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Legal news from Monday, February 27, 2012




Syria voters approve new constitution
Jamie Davis on February 27, 2012 2:09 PM ET

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[JURIST] Over 80 percent of voters in Syria [JURIST news archive] have voted to approve the new Syrian constitution [text], officials said Monday. The proposed constitution will impose term limits on the president as well as provide for a multi-party system. However, the term limits will theoretically begin once the constitution passes, meaning President Bashar al-Assad's previous time in office will not be counted against the term limits. Sunday's referendum in which Syrians has been called a "farce" by Western leaders and has been condemned [Independent report] as a "sham vote" which cannot be a way of resolving the violence taking place in Syria. Syrian state television announced the approval, along with a report of 57.4 percent voter turnout. Earlier Monday, the EU agreed to impose new sanctions on Syria [Telegraph report], including an asset freeze of the Syrian Central Bank. EU foreign ministers have also agreed to forbid cargo flights from Syria into the EU and restrict the trade gold and silver between Syria and the EU.

The new constitution provides for freedom of speech, press, assembly and association [JURIST report] in Articles 42 through 45, which some see as a step in the right direction. The referendum is an attempt to calm 11 months of protests and general opposition to the Assad regime. Activists estimate that more than 7,500 people have died since Assad began cracking down on protesters. The UN General Assembly voted earlier this month to condemn Syria through a non-binding resolution [JURIST report]. The resolution supported a plan advanced by the Arab League that aims to bring the situation in the country to a close as quickly as possible by encouraging Assad to step down.




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Thousands in Sri Lanka protest proposed UN war crimes resolution
Jamie Davis on February 27, 2012 1:09 PM ET

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[JURIST] Thousands of Sri Lankans joined government-sponsored protests on Monday in opposition to a proposed UN Human Rights Council [official website] resolution concerning crimes that allegedly occurred during the country's civil war. The protests, which were planned throughout 150 cities on the same day that the council began a four-week session in Geneva, were organized in an attempt to show the country's opposition to Western countries backing the UN resolution which calls for an investigation into alleged war crimes [BBC report] committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) [TIME backgrounder]. Sri Lankan government officials have said there is no need for a resolution [Reuters report] and that the country remains committed to conducting its own investigation.

Sri Lanka has conducted some independent investigations into allegations of war crimes occurring during the civil war. In December, Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission released a report concluding that Sri Lanka's military did not intentionally attack civilians [JURIST report] following the country's civil war. In November, Sri Lankan Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that the government had begun counting the number of civilian deaths from its 26-year civil war with the LTTE. Also in November, a Sri Lankan army chief was sentenced to three additional years of imprisonment [JURIST report], for implicating another Sri Lankan official in war crimes.




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Credibility of Cambodia genocide tribunal questioned
Jamie Reese on February 27, 2012 12:40 PM ET

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[JURIST] Dr. Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association (IBA) [official website] on Sunday published the second in a series of reports examining the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) [official website]. The report [text, PDF], "The ECCC- A Failure of Credibility," asserts that the legitimacy of the ECCC is undermined, and, in order to promote international justice, a criticism of the court's failure to meet international standards must be undertaken. Ellis spent a week at the court observing the trials and speaking with individuals. Ellis asserts that both judicial misconduct and interference from the executive are undermining the court's ability to prosecute Khmer Rouge [BBC backgrounder] leaders and bring justice to victims and affecting the accuracy of the historical record. Ellis wrote:
The Cambodian judiciary is not de facto independent from the government. Cambodia has been criticised by the United Nations (UN) for failing to "develop neutral State institutions, checks on executive power, and the means to enforce rights guaranteed in the law and the Constitution". This has resulted in a judiciary that continues to be 'subjected to executive interference and open to corruption'.
Thus far, the only former Khmer Rouge leader to be convicted [JURIST report] by the ECCC is Kaing Guek Eav [ECCC materials], also known as "Duch," for crimes against humanity and violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions [materials].

Last week, the Open Society Justice Initiative [advocacy website] reported that the continuing dispute between Cambodia and the UN over the appointment of Judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet to the ECCC threatens the legitimacy of the court [JURIST report]. Last month, the UN [official website] refused to replace [JURIST report] Kasper-Ansermet, the judge tasked with investigating two possible suspects believed to be involved in the deaths of around 1.7 million people, after Cambodia attempted to block him. In October, accused Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen [BBC profile] for interfering with the UN-backed war crimes tribunal. In October 2010, Hun Sen informed the UN that Cambodia will not allow further prosecutions of low-ranking Khmer Rouge officers [JURIST report].




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Indonesia high court reinstates 15-year sentence for radical cleric
Andrea Bottorff on February 27, 2012 11:29 AM ET

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[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Indonesia [official website, in Indonesian] on Monday restored a 15-year prison sentence for radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir [JURIST news archive] for his conviction on terrorism charges. Bashir appealed to the Supreme Court his conviction by the Jakarta High Court, which had reduced his prison sentence from 15 years to nine years [JURIST report], in an effort to be cleared of terrorism charges and released from prison altogether. However, the Supreme Court rejected Bashir's appeal and reinstated the original 15-year prison sentence [JURIST report]. Regarded as a spiritual leader of militant Islam in Indonesia, Bashir is a vocal advocate of violent jihad and was jailed in June for backing a terrorist training camp in the Indonesian province of Aceh. The training camp prepared Islamic radicals to carry out attacks in Jakarta and was allegedly planning attacks modeled after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks [JURIST news archive] and targeting high-profile members of the Indonesian government. Bashir was also accused of providing more than $62,000 to help fund the camp. A spokesperson for the court said Monday that the reinstatement of the stricter sentence shows the court's strict treatment [Jakarta Post report] of terrorism convictions.

Bashir's trial began in February 2011 [JURIST report] in the District Court of South Jakarta. He was convicted of inciting terrorism in connection with the terrorist training camp in May after having pleaded not guilty [JURIST report] the month before. He was suspected of links to al Qaeda [CFR backgrounder; JURIST news archive] and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) [CFR backgrounder], a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda that has been implicated in a number of attacks in Indonesia, including the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing [JURIST news archive] that left more than 200 people dead. In 2006, the Indonesian Supreme Court overturned [JURIST report] Bashir's conviction on conspiracy charges connecting him with the bombings. He was released from prison [JURIST report] earlier in 2006 after spending 26 months in jail on different charges related to the bombings.




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BP oil spill trial postponed to allow more time for settlement agreement
Sarah Posner on February 27, 2012 10:31 AM ET

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[JURIST] Judge Carl Barbier of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana [official website] postponed the trial over the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] Monday, hours before it was set to begin, in order to give British Petroleum (BP) [corporate website] more time to reach a settlement agreement. Barbier adjourned [UPI report] the start of this multi-billion dollar trial after a conference call between the parties a week earlier, in hopes that talks between the parties could produce a settlement. BP could be liable for up to $52 billion in what was the largest accidental oil spill in history, damaging marine life and harming the tourism industry. BP denies gross negligence and urges the court to hold both Transocean [corporate website] and Halliburton Energy Services Inc. jointly liable for their respective roles as owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig and pourer of the concrete that lined the oil well which was destroyed, causing the oil spill. Both BP and Transocean are defendants in the case. If a settlement is not reached, the trial could span the next two years.

Last month, Barbier issued an order [JURIST report] that BP will be held liable for a portion of the damages owed by Transocean stemming from the oil spill. BP will be required to indemnify Transocean against damages created by the pollution itself that are awarded throughout the litigation [materials] pending against it. BP will not be required to pay an punitive damages or civil fines as a result of these suits. The court did not rule as to whether BP or Transocean would be held strictly liable, negligent or grossly negligent for the equipment failure and subsequent oil spill that created the pollution. Transocean is the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that was contracted by BP, which subsequently caused the oil spill. This ruling is separate from a ruling issued [JURIST report] by Barbier in August, which permits punitive damages against BP, but that ruling pertained to claims brought against BP directly.




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Spain high court acquits judge Garzon in abuse of power case
Andrea Bottorff on February 27, 2012 10:26 AM ET

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[JURIST] The Spanish Supreme Court [official website, in Spanish] in a 6-1 decision acquitted [judgment, in Spanish] Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] Monday of abuse of power charges [JURIST report]. Garzon was charged with abusing power by ordering the exhumation [JURIST report] of 19 mass graves in Spain in order to assemble a definitive national registry of Civil War victims, despite a 1977 law that provides amnesty for Franco-era crimes. Garzon testified in the trial [JURIST report] last month, denying that his investigation was politically motivated, stating that he was seeking justice for the victims of the alleged crimes, and rejecting the idea that the 1977 amnesty law covered widespread human rights abuses. His remarks were consistent with his previous statements defending [JURIST report] the validity of the investigation by insisting that he acted within the bounds of the law and appropriately applied the law at all times. Garzon would have faced up to a 20-year suspension from the bench if he had been convicted, as well as fines.

Garzon was also charged in two other recent corruption cases. Earlier this month, the Spanish Supreme Court convicted Garzon of ordering illegal wiretaps in jailhouses, after a trial lasting less than one month [JURIST reports]. The court had announced in October that Garzon would stand trial on the charges after the he was indicted in April [JURIST reports] for ordering the placement of wiretaps in jailhouses to record conversations between inmates and their lawyers. Garzon gave the order as part of an investigation into a network of businesses that allegedly gave money and gifts to members of Spain's Popular Party in exchange for government contracts. The court suspended him from practicing law for 11 years. Two weeks ago, the court dismissed [AFP report] the other case against Garzon, involving bribery charges over money he received for seminars conducted in the US. Garzon is widely known for using universal jurisdiction [AI backgrounder; JURIST news archive] extensively in the past to bring several high-profile rights cases, including those against Osama bin Laden and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.




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Nigeria ex-governor pleads guilty to money laundering charges in UK court
Sarah Posner on February 27, 2012 10:00 AM ET

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[JURIST] The former governor of Delta state [official website] in Nigeria, James Ibori, pleaded guilty in a UK court on Monday to 10 counts of money laundering and conspiracy to commit fraud. The former governor of Nigeria's oil-rich state is one of the wealthiest, most influential political figures in the country. Ibori was extradited to London to stand trial after British police accused him of laundering [BBC report] $250 million during an eight-year period. Before the UK trial commenced, Ibori switched his plea to guilty for laundering money in the UK through off-shore accounts, in order to obtain a better sentence for the charges against him. Two other former governors of Nigeria have been convicted of corruption charges. Sentencing for Ibori is scheduled to take place on April 16.

In October 2010, the Dubai Court of First Instance [official website] ruled [JURIST report] that Ibori could be extradited to the UK to face charges of money laundering, fraud and embezzlement. Ibori was arrested in the United Arab Emirates by INTERPOL [official website] in May 2010. Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) [official website] accused Ibori of stealing Delta state funds worth $292 million during his time in office. These funds were allegedly filtered through banks in the UK, which led the UK Metropolitan Police [official website] to issue a warrant for his arrest. Ibori appealed the decision to Dubai's Civil Court of Appeal.




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