like the economic recover efforts. But we also put things in there that are sort of fluff and fodder for gossip, such as the "Jon & Kate, Plus 8" television show, and the break up of their marriage, and the balloon boy fiasco, and things like that, and Tiger Woods' mistress scandal. So we had all those things on the list, but surprisingly none of them made the top 10. People were more concerned about things that affected their own lives, like the economy and like the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

GRANT: Yes, interesting about President Obama, because if you look at all of the lists, just about, around the world, he seems to be coming out on top, a symbolic election, obviously, but a person -many are looking to - for fresh hope.

MCAFEE: Absolutely. I think, your man on the street interviews definitely echoed our survey, in that people , you know, almost a year into his presidency, people are still seeing that this man has galvanized the country, right and left. People who agree with this policies, as well as people who don't. And so it is the same here in America, as overseas, the inauguration of Barack Obama definitely, hands down, the top story of the year.

GRANT: Interesting, if you are looking for the one where were you moment, the moment that everyone can remember, exactly where they were when they heard the news, Michael Jackson's death, for sure (ph), wouldn't it?

MCAFEE: Oh, yes, I think that is the one sort of more cultural, or entertainment based story that definitely made the top 10 and that was not a surprise, because he probably the most famous, most recognizable person worldwide. And to have him pass away at such an unexpected and young age, was just a shock throughout the world. I do think, like you said, everyone remembers where they were when they heard about Michael Jackson's death.

GRANT: Looking at what is not on the list, keeping in mind, that this was a U.S. based poll.

MCAFEE: Right.

GRANT: You don't see much mention of China, there, and yet, if you look at China's influence on the world. Now people talk about the G2, the U.S. and China.

MCAFEE: Uh-huh.

GRANT: Some have said China is the story of the coming decade. But it hasn't yet seeped into public consciousness, at least according to this poll.

MCAFEE: Well, I think, you know, the economic downturn and things like that have sort of focused Americans' attention inward, and you know there are job losses in our own backyard. Everyone knows someone who is under employed, or unemployed. Everyone knows one in the neighborhood who is mortgage was foreclosed upon. So, I that sort of makes you look inward and makes you a little more self focused. And so, yes, China didn't show up on the survey and I think it has a little bit to do with the economic turmoil that we are going through right here on our own soil.

GRANT: Just finally, on the economic turmoil, it is interesting to me, too, that that came in 10th on your list. Maybe if this poll was taken earlier in the year, it may have in fact been higher. Is there a sense that people are now coming out of that and moving into 2010 at least hoping that things are changing for the better.

MCAFEE: Well, just this month our unemployment numbers were down a little bit, at 10 percent. So, I think that there is a little bit of movement. And there was a declaration, a lot of economists said, I think it was at the end of the summer or the beginning of the fall, that the great recession was over, for the most part. Now if that is translating into jobs, I'm not quite sure. But I think people do see things might be on the up swing and so maybe that is why that landed a little bit farther down the list.

GRANT: Melonyce, appreciate you coming on and sharing some of your thoughts and that list with us. Melonyce McAfee there, and editor and writer at Slate. Thank you.

MCAFEE: Thanks, Stan.

Some different views there on the top story of 2009. Our "Prism Segment" I'm sure you have got your own views as well.

Finally, tonight, a Russian rocket is now headed to the International Space Station after blasting off from Kazakhstan. On board the Soyuz spacecraft, three astronauts from the U.S., Japan, and Russia. They'll be joining to other astronauts who have been on the space station now for three weeks, during this holiday season. NASA has created postcards on its web site, that the public can send to the astronauts.

And that's it for me, Stan Grant in Abu Dhabi. "Autumn of Change" coming up next, that is after we update the headlines.