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Legal news from Wednesday, May 21, 2008




UN rights council elections favor 4 states criticized by rights groups
Mike Rosen-Molina on May 21, 2008 4:35 PM ET

[JURIST] The 47-member UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) [official website] held elections [materials] for 15 open seats Wednesday, with four seats going to countries that have been harshly criticized by human rights groups. In a report [PDF text] to the UNHRC, Freedom House [advocacy website; press release] and UN Watch [advocacy website; press release] previously condemned the human rights records of new electees Pakistan, Bahrain, Gabon and Zambia. Also elected to three-year terms were France, Britain, Japan, South Korea, Slovakia, Ukraine, Ghana, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Following a vigorous campaign against its candidacy by the NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council [advocacy website; letter], Sri Lanka [JURIST news archive] failed to win a seat this year.

The Human Rights Council, founded in 2006 to replace the UN Human Rights Commission [official website], was created with a primary goal of denying membership to those countries that have committed serious human rights violations. Last year's election [JURIST report] drew attention to rights abuses in Belarus, which failed to win either of the two seats reserved for Eastern European nations. AP has more.






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UK Law Lords bar Home Office appeal in case of pilot wrongly detained after 9/11
Andrew Gilmore on May 21, 2008 3:33 PM ET

[JURIST] The Law Lords, the judicial members of UK House of Lords, Wednesday denied the Home Office [official website] the right to appeal a lower court ruling which granted government compensation to an Algerian-born pilot wrongly detained after the September 11 attacks [JURIST news archive]. In February, the Court of Appeal ruled [text] that Lotfi Raissi [BBC profile] was entitled to payment because of serious flaws in the decision to detain him under a US extradition warrant for nearly five months. US prosecutors alleged that Raissi offered pilot training to the hijackers, but lacking evidence, sought his extradition on the grounds that Raissi had falsified his pilot's license application. The extradition request was rejected [BBC report] by a UK judge for lack of evidence linking Raissi to terrorism.

Raissi was arrested on September 21, 2001 and was granted conditional bail [BBC report] on February 12, 2002. He sought compensation [BBC report] from the UK government under a program approved by the UK Home Office. BBC News has more.






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Bush signs legislation barring genetic discrimination
Mike Rosen-Molina on May 21, 2008 3:11 PM ET

[JURIST] US President George W. Bush Wednesday signed into law [remarks transcript] a bill aimed at preventing employers and health insurers from discriminating against people who have a genetic predisposition to disease. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) [HR 493 materials] had passed with overwhelming majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate [JURIST reports]. Under the measure, employers are barred from basing hiring and firing decisions on genetic risk or predisposition to disease, while health insurers would not be permitted to deny coverage based on genetic information. AP has more.

Genetic nondiscrimination legislation was passed unanimously by the Senate in 2003 but failed in the House of Representatives. US Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) [official website] reintroduced the latest bill in January 2007. The law seeks to establish "a national and uniform basic standard ... necessary to fully protect the public from discrimination and allay their concerns about the potential for discrimination, thereby allowing individuals to take advantage of genetic testing, technologies, research, and new therapies."






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Bush farm bill veto threatens potential discrimination claims against USDA
Patrick Porter on May 21, 2008 2:22 PM ET

[JURIST] The future of a landmark discrimination case [NBFA press release] brought by black farmers against the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) [official website] is uncertain after President George W. Bush vetoed the new Farm Bill [HR 2419 materials] Wednesday. The bill included a provision [AP file report] that would have reopened the class-action suit in which plaintiffs allege that the USDA improperly discriminated against them in its allocation of loans, disaster relief, and other assistance. AP has more.

The USDA reached a settlement [NALC backgrounder] in the matter in 1999, but thousands of farmers argue that the terms were inadequate. Many farmers were left out after missing an October 1999 filing deadline. The new bill would allow them to either submit claims for compensation under terms similar to the 1999 settlement or file new lawsuits. The bill passed both houses of Congress by a wide margin, but President Bush contended that the bill would artificially alter the market for agricultural products by subsidizing higher-income farmers and agribusiness concerns. Reuters has additional coverage.






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Federal appeals court rejects Georgia death sentence challenge
Mike Rosen-Molina on May 21, 2008 12:34 PM ET

[JURIST] The US Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals [official website] rejected a Georgia death row inmate's challenge to the state's method of execution Tuesday, ruling that he had missed the statute of limitations to file. Samuel David Crowe [advocacy profile] was convicted of murder and is scheduled to be executed Thursday. He could become the second condemned inmate in the state, after the execution of William Earl Lynd [JURIST report] earlier this month, to be put to death since the US Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that the three-drug lethal injection cocktail [DPIC backgrounder] used does not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has more.

In September 2007, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Baze v. Rees [Duke Law case backgrounder; JURIST report], allowing it to consider whether the lethal injection violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. This led to an effective moratorium [JURIST report] on the death penalty in the United States as many federal courts, state courts, and state governors put executions on hold pending the high court's ruling.

5/23/08 - The Georgia Pardons and Parole Board granted clemency to Samuel Crowe Thursday. The Board reduced his sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole after meeting with supporters and reviewing testimonials as to his character. The decision was made just two-and-a-half hours before his scheduled execution. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has local coverage.






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Japan upper house approves bill militarizing space program
Devin Montgomery on May 21, 2008 11:51 AM ET

[JURIST] Japan's House of Councillors [official website, in Japanese] passed a bill Tuesday that would allow the country's space program to be used for defense purposes, including the development of spy satellites. The law, passed by an overwhelming majority of 221-14, was passed [JURIST report] by Japan's House of Representatives [official website, in Japanese] last week and by a lower house committee [JURIST report] earlier this month. When passed into law, the bill will overturn a 1969 parliamentary resolution limiting the country's use of space to non-military activities by placing responsibility for space programs with all members of the Japanese Cabinet [official website], including the newly created Ministry of Defense [JURIST report]. AP has more.

While Japanese lawmakers still oppose the use of actual weapons in space, a stance consistent with Japan's post-WWII pacifist constitution [JURIST news archive], the new space legislation has been characterized as a response to a Chinese weapons test in January 2007 [BBC report], in which the Chinese military reportedly used a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile to destroy a weather satellite. Many countries have criticized China's missile test, saying that it could encourage future arms movements into space [CNS backgrounder].






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Swiss high court upholds convictions of webmasters for publishing al Qaeda material
Mike Rosen-Molina on May 21, 2008 11:38 AM ET

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Switzerland [official website] Wednesday upheld the 2007 convictions of a married couple for supporting criminal activities by operating websites that published statements and video footage from al Qaeda, including the 2004 beheading of American engineer Paul M. Johnson, Jr [Washington Post report]. Moez Garsallaoui was sentenced to six months in prison, while his wife Malika El Aroud was sentenced to a six-month prison term suspended for three years. At the 2007 trial, Garsallaoui denied knowledge of the beheading video, although he admitted to hosting other videos depicting violence, which he argued were protected by freedom of the press. He was also found to have operated discussion boards to which members of terror groups posted. Swiss authorities shut down the websites in 2005. AP has more.

The ease of transmitting videos over the Internet has given rise to new concerns about terror recruiting. On Monday, US Senator Joseph Lieberman sent a letter [text and press release] to Google [corporate website], asking the Internet giant to remove videos made by terrorist groups from its YouTube video service. On Tuesday, Google said that it had removed videos that incited hatred or violence [UPI report], but contended that others were protected speech.






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Jordan court issues life sentences for al Qaeda chemical bombers
Mike Rosen-Molina on May 21, 2008 11:00 AM ET

[JURIST] Eight alleged al-Qaeda operatives were given life sentences by a Jordan military court Wednesday as punishment for their roles in a 2004 failed chemical weapons attack [CNN report] on the US Embassy and other sites in Jordan. The plot was allegedly funded by al-Qaeda's top leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [BBC profile], who was killed in a US air strike [BBC report] in 2005. If they had been carried out, the chemical attacks could have killed tens of thousands of people, according to estimates. Prosecutors alleged that the plot was "in an advanced stage" at the point that the men were arrested in 2004. AP has more.

Jordanian courts have repeatedly sentenced al-Zarqawi to death [JURIST report] for his part in the plot, even as a posthumous symbolic gesture. The other eight men were also sentenced to death in a previous trial, but their sentences were later thrown out when it was revealed that the prosecutor had been one of the plot's intended targets.






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Russia president vows to rid courts of corruption
Mike Rosen-Molina on May 21, 2008 10:06 AM ET

[JURIST] Russian President Dmitry Medvedev [official profile] promised Tuesday to take steps to tackle corruption and intimidation in the Russian judicial system, calling for reforms to better train and support judges and to preserve the rule of law. Speaking at a meeting of top Russian legal officials, Medvedev said [remarks]:

Our main objective is to achieve independence for the judicial system. It is a well-known principle that courts must be subject to the law, and, indeed, this is the basis of respect for justice and for the belief in its fairness. This is our basic task and it is hugely important. To move in this direction, we need to consider a range of issues associated with preparing a series of measures aimed at eliminating the miscarriage of justice. As we all know, when justice fails it often does so because of pressure of various kinds, such as surreptitious phone calls and money – there is no point in beating around the bush. We also need to establish measures to accelerate decision-making where this is possible. I mean eliminating red tape but of course without adversely affecting the functioning of the system.

We need to clarify a number of regulations and make changes in legislation, perhaps those concerning qualifications for the bar and terms of office. I think that we'll talk about amending the law on magistrates and the Code of Administrative Offences.

There is the separate but perennial question of financial and logistical support for the courts. In this regard we have done some things, but a great deal more remains to be done. We know how important electronic forms are for the receipt and introduction of evidence, and the role they play in the process as a whole. I'm thinking of Moscow and many of our larger cities; in many others this is not the case. Therefore, I believe this is also one of the most important objectives for improving justice in our country.

Another important subject for the judiciary is personnel, and this is a crucial issue. Certainly, we have a good system for training them, but in recent years - and this is no secret; there has been a torrent of new lawyers, weaker law schools have become pre-eminent, and as a consequence there has been an exodus of specialists from the system. It is obvious that these new people are making decisions that affect human lives. In this sense, we must also improve the education system in the country and think about ways of introducing more uniformity in legal training.

In other words, we need to introduce some significant, maybe even radical changes in legislation concerning the judicial system. The main reference point for us is the independence of the courts and their effectiveness.
Experts have noted that corruption is rife in Russian courts, and that judges' pay and status are too low to resist pressure to accept bribes. Reuters has more.

Medvedev's remarks come after he signed a measure [JURIST report] Monday to establish an anti-corruption council to be headed by Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin [profile, in Russian]. Medvedev said that a comprehensive national anti-corruption program was necessary to tackle social and economic graft and also to eliminate a prevailing culture of corruption. Medvedev previously pledged to clean up corruption in his inauguration speech [JURIST report].





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FBI agents witnessed 'borderline torture' of detainees: DOJ report
Devin Montgomery on May 21, 2008 9:49 AM ET

[JURIST] US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) [official website] agents were present during interrogations of terrorism suspects in which Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) [official website] or Department of Defense (DOD) [official website] officers used "borderline torture" interrogation tactics, but they did not participate in those interrogations, according to a report [PDF text; AP excerpts] released Tuesday by the US Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General [official website]. The report also found that most FBI agents who had witnessed suspected abuses had reported them to their supervisors, and that the Bureau had expressed concerns [JURIST report] regarding the tactics to the DOD, but that the reservations had little impact on DOD policy. The report concluded that the FBI had not given agents enough initial guidance on what to do if witnessing potential abuses, and that both it and the DOJ could have "pressed harder" to resolve their concerns.

The 370-page report was commissioned subsequent to an internal FBI investigation into what role its agents may have played in the potentially abusive interrogations of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq [JURIST news archives] from 2001 to 2004. AP has more. Reuters has additional coverage.






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House panel hears torture allegations by ex-Guantanamo detainee
Patrick Porter on May 21, 2008 9:18 AM ET

[JURIST] Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Murat Kurnaz [Amnesty profile; JURIST news archive], a Turkish citizen born in Germany, testified Tuesday before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight regarding torture he allegedly suffered [subcommittee materials] while in US custody in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive]. Appearing by videoconference from Germany, Kurnaz said he was subjected to beatings, electrical shocks, and waterboarding. AP has more. AFP has additional coverage.

Kurnaz spent almost five years at Guantanamo Bay before being returned to Germany in August 2006 after German authorities pressed for his release [JURIST reports]. He has consistently made similar allegations since being in custody, repeating them in an interview [JURIST report] to CBS' 60 Minutes in March. The Department of Defense [official website] has denied the allegations.






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Former Khmer Rouge minister makes first appearance before Cambodian tribunal
Andrew Gilmore on May 21, 2008 8:54 AM ET

[JURIST] Former Khmer Rouge [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] minister for social affairs Ieng Thirith [JURIST news archive] made her first appearance in court Tuesday at a bail hearing before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) [official website; JURIST news archive]. Thirith was arrested [JURIST report] in November 2007 along with her husband, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary [JURIST news archive]. The couple were subsequently charged [JURIST report] with crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Prosecutors allege that Thirith planned and directed widespread purges and killings within the Khmer Rouge Ministry of Social Affairs. Her husband, Sary, has been facing health problems during his detention. In February, he returned to court [JURIST report] after hospitalization for a urinary tract problem. Both Thirith and Sary have maintained their innocence. BBC News has more.

The ECCC was established by law [text as amended 2004, PDF] in 2001 to investigate and try surviving Khmer Rouge officials. The Khmer Rouge is generally believed responsible for the genocide of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians [PPU backgrounder] between 1975 and 1979. No top Khmer Rouge officials have yet faced trial. In August 2007, the ECCC brought its first charges against Kaing Khek Iev [TrialWatch profile; JURIST report], better known as "Duch", who was in charge of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. Former Khmer Rouge official Nuon Chea [GenocideWatch report] is awaiting trial [JURIST report] for charges [statement, PDF] of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Charges have also been brought against former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, who was arrested [JURIST report] in November 2007. In February, Samphan ended his cooperation [JURIST report] with the ECCC.






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Federal appeals court strikes down Virginia 'partial birth' abortion ban
Devin Montgomery on May 21, 2008 8:25 AM ET

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] ruled [decision, PDF] Tuesday that a Virginia law [text] banning certain types of late-term abortions is unconstitutional. In 2005, a panel of judges on the same court declared the law unconstitutional [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] because it lacked an an exception to protect the mother's health, but the US Supreme Court ordered the court to reconsider the case in light of a 2007 Supreme Court decision [text; JURIST report] upholding a similar federal law [PDF text] which also lacks a health exception. The Virginia court refused to apply the reasoning from the Supreme Court case, holding that the federal law was materially different because it protects doctors who accidentally violate the ban after beginning what they believed would be a legal procedure. Accordingly, the court found that the Virginia law "imposes an undue burden on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion," because doctors would likely refuse to perform late-term abortions to avoid the risk of criminal liability. AP has more.

The abortion procedure at issue in the case is called "D&E" or dilation and evacuation, and according to the court, is a common procedure for second and third trimester abortions. A standard D&E, which is performed in utero, is explicitly excepted from the kinds of procedures banned by the Virginia law. But an "intact" D&E is what opponents refer to as "partial birth" abortion [JURIST news archive], and occurs when certain "anatomical landmarks" exit the womb during the procedure, which can accidentally occur during a planned "standard" D&E procedure.






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