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Legal news from Wednesday, November 24, 2010




Spain judge orders release of Guatemala's former interior minister
Ashley Hileman on November 24, 2010 2:04 PM ET

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[JURIST] A Spanish judge on Tuesday ordered the release of former Guatemalan interior minister Carlos Vielmann after authorities in Guatemala failed to request his extradition. Vielmann has been imprisoned in Spain [El Mundo report, in Spanish] since his arrest in Madrid last month, and was to be extradited on charges [AP report] that he ordered the extrajudicial execution of seven inmates at the Pavon prison near Guatemala City in 2006. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) [official website, in Spanish] issued the warrant [JURIST report] for Vielmann's arrest in August, along with warrants for other former Guatemalan officials in its continued effort to end criminal impunity and dismantle illegal security groups there. Vielmann maintains that the inmates died in their attempt to fight against the invasion of thousands of police officers and soldiers seeking to regain control of the prison.

Official corruption has long been a problem in Guatemala, and there has been recent disagreement over whether CICIG is serving its purpose, with some arguing that it has overstepped its mandate [AP report]. However, the commission has been busy prosecuting alleged criminals. In June, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court [official website, in Spanish] removed Attorney General Conrado Reyes from office after the former head of CICIG, Carlos Castresana, accused him of ties to organized crime [JURIST reports]. In March, following an 11-month investigation with CICIG, Guatemalan authorities arrested two high-ranking police officials [JURIST report] tasked with leading the country's war on drugs on charges of corruption and drug trafficking. Also in March, the US State Department released its 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report [text, PDF], which highlighted Guatemala as a key player in the Latin American drug trade. Corruption among high-ranking officials was cited as one of the country's biggest problems. The Guatemalan Congress voted to create CICIG [JURIST report] in 2007 in order to investigate organized crime and official corruption.




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Federal jury convicts 5 Somali pirates
Jaclyn Belczyk on November 24, 2010 1:01 PM ET

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[JURIST] A jury for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia [official website] on Wednesday convicted five Somali men on charges of piracy [JURIST news archive], the first such conviction in the US in nearly 200 years. The men were found guilty on charges of piracy, attacking to plunder a maritime vessel and assault with a dangerous weapon for their roles in an April attack on the USS Nichols, which was deployed to combat piracy in waters off the eastern coast of Africa. They were charged by a federal grand jury in April, and pleaded not guilty [JURIST report] in July. They face mandatory life sentences at a sentencing hearing scheduled for March 14.

Several other nations have also been conducting piracy trials. Earlier this week, a German court began the trial [JURIST report] of 10 suspected Somali pirates in that country's first piracy trial in 400 years. Last month, a Yemeni court sentenced [JURIST report] a group of 10 Somali pirates to five years in prison. Recently, the high court of Mombasa ruled that Kenya does not have jurisdiction [JURIST report] outside of its national waters, releasing nine suspected Somali pirates. The ruling could have implications for future piracy prosecutions, as Kenyan courts have handled the bulk of piracy trials. Other nations that have conducted such trials include the Netherlands, Seychelles and Mauritius [JURIST reports].




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US officer discharged under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' to be reinstated as DOJ appeals
Andrea Bottorff on November 24, 2010 12:48 PM ET

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[JURIST] US Air Force Major Margaret Witt, who was discharged under the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) [10 USC § 654; JURIST news archive] policy, will become the first openly gay person to serve in the US military after the Obama administration Wednesday did not pursue a stay of a previous federal court decision ordering her reinstatement. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] appealed [text, PDF] the reinstatement order Wednesday, although the government has commented that the appeal is standard procedure [Metro Weekly report] and does not lessen President Barack Obama's commitment to repealing the policy. In September, Judge Ronald Leighton of the US District Court for the Western District of Washington [official website] relied on testimony regarding Witt's exemplary record in finding that her sexual orientation did not hinder her unit, and that she should be returned to duty [JURIST report] as soon as possible. The Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] has been representing Witt and struggling to secure her reinstatement [press release] for the past four years. Witt worked for almost 20 years as a military flight nurse and received numerous honors and medals for her service before she was discharged under the DADT policy when authorities discovered that she had been in a long-term relationship with a civilian woman.

The Obama administration filed a brief [text, PDF; JURIST report] earlier this month asking the US Supreme Court [official website] not to rescind the stay preventing suspension of the military's DADT policy. The filing was in response to a petition filed a week earlier [text; JURIST report] by the Log Cabin Republicans [advocacy website] asking the court to overturn the indefinite extension [order, PDF; JURIST report] of a temporary stay [JURIST report] issued by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website]. The government asked the court not to interrupt the policy while it is being considered in lower courts. The filing noted that Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates [official profile] oppose the policy, but also stressed their support for the repeal of the policy through legislative measures, citing the need for deliberation, advance planning and training before transitioning from the 17-year-old policy. Also this month, Gates called on the 112th Congress to repeal DADT [JURIST report], and, in October, he issued a memorandum limiting the authority to discharge openly gay service members [JURIST report] to five senior Department of Defense officials. Since the enactment of DADT in 1993, approximately 13,000 servicemen and women have been discharged from the armed forces as a result of the policy.




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Germany high court upholds genetically modified crop restrictions
Jaclyn Belczyk on November 24, 2010 10:58 AM ET

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[JURIST] Germany's Federal Constitutional Court [official website, in German] on Wednesday upheld restrictions [judgment, in German; press release] on the use of genetically modified (GM) crops. The German state of Saxony-Anhalt had challenged the 2008 law, which requires "buffer zones" between GM and conventional crops. The law also mandates that GM farmers compensate neighbors if their crops become contaminated. Upholding the restrictions, the court found that the legislature acted in the public interest. The ruling was welcomed [AFP report] by environmental groups such as Greenpeace [advocacy website], but the German Farmer's Association said that the risk of financial liability was too great and warned against planting GM crops.

Courts and legislatures around the world have struggled with the increasingly prevalent issue of GM crops. In June, the US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] in Monsanto Company v. Geerston Seed Farms [Cornell LII backgrounder] that a trial court abused its discretion when it issued a nationwide injunction against a genetically modified alfalfa seed. The trial court sought to remedy a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) [EPA materials] violation based on only a remote possibility of reparable harm. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held [opinion, PDF] that NEPA plaintiffs are specially exempt from the requirement of showing a likelihood of irreparable harm to obtain an injunction, affirming the nationwide injunction. Justice Samuel Alito, writing the opinion of the court, reversed the circuit court's ruling, stating that NEPA violations, absent unusual circumstances, are not exempt from the standard four-factor test to determine the availability of injunctive relief.




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Kyrgyzstan court sentences 19 Uzbeks for murder and mass rioting
Andrea Bottorff on November 24, 2010 10:35 AM ET

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[JURIST] A court in Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday sentenced 19 ethnic Uzbeks for their involvement in the June 2010 ethnic violence [Guardian backgrounder; JURIST news archive] that resulted in more than 300 deaths and an additional 2,000 injuries. Seventeen of the Uzbeks received life sentences and two received 25-year sentences for their participation in a June 13 riot [24.kg report] that blocked a major highway and killed 16 people in the Suzak district. The defense lawyers, who work for a local human rights organization and were giving free legal representation to the men, were allegedly threatened [AI report] by relatives of the Kyrgyz victims and told to keep silent during the trial. The trial began in September and had already been postponed due to alleged ethnic violence against the defendants' families. Lawyers for the Uzbek men said that they will appeal the conviction.

In September, a Kyrgyz court issued the first convictions [JURIST report] in connection with the June 2010 riots, handing down prison terms for eight ethnic Uzbeks in a case stemming from the murder of a Kyrgyz police officer during the violence. Judge Nurgazy Alymkulov of the Nooken District Court [GlobaLex backgrounder] sentenced five to life terms [RFE/RL report] on charges of murder, fomenting ethnic hatred, instigating violence and organizing public unrest. Two others were sentenced to 20 years in prison, and the last was sentenced to nine. Among those given life sentences was prominent Uzbek human rights activist Azimjan Askarov. The convictions were later described as politically motivated [Reuters report]. In July, the Kyrgyz government announced that it had opened more than 1,000 criminal cases [JURIST report] stemming from the violence, and that 106 individuals had been detained, with 97 in custody. Also in July, Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva [Telegraph profile] established a commission [JURIST report] to investigate the ethnic violence against the country's Uzbek population.




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Malaysia high court rejects former opposition leader's defamation suit
Jaclyn Belczyk on November 24, 2010 9:37 AM ET

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[JURIST] The Federal Court of Malaysia [official website], the country's highest court, on Wednesday rejected a defamation suit filed by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim [official profile; JURIST news archive] against former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad [BBC profile]. Anwar filed suit in 2006 after Mahathir allegedly suggested at a human rights conference that Anwar was unfit for office because of his supposed homosexuality. His suit was dismissed by the Federal Court in 2007, and an appeals court rejected his appeal [JURIST reports] last year. The Federal Court upheld that ruling Wednesday, fining Anwar [AFP report] 70,000 ringgit (USD $22,320) for legal costs. Anwar, who served as deputy premier under Mahathir until 1998, had previously sued Mahathir for defamation in 1999, but the case was rejected at the time as "unsustainable."

Anwar is currently facing trial on charges of sodomizing his former aide Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan in 2008. He has described the charges as a farce aimed at preventing him from taking his seat in Parliament [official website] following gains made by his party in the 2008 elections. He pleaded not guilty [JURIST report] in February. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison. In March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] urged the Malaysian government to drop all charges [JURIST report] against Anwar. HRW alleges that the trial has been "plagued by serious due process problems and government interference" and that the government should therefore drop all charges against Anwar. Earlier that month, the Malaysian Federal Court rejected Anwar's claim [JURIST reports] that his 1998 removal from office was unconstitutional. He recently reentered Malaysian politics following the expiration of a 10-year ban [JURIST report] against him for unrelated corruption charges.




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