heroes & villains

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2006, 12:00am


Alexander Litvinenko The sensible thing for the former KGB lieutenant to have done when he was granted asylum in Britain in 2000 after falling foul of his ruthless Russian bosses was to lie low, stay safe and live quietly with his wife and young son. Litvinenko was not the sensible type, however. He devoted his time and energy to exposing what he saw as the rotten core of Vladimir Putin's regime, accusing his former bosses of co-ordinating the 1999 apartment block bombings blamed on Chechen separatists and of training al-Qaeda terrorists. He said he was motivated by patriotism, announcing in one interview: 'I believe Russia will rise again and that I will manage to return to the motherland and Moscow.' That dream died when he was killed by polonium poisoning in a piece of cold-war-style brutality that shocked the world. Litvinenko's dignity and composure in his final days were remarkable, and the image of him on his death bed - defiant - a powerful indictment of the poison coursing through post-Soviet Russian society.

Muhammad Yunus Few Nobel Peace Prize winners have done more to help the world's poor than Dr Yunus, the modest and simple-living founder of a revolutionary micro-credit banking system that has helped more than 7 million people. Dr Yunus, known as 'the world's banker to the poor', came up with the idea when he was professor of economics at Chittagong University in Bangladesh in 1976. The scheme extends loans to people shunned by conventional banking systems - even beggars get loans - and is so successful it has been copied in developing countries around the world.

Al Gore Failed presidential candidates usually fade into obscurity, popping up occasionally to cause acute political embarrassment in the style of John Kerry, with his bungled joke about how school dropouts can expect to end up in Iraq. Not so Mr Gore. This year he emerged from the shadows of his 2000 election defeat as a champion against global warming and an unlikely film star. The movie version of the slide show he has toured with since student days became one of the unlikeliest box office hits. Mr Gore's passion and eloquence in An Inconvenient Truth has probably done more than any pressure group's campaign to focus attention on what is arguably the biggest issue facing the planet. Ironically, Mr Gore avoided the subject in his presidential campaign after being told by advisers that voters did not care about global warming. How different would the world be today if he had ignored them and won the White House?

Natascha Kampusch From the moment she emerged blinking into the sunlight, the extraordinary story of an 18-year-old Austrian girl who escaped after being held captive for eight years by the man who abducted her and held her prisoner in his cellar was never going to be straightforward. Ms Kampusch was a girl whose childhood was stolen yet who survived and ultimately won her freedom by slowly taking control of her captor and imposing her more powerful personality on his. When she escaped, Wolfgang Priklopil threw himself beneath the wheels of a train. Those who wanted a happy ending to her story were disappointed. In rare interviews, she appears to find her new life lonely, complicated and bewildering. She lives alone, shuns her parents and is afraid to step outside. The real world has so far turned out to be as much a prison for this lost girl as the Vienna basement she escaped.

Warren Buffett America's second-wealthiest man started the trend for the super-rich to become super-philanthropists when he announced earlier this year that he would give US$37 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Cynics might point out that with an estimated wealth of US$42 billion, Mr Buffet will still have US$5 billion to struggle by on, but his dramatic largesse has certainly caught on among the very well off. Billionaires have been queuing up to get in on the act, it seems, and the habit is starting to take hold even in Asia. Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, recently pledged to leave a third of his estimated US$19 billion fortune to charity, and action star Jackie Chan said he would bequest half his US$128 million fortune to good causes.

Kim Jong-il In the time it took for the seismic shockwaves of an underground nuclear explosion to reverberate around the world on October 9, the North Korean leader successfully transformed his image from pantomime baddie to an international menace. If he was fed up with being viewed as a buffoon, the ploy was certainly effective. North Korea has for long been a member of President George W. Bush's 'axis of evil', but it was always difficult to take Mr Kim seriously with his bouffant hair, platform shoes, Mao suits and obsessions with Elvis, western cinema, fresh lobsters and Hennessy cognac. His regime has now detonated a nuclear device - albeit a small one - and is threatening to expand its nuclear programme unless sanctions against the country are lifted. But even though Mr Kim has achieved No1 international villain status, it is still hard not to see him as more of an Austin Powers 'Dr Evil' character rather than a hard-core James Bond baddie.

Donald Rumsfeld So now we know who was to blame for everything that has been going wrong in Iraq - the hawkish, ebullient defence secretary who in November unofficially took the blame for the bloody fiasco the conflict has turned into by stepping down. Mr Rumsfeld once said: 'If you are not criticised you are not doing your job' - and judging by that maxim, he was doing that job extremely effectively, riding out the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the mounting casualties and unintentionally personifying all that was strategically wrong about the Iraq war. His departure has given the Bush administration the opportunity to admit for the first time it is not winning the war and to look afresh at the situation under Mr Rumsfeld's successor, Robert Gates. All well and good - except of course that it will not make it any easier to find a solution to the mess.

Pope Benedict Taking took up his post as head of the Catholic church with the nickname 'God's Rottweiler', Pope Benedict, with his conciliatory and moderate style, appeared to be something of a pussycat - until he spoke out on the subject of Islam in September. At a time when the world is bristling with religious tension and when many Muslims feel victimised and marginalised, the Pope gave an address quoting a 14th-century Christian emperor who said the Prophet Mohammed had brought the world only 'evil and inhuman' things. To his credit, the 79-year-old pontiff apologised quickly, expressed 'total and profound respect' for Muslims and appeared to finally defuse tensions over his remarks on a visit last month to Turkey.

Than Shwe The military junta that rules Myanmar is notoriously secretive, particularly when it comes to the question of their personal wealth. So it is easy to understand the commotion when a 10-minute video clip of the wedding of the daughter of the country's leader, Than Shwe, found its way on to the internet. The video showed her wearing strings of diamonds at a ceremony in which she reportedly received gifts worth US$50 million, including luxury cars and houses. Spending on the July wedding is said to have been more than three times the state health budget. The extraordinary opulence in a country buckling under the pressure of international sanctions outraged many ordinary Myanmese but, given past form, is unlikely to bring more than a mild blush of embarrassment to the cheeks of a regime that appears determined to hold tight to power, whatever anyone thinks of it.

Spammers They are the villains breaking into every home and office, and evidence shows there is less than ever we can do to stop them. They found new ways to get around the anti-spam technology that had kept them largely under control. Worldwide volumes of spam have doubled in the past year and it is estimated that nine out of 10 e-mails are spam. Some Web-hosting companies are now blocking all messages from countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, where much of the spam originate. Technology will no doubt eventually overtake spammers and give computer users the satisfaction of being able to shut them out. In the meantime, when you hear that 'ping' of an incoming email, do not rush to your computer - the chances are it will be just another piece of junk.