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Legal news from Tuesday, January 16, 2007




Former UN Oil-for-Food chief indicted in US on bribery, fraud charges
Bernard Hibbitts on January 16, 2007 10:43 PM ET

[JURIST] The former head of the tarnished UN Oil-for-Food Program [official website; JURIST news archive] was indicted [press release, PDF] by US federal prosecutors in New York Tuesday on charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Benon Sevan [BBC profile] resigned from his post last year and fled to his native Cyprus, from where he is unlikely to be extradited [JURIST report]. The indictment alleges that Sevan took some $160,000 from the brother of then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as a bribe from the Iraqi government. Sevan, through his lawyer, has denied the charges. Reuters has more.

The UN Oil-for-Food program was designed to allow the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, under UN sanctions in the wake of its invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War, to sell limited stocks of oil in return for foodstuffs and other humanitarian supplies. The program was abused, however, and Saddam's regime sold oil on the black market and bribed foreign officials and commercial interests to allow this, embezzling over $1 billion in Program funds and perhaps as much another $10 billion from other sources. The allegations against Sevan were initially made public [JURIST report] in August 2005 in an interim report of the independent commission of inquiry led by former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, although the Manhattan US Attorney's office had already launched its own investigation [JURIST report] into Sevan's conduct on the strength of allegations made by a US Senate committee [JURIST report], among others. Sevan had been suspended from his post [JURIST report] by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February of that year, but he formally resigned just before [JURIST report] the findings of the report were announced.






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French lower house passes bill allowing presidential impeachment
Bernard Hibbitts on January 16, 2007 9:03 PM ET

[JURIST] The French National Assembly [official website, in French], the lower house of the French parliament, passed by voice vote Tuesday a bill [text and materials, in French] authorizing the impeachment of a French president but otherwise conferring legal immunity on the person holding that office during his or her term. The bill had languished in parliament after being approved by the French cabinet three years ago; it comes forward as current President Jacques Chrirac approaches the end of his second term with a number of corruption cases [JURIST news archive] still looming over him. The bill does not extend immunity to a president after his term has expired, however.

The bill has drawn the support of presidential candidate Segolene Royale [campaign website, in French], three members of whose Socialist Party unsuccessfully tried to impeach Chirac [BBC report] in 2001, but her leading rival, conservative Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy [campaign website, in French] has not taken a public position on it. The legislation must now go to the Senate [official website, in French] and then - because it would change the French Constitution - to a special joint session of the French parliament expected in late February. AP has more.






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Israel PM facing criminal investigation over bank privatization
Alexis Unkovic on January 16, 2007 7:39 PM ET

[JURIST] The Israeli Ministry of Justice [official website] said Tuesday the state prosecutor plans to launch an investigation into allegations that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert [official website; BBC profile] impermissibly promoted the interests of two business associates in his capacity as minister of finance during the 2005 state sale of Bank Leumi [official website]. Olmert supposedly favored his associates in the sell-off of the bank's controlling interest. The bank was eventually sold to a US group to which Olmert's associates were unconnected. Olmert's opponents responded to news of the probe with calls for his resignation, while a spokesperson for Olmert said he would "fully cooperate" with the investigation. Reuters has more.

Rumors of the criminal probe first surfaced [JURIST report] in October after word of an internal Ministry of Justice memo calling for a probe was leaked. Allegations of bribery have also been made, since one of Olmert's friends seeking approval of his bid for the bank overpaid for Olmert's house and then allowed Olmert to rent it at a low price.






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Supreme Court hears arguments in insurance, bankruptcy cases
Alexis Unkovic on January 16, 2007 7:25 PM ET

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Tuesday in the consolidated cases of Safeco Insurance v. Burr and GEICO General Insurance v. Edo [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 06-00084 and 06-00100, cases in which plaintiffs claim the insurance companies GEICO [corporate website] and Safeco [corporate website] breached the dictates of the Fair Credit Reporting Act [text, PDF] when they failed to notify customers that poor credit reports were the reason they had been denied favorable rate coverage. The case is on appeal from the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals [official website] which held [opinion, PDF] in January 2006 that the requisite state of mind the plaintiffs must prove to establish a violation of the act is reckless disregard, while defendants urged the standard of knowledge would be more appropriate. Justice Samuel Alito [JURIST news archive] indicated at argument that he did not favor the notification requirements urged by plaintiffs. AP has more.

Also on Tuesday, the Court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] in Travelers Casualty v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 05-01429, a case which addresses whether a creditor in a federal bankruptcy case can recover the costs of attorneys fees. The issue turns on whether the Supreme Court is willing to overturn the "Fobian Rule" established by the Ninth Circuit in the 1991 case of Fobian v. Western Farm Credit Bureau in which the court held that the federal bankruptcy law did not authorize the recovery of attorneys fees. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg [OYEZ profile] and Anthony Kennedy [OYEZ profile] hinted they may be willing to abandon the Fobian precedent. AP has more.






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Second Argentina judge issues arrest warrant for ex-president Peron
Ryan Olden on January 16, 2007 7:06 PM ET

[JURIST] Argentine Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide issued a second international arrest warrant on Tuesday for former Argentine President Isabel Peron [Wikipedia profile], currently living in exile in Spain. The warrant demands that Peron be returned to Argentina [JURIST news archive] for questioning about the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance [MIPT backgrounder] (Triple A), a government-supported death squad. Prosecutors in Argentina believe the Triple A was the brainchild of Jose Lopez Rega, Peron's minister of social welfare. The investigation was dropped after Rega's death in 1989 but has been revived after amnesty laws were overturned [JURIST report] in 2005 and the government began its subsequent campaign to prosecute the human rights violations of the country's infamous "Dirty War" [GlobalSecurity backgrounder; JURIST news archive]. These investigations have been expanded to include the tenure of Peron [JURIST report].

Isabel Peron, formally Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, assumed the presidency of Argentina in 1974 after the death of her husband, President Juan Domingo Peron. She was ousted by a military junta in 1976. Late last week, Peron was arrested [JURIST report] in Spain [JURIST news archive] under an arrest warrant issued by from another Argentine judge, Raul Acosta, who believes Peron signed three decrees in support of state terror including the disappearance of political opponent Hector Aldo Fagetti Gallego. She was later given a provisional release because the Spanish authorities do not believe the 75 year-old Peron will be able to flee due to her poor health. Reuters has more.






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Federal appeals court rejects 22-year sentence for LA 'Millennium bomber'
Ryan Olden on January 16, 2007 6:06 PM ET

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday overturned the 22-year sentence of Ahmed Ressam [Wikipedia profile], convicted of attempting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium. The court reversed Ressam's conviction for carrying explosives while committing a felony, one of the nine charges of which he was found guilty. The case will now be remanded to the lower court for a new sentence and explanation consistent with Rymer's ruling. The felony in question was lying on the customs form, which Ressam filled out when he crossed into the United States from Canada with 124 pounds of explosives in his car. Judge Pamela Rymer held that the prosecution did not prove carrying the "explosives show how aided or emboldened" Ressam to give a fake name.

After his conviction in 2001, Ressam provided the government with information that trial Judge John Coughenour called "startlingly helpful". In July 2005, Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison [JURIST report] for his crimes. The government appealed [JURIST report] the sentence a month later, complaining it was too lenient. Since federal judges are given wide discretion in sentencing, the Ninth Circuit remand does not mean Ressam's sentence will necessarily be reduced. AP has more.






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Lawyers for US Marines squad leader call for probe of Haditha report leak
Brett Murphy on January 16, 2007 5:23 PM ET

[JURIST] Attorneys for Marine Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, charged with the killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha [USMC timeline; JURIST news archive], have asked Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis to launch an investigation into the leak of a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) [official website] report after the Washington Post earlier this month printed photos of Iraqis allegedly killed by Wuterich [WP report]. One of the photos had not yet been made public, and Wuterich's lawyers have expressed concern that the leak could impair the integrity of court-martial proceedings. Wuterich was one of eight Marines charged [list of charges and specifications; JURIST report] last month in connection with the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha [JURIST report].

According to the Post report, Wuterich shot five unarmed Iraqi civilians [JURIST report] ordered out of a white taxi after his unit took casualties in a roadside bombing in Haditha last November. The deaths prompted two separate military investigations: one conducted by the NCIS aimed at determining whether to prosecute the soldiers involved, and an investigation into decisions made by Marine leadership led by US Army Major General Eldon Bargewell [Wikipedia profile]. Wuterich said last year that his unit followed the rules of engagement [JURIST report] and did not purposefully attack civilians. In August, Wuterich filed a defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuit [complaint, PDF] against Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) [official website], alleging that Murtha falsely accused him of war crimes during press conferences where Murtha discussed [JURIST report] the Haditha killings. AP has more.






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Thai election fraud trial of former ruling party begins
Brett Murphy on January 16, 2007 1:22 PM ET

[JURIST] Thailand's former ruling Thai Rak Thai (TRT) [party website] party went on trial Tuesday on charges of committing election fraud [JURIST report] during last year's parliamentary elections by allegedly misusing the independent election commission and illegally paying smaller parties to run candidates against it to satisfy minimum vote requirements. On the eve of the trial, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra [BBC profile] made his first public statements since the military coup [JURIST report] ousted the TRT party and Thaksin from power in September, telling the Wall Street Journal that he no longer wants to participate in politics, but would like to "go back to my country, and spend time with my family and help Thai society through charitable activities." TRT official Phongthep Thepkanjana denied any connection between the timing of Thaksin's statements and the trial.

In October, Thai Army Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin [BBC profile], who led the coup against Thaksin's government, admitted that investigators were struggling to find evidence of corruption during Thaksin's tenure. Despite this, Sonthi stated that Thaksin would not yet be allowed to return. AFP has more.






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EU justice officials urge expansion of police data-sharing among member states
Brett Murphy on January 16, 2007 12:44 PM ET

[JURIST] EU law enforcement officials agreed Monday that a police data-sharing agreement among members states should be expanded to include all 27 member nations. German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble [Interior Ministry website] made the announcement at the end of two-day meeting of EU justice and interior ministers [overview, in German], the first during Germany's EU presidency [official website]. Schaeuble suggested that the EU and US could make a similar data-sharing agreement as part of a joint effort to combat terrorism, stating that "if we are talking about guaranteeing security...we wish to cooperate closely with our American partners."

The current EU agreement, signed in 2005 and known as the Schengen III Agreement [PDF text; Liberty and Security backgrounder], provides that seven EU nations - Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain - share police information from their respective fingerprint, DNA, and license plate databases. On Friday, Schaeuble called for greater EU-wide cooperation on illegal immigration [JURIST report]. Germany's presidency began in January and will conclude at the end of June. The European Presidency is responsible for the organization and chairing of all meetings in the Council of the European Union [official website], the EU's main decision-making body. AP has more.






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Bosnia Serb paramilitary leader changing plea to guilty in war crimes case
Jeannie Shawl on January 16, 2007 12:26 PM ET

[JURIST] Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia [official website; JURIST news archive] said Tuesday that Dragan Zelenovic [ICTY case backgrounder] will plead guilty to rape and murder charges stemming from the Bosnian Serb's time as a police officer and paramilitary leader during the Bosnian war. Zelenovic was extradited to the ICTY [JURIST report] last year and in July pleaded not guilty to the charges [indictment, PDF]. Under Zelenovic's agreement with prosecutors, seven of 14 charges will be dropped in exchange for his guilty plea. Prosecutors are seeking a 10-15 year sentence, though the defense has asked for a 7-10 year sentence.

Zelenovic was indicted in 1996, along with Gojko Jankovic, who surrendered to the ICTY in 2005 and pleaded not guilty [JURIST reports] to war crimes in March at the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina [JURIST report; HRW backgrounder]. Jankovic's trial is still ongoing [IWPR report].






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US law deans 'appalled' by Stimson criticism of law firms for representing detainees
Bernard Hibbitts on January 16, 2007 11:09 AM ET

[JURIST] More than 130 deans of US law schools [signatories list] signed a statement [text] released Monday expressing their dismay at comments [JURIST report] made last week by DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Detainee Affairs Charles "Cully" Stimson in a radio interview [recorded audio] critizing top US law firms for providing pro bono representation to Guantanamo detainees. "We," the deans wrote,

are appalled by the January 11, 2007 statement of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles "Cully" Stimson, criticizing law firms for their pro bono representation of suspected terrorist detainees and encouraging corporate executives to force these law firms to choose between their pro bono and paying clients.

As law deans and professors, we find Secretary Stimson’s statement to be contrary to basic tenets of American law. We teach our students that lawyers have a professional obligation to ensure that even the most despised and unpopular individuals and groups receive zealous and effective legal representation. Our American legal tradition has honored lawyers who, despite their personal beliefs, have zealously represented mass murderers, suspected terrorists, and Nazi marchers. At this moment in time, when our courts have endorsed the right of the Guantanamo detainees to be heard in courts of law, it is critical that qualified lawyers provide effective representation to these individuals. By doing so, these lawyers protect not only the rights of the detainees, but also our shared constitutional principles. In a free and democratic society, government officials should not encourage intimidation of or retaliation against lawyers who are fulfilling their pro bono obligations.

We urge the Administration promptly and unequivocally to repudiate Secretary Stimson’s remarks.
The statement was drafted and circulated by Dean Harold Hongju Koh of Yale Law School and Dean Emily A. Spieler of Northeastern University School of Law.

Stimson told Federal News Radio Thursday on the fifth anniversary of the US military prison that "when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line in 2001 those CEO's are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms." The former Navy lawyer said "It's shocking...The major law firms in this country...are out there representing detainees." His comments drew immediate harsh criticism [JURIST comment] from lawyers representing some of the detainees, and the Pentagon quickly indicated that Stimson's comments "do not represent the views of the Defense Department or the thinking of its leadership." The Boston Globe has more.





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Iraq VP surprised by timing of Saddam co-defendant executions
Holly Manges Jones on January 16, 2007 7:33 AM ET

[JURIST] Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said Tuesday that he was taken by surprise by the hangings [JURIST report] Monday of former Saddam Hussein-era Revolutionary Court judge Awad Hamed al-Bandar [Wikipedia profile] and former Iraqi intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti [GlobalSecurity profile; BBC profile], sentenced to death [JURIST report] with Hussein in November in connection with crimes against humanity committed in the town of Dujail in 1982. Hashemi said the Iraqi Presidency Council [Wikipedia backgrounder] had asked to delay the executions of Bandar and Tikriti, so he was caught off guard that the death sentences were carried out despite that appeal.

While public outcry has been quieter than after the execution of Saddam Hussein [JURIST report] last month, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice [official profile] expressed disappointment [transcript] that the men did not meet their deaths with greater dignity. Rice's comments follow reports that Tikriti was decapitated during his hanging, which Amnesty International criticized [AI press release] as emphasizing "the brutality of this already cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment." AFP has more.






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Jury selection begins in Libby CIA leak trial
Holly Manges Jones on January 16, 2007 7:13 AM ET

[JURIST] Jury selection begins Tuesday in the CIA leak trial [JURIST news archive] of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby [defense website; JURIST news archive] and attorneys for both sides plan to ask potential jurors questions about their political affiliations. US District Judge Reggie Walton [official profile] approved a final list of questions proposed by attorneys that will be asked of the group of 60 potential jurors over the next few days. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald [official website] also hopes to ask jurors what news sources they read, while defense attorneys plan to ask how the jurors feel about the war in Iraq and whether they believe the Bush administration lied to the American public about the reasons for going to war.

Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice [indictment, PDF; JURIST report] in connection with Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. One of Libby's defense lawyers has indicated that his client plans to call [JURIST report] his former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney [official website], to testify and also plans to take the witness stand himself. Opening arguments are expected to begin Monday. AP has more.






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Kuwait royal family member gets death sentence for drug offenses
Holly Manges Jones on January 16, 2007 7:01 AM ET

[JURIST] A court in Kuwait [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] has sentenced to death a member of the country's ruling family for drug trafficking offenses, saying the defendant "deserved no mercy." It is unknown how closely Sheik Talal Nasser Al Sabah is related to the head of the Kuwaiti royal family [Wikipedia backgrounder], but Sunday's verdict marks the first known occurrence of a ruling family member in a Gulf Arab country being given a death sentence for drug-related charges. A search of Sheik Talal's home revealed cocaine, hashish, and materials commonly used to ready drugs for sale.

Sheik Talal also received a $35,000 fine for drug trafficking, three years of jail time for illegally possessing firearms, and a $3 million fine and seven years in prison for money laundering. He allegedly laundered nearly $3 million in drug money by investing in properties located in the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon [JURIST news archive]. Sheik Talal's death sentence may be appealed. AP has more. From Kuwait, the Arab Times has local coverage.






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