Attitudes Shift on Crime and Punishment
WASHINGTON, DC — US sentiments toward crime are slowly changing. Two out of three people now say they want to deal with the causes rather than simply locking up offenders, according to a poll by the Open Society Institute (OSI). They also think those convicted of nonviolent crimes can be rehabilitated.
Seventy percent believe the drug war has failed, and two-thirds view drug use as a medical problem. This contrasts sharply with a recent study by the Administrative Office of the US Courts, which says drug defendants still make up the largest category facing criminal trials in federal courts. From Oct. 2000 to Sept. 2001, nearly 31,500 defendants were involved in drug cases, 38 percent of the total.
While the number of new cases was the same as in the past, the number of drug cases increased by five percent. More than 90 percent of defendants pled guilty or were convicted. Only 2400 people were acquitted.
More than half of those polled by OSI felt that laws are color-blind. But 64 percent of Black respondents disagreed, and statistics reinforce the more skeptical view. Although Blacks and Hispanics are only 25 percent of the US population, they account for 62 percent of the nation’s incarcerated. This disparity is one of many detailed in a Human Rights Watch report, based on correctional facility counts, that provides state-by-state information for the first time.
Black women are incarcerated at rates between 10 and 35 times greater than White women in 15 states, and up to 15 percent of black prisoners are jailed in 12 states. Racial disparities are greatest out west in Colorado, Iowa, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Hispanic youth are jailed at rates up to 17 times greater than Whites in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Hawaii. The disparities are worse for Blacks in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Iowa, and Montana.
Despite changing attitudes, many people still believe that judges often give lenient sentences, undermining efforts to repeal mandatory sentencing laws. Thus, reform advocates must balance calls for judicial discretion with supporting punishment for serious crimes and repeat offenders.
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Any Excuse for Arms Will Do
WASHINGTON, DC — If the US persists in supplying military aid to any regime that cries terrorist, we’re likely to see more violent "regime changes," especially in Asia. That was the warning from Carnegie scholar Martha Brill Olcott, addressing a Senate subcommittee in June. Since 9/11, the Bush administration has requested almost $4 billion in security assistance for 67 countries, all alleging efforts to combat terrorism. Predictably, half the recipients have poor human rights records, according to the State Department’s evidence. One of the worst abusers is Uzbekistan, promised $45 million to finance and train its military. The regime is accused of torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary arrests, and harassment of detainees’ families.
Another $64 million is slated for Georgia, allegedly to fight terrorist refugees from the war in Chechnya. Even Georgia’s defense minister doubts there are any links to Al Qaeda. In the Philippines, the target is a band of Islamic militants, the Abu Sayyaf Group. Basically a criminal gang, it shows no capacity for transnational attacks. The real objective? To reestablish a US presence in the South China Sea, a shipping route with significant oil and gas reserves. The US lost its Philippines base in 1991. The rationale is even more tenuous in Nepal, promised $20 million to fight off a Maoist insurgency. The group has no links to foreign terrorism, but the State Department considers the presence of Muslims, along with an unstable regime, a sufficient threat.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s government has redefined its 38-year civil war as a battle against terrorism. Piling on, new US resolutions classify all armed groups there as foreign terrorist organizations, officially allowing aid to go beyond counter-narcotics support. A government victory remains uncertain, but in the meantime, loosened aid rules and more weapons are likely to intensify the violence.
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Denmark Goes Right on Immigration
COPENHAGEN — Despite its reputation for progressive social policy and high quality of life, Denmark has never been completely comfortable with immigrants, especially the many young people who relocate to its cities from the Middle East. Now, after a long crusade, a center-right coalition has pushed through legislation designed to curb asylum seekers and immigrants who want to join family members already in the country.
New provisions will reduce welfare benefits for foreign newcomers, increase the waiting period for permanent residency status, and place an age minimum of 24 on "family reunions." Describing a new Danish language and history exam, the liberal Politiken found it ironic that more knowledge will be demanded for naturalized citizens "than what the public schools achieve in nine to 10 years of schooling."
Sweden is concerned about Danish asylum restrictions, which could force it to accept the overflow. The campaign to tighten immigration laws could also spill into the European Union; Denmark assumed the rotating presidency in July. The Swedish press says "democratic politicians" should keep their distance. But Denmark’s Prime Minister stands firm, warning the Swedes to mind their own business.
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Tough Choice on Modified Seeds
NAIROBI — A recent stand off between Zimbabwe and the US over genetically modified (GM) food aid is bringing the issue into focus. As Francis Nthuku of Biotechnology Trust Africa puts it, "Do you prefer to die of hunger now, or eat and die later?"
Zimbabwe has a long-standing policy against GM food on safety grounds and the potential for contamination. But with over six million people facing famine, the government has agreed to accept milled, modified maize from the US.
"African farmers don’t buy new seeds every season," explains Ellie Osir, a doctor with the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya. "They simply recycle. If food aid comes in as grain, people are actually going to plant these grains. Once you plant it, you have introduced it without doing the all the necessary studies."
Produced by Monsanto, BT maize is genetically altered to produce the bacillus thuringiensis (BT) bacteria, a toxin that kills insects. But it continuously produces the toxin, and insects can rapidly develop a resistance. "In Kenya, if you introduce BT maize, within six to 10 years resistance will have spread almost everywhere," says Osir. "A product that was useful when sprayed in the traditional way becomes completely useless."
In tests, ICIPE has found resistance developing in insects over a few generations. Other risks include killing beneficial insects, and genetic pollution, where pollen travels by wind and fertilizes neighboring crops.
Zimbabwe is also concerned that Monsanto’s maize could jeopardize its own crops and export market, since GM food is strictly controlled in Europe. The grain also may contain a terminator gene, which can pollute natural varieties. If seeds can’t germinate and be recycled, new ones must be bought. On the other hand, stem borers can destroy up to half the maize crops in Kenya. If BT maize is introduced, farmers could double their yields.
Many African countries aren’t equipped to deal with the dilemma. Genetically modified foods should not be allowed to be consumed "without knowing fully the implications and consequences," says David Kashweka, Zambia’s Secretary for Information. But when people are starving, there’s little choice.
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New PNG Leader Stops Sell Offs
PORT MORESBY — Only a week after taking office in August, Papua New Guinea’s new Prime Minister Michael Somare halted a controversial privatization program backed by his predecessor. The freeze included the $50 million sale of Telikom to a consortium led by its Fiji counterpart.
Somare blames privatization for his opponent’s defeat. Last year, public protests in Port Moresby led to the death of four students during clashes with police. One alternative is better management, notes the new leader, who claims he halted the privatization push in order to seek the views of his coalition partners. He doesn’t completely rule it out, however, saying "there is no reason why privatization shouldn’t go ahead if it is in the interests of all parties concerned."
Although endorsed by the World Bank, selling off government assets has sparked little interest from outside investors, who hesitate to take on the large debts that have accumulated. If the program proceeds, however, the national airline and power company could be the next big-ticket items.
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Indy Press Launches a Freeze Campaign
SAN FRANCISCO – Invoking Ben Franklin, the nation’s first postmaster general, a national coalition of independent magazines and periodicals has launched a campaign in his name to freeze postal rates for small, high-editorial, religious, ethnic, and non-profit publications. Rates for small circulation publications have risen more than 50 percent since 1998.
The National Federation of Independent Publishers says the current escalation of postal rates threatens to put small periodicals out of business. "The US Postal Service has a historic and mandated responsibility to distribute periodicals to help promote the circulation of ideas, information, and insight across the country," argues John Anner, director of the Independent Press Association. Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s Indy Congressman, is backing legislation for a three-year postal freeze. "It’s a question of what Americans want to prioritize for delivery to their doorstep, magazines fostering creative thinking or periodicals crammed with advertising," he says.
The goal is to create breathing space for a debate over long-term postal transformation. Independent media accounts for a tiny fraction of the total volume of mail, but the lion’s share of information and ideas, argues Mother Jones Publisher Jay Harris. The post office is currently gearing itself for large commercial mailers, "a trend that imperils the distribution of small independent periodicals."
Members of the Federation include the Coalition of Religious Press Associations, National Newspaper Publishers Association, Council of Literary Magazines, and National Association of Hispanic Publications. To get involved, write your representatives or the Postmaster General, John Potter, at 475 L’Enfant Pl., SW, 10th floor, Wash., DC 20260. For more on the campaign, contact John Anner, (415) 643-4401, or go to www.indypress.org
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Tajik Drug Trade Makes a Comeback
KHOROG — Contrary to predictions, drug trafficking in Tajikistan has increased since the ouster of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. "There is a vacuum of power right now and that is exactly when drug networks can act the most freely," explains Abai Iugochev, press spokesman for the Tajik Drug Control Agency.
A similar scenario played out during the Tajik civil war from 1992 to 1997. While politicians, the army, police and opposition mujaheddin fought in the lowlands to grab post-Soviet power, the country’s long border with Afghanistan became wide open to drug traffickers. In Khorog, a regional capital, about five percent of the population became addicted to heroin. But the effects went even deeper. In most families with a drug addict, everyone lived under the poverty line.
Intervention by the Aga Khan, billionaire leader of the Ismaili community, helped halt the spiral. Channeling aid to the border region after the fall of the Soviet Union, he made his help contingent on halting drug cultivation and trafficking. Within a few years, both plunged dramatically.
However, fresh data indicates that heroin is currently being routed to Tajikistan’s three main cities, the capital city of Dushanbe, Khojand, and Kulyab. "Afghan drugs now transit through the south of the country, in Khotlan, where there are more possible routes towards Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan," reports the International Crisis Group, a monitoring organization. "There are plenty of reasons to believe now that the drugs also fly directly out of Dushanbe."
Efforts by the Tajik and Russian governments are being diluted by corrupt elements. In May, former Russian military intelligence officer Anton Surikov revealed that a significant amount of Afghan drugs are smuggled into Russia via military aircraft based in Tajikistan. Russian forces are stationed throughout the country to guard the Afghan-Tajik border.
"We know who is using heroin, we know who is selling it to them," claims Abdumamad Abdumamadov of Volunteer, a Khorog-based NGO. "But for some reasons, the police do not arrest them."
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Tops in Bribery
LONDON — Many countries have laws that make payments to foreign officials a crime. Yet bribery in developing countries, especially by corporations in Russia, China, Taiwan and South Korea, continues on a grand scale, according to the Bribe Payers Index (BPI).
The latest BPI was released in May by Transparency International. Based on surveys in 15 emerging market economies, it says the four leading countries use bribes "on an exceptional and intolerable scale" to win contracts and increase exports. Despite the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, US multinationals aren’t far behind, matching Japan’s shoddy record and beating out companies in France, Spain, Germany, Singapore, and Britain.
The highest scores, indicating the lowest rate of overseas bribery, go to business in Canada, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and Belgium.