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Legal news from Thursday, March 6, 2008




UN rights council condemns Israel attacks in Gaza Strip
Nick Fiske on March 6, 2008 6:05 PM ET

[JURIST] The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) [official website] Thursday condemned [press release] Israel's most recent offensive in the Gaza Strip [BBC backgrounder] in a resolution passed by the seventh session [HRC materials] of the HRC. The resolution, which was introduced by Pakistan and other Muslim countries, likened Israel's attacks to collective punishment of Palestinian civilians and called for an immediate cease fire by both sides. The HRC passed the resolution by a vote of 33-1, with Canada casting the sole dissenting vote. Thirteen Council members abstained from voting.

On Monday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour [official profile] called on Israel [press release; JURIST report] to conduct an impartial investigation into the deaths of Palestinians during the attacks. In January, Arbour criticized [JURIST report] an Israeli blockade of Gaza, saying that the Israel's policy of collective punishment, disproportionate use of force and targeted killings had helped precipitate problems in the area. Israeli troops began to withdraw from Gaza Monday after an incursion last week, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert [JURIST news archive] warned that strikes would continue [Haaretz report] against local Hamas targets. AP has more. Reuters has additional coverage.






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Niger court sentences journalist to one month for criticizing judicial rulings
Benjamin Klein on March 6, 2008 5:53 PM ET

[JURIST] A court in Niger sentenced the editor-in-chief of the bi-monthly L'Eveil Plus newspaper to one month in prison Thursday for "discrediting" judicial rulings by publishing an article contrasting the different sentences handed down to two politicians convicted of similar offenses. Boubacar Gourouza was also ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 CFA francs. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) [advocacy website] criticized [RSF press release; country report] the sentence as "undemocratic," noting that comparing court decisions was common practice in democratic countries. The International Federation of Journalists [advocacy website] also condemned the decision and called for Gourouza's release [press release]. AFP has more.

Gourouza's arrest follows that of reporter Pierre Creisson and cameraman Thomas Dandois [profiles, in French] in December 2007. The two were charged [JURIST report] in January with threatening state security for allegedly trying to report on an ethnic Tuareg rebellion [BBC backgrounder] under the guise of traveling to southern areas of the country to report on the bird flu virus. The Nigerien government has banned all foreigners and reporters from entering the northern region, and has made reporting on the rebels a crime punishable by death.






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Mexico Senate passes judicial reform bill
Katerina Ossenova on March 6, 2008 5:40 PM ET

[JURIST] The Mexican Senate [official website] Thursday approved a bill [text, in Spanish] authorizing a variety of judicial reforms [press release, in Spanish] providing for public and oral trials, guaranteeing the presumption of innocence and allowing for the use of recorded telephone conversations as evidence with consent. While Mexico's lower house of Congress overwhelmingly approved [JURIST report] the bill in February by a 462-6 vote, the Senate voted 71-25 [tally, PDF, in Spanish] in favor of the bill. The original legislation included a provision which would have allowed police to search homes without a warrant if they believed there was imminent danger to a person or if a crime was being committed, but the bill was adopted without this provision [press release, in Spanish]. The bill would also guarantee suspects representation by qualified public defenders instead of "advocates" who often do not have a law degree.

In March 2007, Mexican President Felipe Calderon proposed changes [JURIST report] to the country's constitution [text] in an effort to reform its criminal justice system [press release]. Earlier that month, Amnesty International accused Mexico [JURIST news archive] in a report [text] of having a "gravely flawed" criminal justice system in which human rights abuses are perpetuated and criminals are rarely punished. The report cited evidence of arbitrary detentions, torture, fabrication of evidence and unfair trials and said that the victims are often indigenous Mexicans, the poor, women and children. The judicial reform bill must still be approved by at least 16 of Mexico's 31 states and signed into law by the Mexican president. Bloomberg has more.






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Kenya parliament considers power-sharing deal
Katerina Ossenova on March 6, 2008 5:10 PM ET

[JURIST] The Parliament of Kenya [official website] met Thursday to discuss a power sharing deal [JURIST report] between Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki [official profile] and opposition candidate Raila Odinga [campaign profile] that could put an end the violence that began in the wake of December's disputed presidential election [JURIST report]. On February 14, Kibaki and Odinga agreed to write a new constitution [JURIST report] that will create a prime minister's post for Odinga, among other changes. Speaking before the parliament, Kibaki urged lawmakers to support the agreement. AFP has more. Reuters has additional coverage.

Kenya's controversial presidential vote has sparked simmering ethnic tensions in the country, where Kibaki has long been accused of using his position to favor members of the Kikuyu tribe. Fueling accusations of malfeasance, Kibaki won the December 27 election despite early opinion polls that placed rival candidate Odinga in the lead. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets following the election, which prompted the government to temporarily ban public rallies and institute a curfew in Nairobi, the capital city. In all, over 1,000 people have been killed and 250,000 displaced since protests began. Thirteen nations, including several European Union members and the United States, have threatened to cut off aid [JURIST report] to the Kenyan government until the crisis is resolved and democracy is restored. Odinga's opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement filed a formal complaint [JURIST report] in January with the International Criminal Court [official website], alleging that Kibaki's administration has committed crimes against humanity while using force against demonstrators.






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Spain judge drops extradition request for UK residents released from Guantanamo
Katerina Ossenova on March 6, 2008 4:47 PM ET

[JURIST] Spanish National Court Judge Baltasar Garzon [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] Thursday dropped an extradition request [JURIST report] against two UK residents formerly held by the US at the Guantanamo Bay prison [JURIST news archive] after finding that they are not competent to stand trial. Jamil el Banna and Omar Deghayes faced an extradition hearing on April 15 after Garzon requested that the two face charges [El Pais report, in Spanish] of belonging to a Spanish al Qaeda cell. Garzon withdrew the extradition request after reviewing medical reports provided by the British authorities and concluding that both men suffered from severe mental and physical problems caused by their detention at Guantanamo and overseas prisons in Afghanistan and Gambia.

El Banna and Deghayes were released from Guantanamo in December 2007, detained by UK authorities upon arrival there, and freed on bail the next day [JURIST reports]. In August 2007, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office asked the United States to release [press release; JURIST report] five detainees who were legal residents in the UK prior to their detention at Guantanamo, including el Banna and Deghayes. The Guardian has more.






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US military judge rules no Murtha deposition in Haditha court-martial
Brett Murphy on March 6, 2008 12:28 PM ET

[JURIST] A military judge has ruled that US Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) [official website] cannot be forced to submit to a deposition in the court-martial of a Marine charged in connection with the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha [USMC timeline; JURIST news archive], lawyers for Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani [JURIST news archives] said Wednesday. In 2006, Murtha said that the killings had been committed "in cold blood" [JURIST report]. Murtha's comments came after he what he said was a briefing by high-ranking military officials and Chessani's lawyers want Murtha to provide information on who briefed the congressman. Chessani's lawyers said Wednesday that the case is politically motivated [press release] and that "denying us the right to take Murtha's deposition so that we could show undue command influence, as well as denial of our request for production of documents in the possession of Lt. Col. Chessani’s superiors makes it impossible for us to render this loyal Marine officer the effective assistance of counsel he deserves." Chessani faces court-martial on April 28 for dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order based on allegations that he failed to properly investigate the shootings at Haditha, and could serve three years in prison if convicted on all counts.

Chessani, the former commander of the Third Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment [official website], did not order an immediate investigation into the deaths because he said he did not suspect any wrongdoing. It has been alleged that the civilians were murdered in cold blood [JURIST report], but Chessani said that when he first learned of allegations that the civilians were killed intentionally he thought that the claims were baseless. US Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich [advocacy website], who is also facing charges [JURIST report] in connection with the Haditha killings, brought a defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuit [complaint, PDF; JURIST report] against Murtha in 2006, alleging that Murtha falsely accused him of war crimes in his comments on the incident. AP has more.






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Egypt detains 26 more Muslim Brotherhood members ahead of local elections
Brett Murphy on March 6, 2008 12:02 PM ET

[JURIST] Egyptian police arrested 26 additional members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood [party website; FAS backgrounder] on Thursday, adding to the 54 members arrested [JURIST report] on Tuesday and the 86 arrested Wednesday. The Muslim Brotherhood said Wednesday that its candidates will still stay on the ballots [press release; Reuters report] for upcoming provincial council elections, and will complete nomination procedures even while in detention. AP has more.

The provincial council elections were originally scheduled for 2006, but the Egyptian legislature passed a law [JURIST report] delaying the election for two years after the Muslim Brotherhood made a strong showing in the 2005 parliamentary elections. The organization, which has accused the government of trying to prevent it from running candidates in the upcoming elections, also said that 43 members were detained on Monday. Egyptian police arrested additional members [JURIST report] last week. Muslim Brotherhood members officially run as independents in elections as the organization has been banned in Egypt [JURIST news archive] since 1954. The Egyptian government accuses the group of trying to create an Islamic theocracy through violence.






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UK House of Lords votes to abolish criminal blasphemy
Brett Murphy on March 6, 2008 11:11 AM ET

[JURIST] The UK House of Lords [official website] voted Wednesday in favor of abolishing the criminal offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous libel from the UK common law. By a vote of 148-87 [roll call], the House of Lords adopted Amendment 144B [text] to the government-sponsored Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill [bill materials]. The full Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill has not yet received final approval from parliament.

The UK government proposed the provision after being criticized last November for chiding Sudan for arresting a school teacher for insulting religion while having a blasphemy law on the books in the UK. The last blasphemy prosecutions in the UK were in 1922, and before that the two prior prosecutions were in 1841 and 1676. BBC News has more. The Los Angeles Times has additional coverage.






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UK government steps back on compulsory ID card plan
Brett Murphy on March 6, 2008 10:11 AM ET

[JURIST] A UK plan that would have required all citizens to obtain ID cards [Home Office backgrounder; JURIST news archive] when applying for passports by 2010 has been dropped [press release], the Home Office [official website] said Thursday. Under current plans, passports and driver's licenses will be considered acceptable alternative forms of identification for most UK citizens, although people in "positions of trust," such as security guards, will be required to have IDs by 2009. Foreign residents living in the UK will still be required to carry ID cards as early as November 2008. According to the new Home Office plan, all passport applicants will from 2011 also be automatically registered for ID cards when they apply for new biometric passports containing fingerprints; complete implementation of the national ID card system will not occur until 2017.

In January, the UK Identity and Passport Service said it would delay issuing ID cards [JURIST report] until 2010. The IDs are part of an effort to clamp down on illegal immigration [JURIST report] in the UK, but have met with criticism from both Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians who fear they will waste government money and infringe on civil liberties. The UK House of Lords and House of Commons [official websites] approved [JURIST report] the controversial Identity Cards Bill [PDF text; JURIST news archive] authorizing national ID cards in March 2006. BBC News has more.






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Rights groups say Gaza humanitarian conditions at 40-year low
Jaime Jansen on March 6, 2008 9:19 AM ET

[JURIST] Humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip [BBC backgrounder] have reached their lowest point since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967, according to a report [press release; PDF report] released Thursday by a coalition of eight UK-based human rights groups. The coalition, led by Amnesty International UK [advocacy website], said that 80 percent of Gaza's residents depend on food aid, an increase of 17 percent since 2006, and that unemployment has reached 40 percent. Additionally, the water and sewer systems in Gaza are on the verge of collapse, while hospitals deal with power cuts of up to 12 hours a day. In January, the Israeli Supreme Court [official website] ruled that the Israeli government can continue to cut supplies of fuel and electricity [JURIST report] to Gaza, rejecting legal challenges [JURIST report] by human rights groups that a blockade [JURIST report] deprived Gaza residents of basic humanitarian needs in violation of international law.

The Israeli Defense Ministry [official website] immediately rejected the report, blaming the humanitarian crisis on Hamas rulers in Gaza. The Defense Ministry countered the report, saying that Gaza receives unlimited shipments of food, medicine and medical equipment. The 16-page report called on the UK government and the European Union to bring about a new strategy in Gaza. Specifically, the report calls on the UK government to put greater pressure on the Israeli government to open the borders and allow the free flow of fuel and electricity into Gaza, to help facilitate reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, and to begin negotiations with Palestinian parties. The report also urges Israel to halt unlawful attacks on civilians. Earlier this week, UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour urged an impartial investigation [JURIST report] into Israel's recent air strikes on the Gaza Strip, noting that Israel has responsibilities under international human rights and humanitarian law to protect civilians. AP has more. BBC News has additional coverage.






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Chavez denounces Colombian raid on leftist guerilla camp as 'war crime'
Jaime Jansen on March 6, 2008 8:40 AM ET

[JURIST] Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] on Wednesday denounced a Colombian attack on a Ecuadorian camp belonging to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) [MIPT backgrounder] rebel group as a "war crime." Chavez joined Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa [official website; JURIST news archive] in condemning Colombia for the attack, and both urged the Organization of American States (OAS) [official website] to conclude that the attack violated Ecuador's sovereignty. OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza has asked the three countries [press release] to respect "the principles that govern coexistence among the American nations," while the US has encouraged the countries to use the OAS [VOA report] as a forum to resolve the dispute. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has also urged restraint [statement].

Ecuador and Venezuela severed diplomatic ties with Colombia following the attack. Colombia claims that its actions were a necessary part of its struggle to eradicate terrorism and says that the raid produced documents proving that Chavez has provided financing for the rebels and that Correa has met with FARC leaders. Both Correa and Chavez have been involved in negotiations with FARC in order to secure the release of hostages, but deny that they have supported the group. On Tuesday, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe [official website; BBC profile] said that his country would seek to have Chavez charged [JURIST report] before the International Criminal Court [official website] for supporting what he called the "genocide" of Colombian citizens by leftists militants. AP has more.






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Federal judge sets June trial date in Indian Trust lawsuit
Jaime Jansen on March 6, 2008 8:04 AM ET

[JURIST] A federal judge in the US District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday scheduled a June trial to resolve the decade-old Indian Trust case [Cobell v. Norton litigation website; JURIST news archive]. In January, US District Judge James Robertson ruled [PDF text; JURIST report] that the US Department of the Interior (DOI) [official website] "unreasonably delayed" the accounting of billions of dollars of American Indian money [DOI Indian Trust Fund website], saying it was impossible for the DOI to remedy the breach. The class-action suit involves the DOI's alleged mismanagement of Native American money, including lease and sales revenues, permit fees and interest received and held for Native Americans by the US government over the last 120 years. Robertson said Wednesday that he means for the upcoming trial to bring final resolution to the dispute, and a lawyer for the plaintiffs told AP that he was optimistic that the trial would determine the value of the trust accounts.

Last March, the Native American plaintiffs rejected [JURIST report] a $7 billion settlement proposal from the US government. Some read the offer as a governmental acknowledgment of liability, but DOI officials disputed that interpretation. The plaintiffs criticized the settlement offer as "pennies on the dollar" in respect of the value of their claim as well as for its attempt to preclude further claims. AP has more.






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