Global Notebook 12/98

Another Countdown for Mumia

PHILADELPHIA – On October 28, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the appeal of Mumia Abu-Jamal, along with his motion for a new trial. Although the decision is being appealed in federal court, Gov. Tom Ridge could sign a second death warrant at any moment. After that, Abu-Jamal may have as little as 30 days to get a judge to issue a stay of execution.

A respected journalist and anti-racism activist, Abu-Jamal was accused of killing a police officer on weak, tainted evidence. During the original trial, jurors were barred on racial grounds, key evidence was suppressed, and police officers were permitted to testify that Mumia had confessed – after "forgetting" to mention it for two months.

In early November, Mumia’s attorneys asked the state Supreme Court to rehear the appeal. "The false premise of the Court’s entire Opinion is that Jamal received a full and fair hearing on his post-conviction claims before Judge Sabo," they argued. "Based on this false premise, the Court embraces Judge Sabo’s biased icredibility’ findings, his wholesale denial of discovery, his quashing of over 25 subpoenas, and preclusion of evidence on several constitutional claims."

Pennsylvania’s high court is chosen in partisan elections. Some justices received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which has campaigned for Abu-Jamal’s execution. In a statement from death row, he noted that the court has recently upheld death sentences "in cases where an impartial reading of transcripts or pleadings would make an honest affirmation all but impossible What they have done in my case is par for the course."

"I am sorry that this court did not rule on the right side of history. But I am not surprised," Abu-Jamal added. "Even after this legal legerdemain [sleight of hand] I remain innocent. A court cannot make an innocent man guilty. Any ruling founded on injustice is not justice. The righteous fight for life, liberty, and for justice can only continue."

Within days of the decision, demonstrations commenced across the US. Once a death warrant is signed, Abu-Jamal’s lawyers will request a stay of execution. If Pennsylvania does carry out its threat, however, it could become an international incident comparable to Nigeria’s execution of author Ken Saro-Wiwa. Only twice in the 20th century have executions of political dissidents been upheld by US courts. The government hasn’t executed a prominent Black revolutionary since the days of slavery.

Back to the Drawing Board

PARIS – The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) appears dead – but it’s only for the moment. At October talks, the French pulled out when they couldn’t get exemptions to protect their film industry. As a result, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which operates by consensus, was forced to halt the process.

Even some governments pushing this "charter for transnationals" see problems. The US, for instance, wants its laws exempted from the MAI’s dispute process, though it doesn’t defend that right for other countries. Britain says the current draft should be ripped up and re-written.

But the discussion may just move to the World Trade Organization (WTO), where objections to ideas such as removing nations’ rights to impose conditions on investment can be more easily handled. That could endanger health and safety standards, along with the right of developing countries to channel investment. The current MAI draft doesn’t require companies to respect workers’ rights, safety codes, or environmental protection rules. It also allows transnationals to sue governments, but not the reverse.

How to handle environmental impacts will be high on the new agenda. WTO Director Renato Ruggiero says his organization isn’t equipped to deal with such issues alone, and suggests the creation of a global environmental organization. Former director Gary Sampson adds that, as a body of trade experts, the WTO isn’t equipped to deal with labor and environmental questions.

Justice Delayed

XAMAN – Peace has come to Guatemala, but justice lags slowly behind. More than three years after the Xaman massacre, in which 11 refugees were murdered and 27 wounded, the case is only now reaching the Supreme Court.

In late October, the court finally replaced three judges removed for "partiality" last spring, and named a new special prosecutor. But the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, which represents the victims, fears the new prosecutor won’t be able to effectively handle the complex case.

On October 5, 1995, soldiers opened fire on refugees in Xaman. The resulting case marks the first time members of the armed forces have gone on trial for any of the 424 massacres attributed to them. "Everyone knows who did it," says William Ramirez, advisor for the Myrna Mack Foundation. Yet, the original judges refused to accept most prosecution evidence, while admitting material fabricated by the military. Some Xaman villagers were afraid to testify, fearing military retaliation.

In the fires that raged through Mexico and Guatemala last May and June, much of Xaman’s corn crop was burned. Profits from rubber and hardwood sales have disappeared, and aid has all but stopped. Now, much hangs on the outcome of the court case. "It is worrying that there is still no result," says Tomas Grave Morente, leaning on a cross marking the spot where his mother died. "The truth is we are tired."

Message in a Bottle

LONDON – Inside each glass jar is a face – a smiling schoolgirl, a wizened old man. As far as the eye can see, they stare out at viewers. They’re the people of Dong Ping Lake in China’s northern coastal region of Qing Dao. Flooded several times in the past few years, their homes may be permanently destroyed as a result of global warming.

The Qing Dao jars, part of a new exhibit here by artist Christina Kopernik-Steckel, depicts the devastation ahead unless the Kyoto Protocol on climate change signed last December leads to coordinated action. At the Kyoto summit, participants agreed to a 5.2 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. But that’s not binding unless the protocol is ratified by countries responsible for 55 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. And the US, responsible for almost half that, won’t agree unless developing countries also make cuts. If the US doesn’t ratify, the plan may die.

Rising global temperatures are likely to produce extreme weather and affect sea levels. This year is already the hottest since record-keeping began 140 years ago. Unless something is done, scientists predict that parts of the Amazon will become desert, and small islands will disappear. If the worst is to be avoided, a 60 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions within 50 years is necessary, claims Friends of the Earth.

It’s not all gloom and doom, however. Vulnerability to extreme climates can be reduced, says Nigel Arnell, one of the UK’s senior science advisors. "Trivial things, like flood protection schemes, cutting down on the demand for water, and making irrigation more efficient, could save millions of lives."

One Code Too Many

ISTANBUL – The World Association of Press Councils (WAPC) is drafting an international code of ethics for the media and looking into the creation of a world press council to enforce it. Sounds promising? Well, many journalists and editors don’t think so, say the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) and the World Editors Forum, which was created by the World Association of Newspapers in 1994.

The WAPC, which has members in 16 countries, discussed the issue during its September General Assembly in Turkey. A working group from Australia, Turkey, and Egypt will consider the "feasibility of establishing … a voluntary mechanism for the mediation and resolution of transnational complaints (about) the conduct of the media." Other working groups will "draft a model ethics code and create a model for new national press councils."

But journalists and press freedom representatives, who were excluded from the WAPC’s working sessions, criticized the proposals as unworkable and unwise. It will "be easier for authoritarian rulers to jail journalists (and close print or broadcast news media) if a prestigious world body has said that what they are doing is considered Ôimproper’," the WPFC argues.

Candid Camera

LONDON – Britain’s Big Brother has stepped up surveillance with a system that can find and track people as they attend a protest or walk down a street. Called the Mandrake face recognition system, it’s currently testing 140 cameras and 11 mobile camera units in a six-month trial. "The people who go onto the system will be convicted criminals," assures Chief Superintendent David Armond.

But some residents, already fed up with cameras pointing in their windows, recently turned the tables on Mandrake. An alternative news group known as Undercurrents exposed the police with its own video cameras when a 7-foot "alien" turned up on the new police system prowling the streets of Bournemouth.

Four carloads of officers responded, and the result was hilarious footage of police cars chasing a creature that turned out to be a local resident in costume. "Our actions highlighted the enormous resources they are willing to spend stopping anyone poking fun at their cameras," said one participant. Embarrassed, the police claimed "it didn’t happen."

Civil rights advocates argue that such intrusive surveillance will lead to more harassment of innocent people. "The claim that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear is rubbish," says Undercurrents. "What the police call an 80 percent success rate is what we would call a one in five chance of a mistake."

Crypto Controls

VIENNA – Dissidents and human rights groups often use encryption technologies to authenticate the identity of authors while protecting them from despots at home. But US-inspired plans to expand encryption controls threaten the future ability of activists to transmit sensitive information without detection.

In September, an international conference on technology reviewed the 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement, an international accord governing the proliferation of military technology. Human Rights Watch warned participants not to incorporate restrictive policies or further limit the distribution, development, or use of strong encryption hardware or software.

"Encryption is more than a shield for human rights activists," said Jagdish Parikh, an on-line researcher at HRW. "Coded language is still language, and it must be protected as a basic human right to free expression." It’s also a bulwark against privacy violations in an age when computerization and data banks enable the collection of huge amounts of personal information.

International law says states must not only refrain from arbitrary interference with privacy, but also protect citizens from such attacks. Many human rights activists would be spared retaliation and abuse if crypto-software were more widely available, Parikh added.

The US has adopted relatively restrictive policies, which limit the distribution of software used to encrypt text. In particular, Washington has outlawed the export of the most popular software among human rights activists, Pretty Good Privacy (PGP).

Celluloid Black Out

BANGKOK – Meant to showcase Thailand as a budding venue for international art and culture, September’s Bangkok Film Festival instead brought out an uglier aspect of the Ô’Land of Smiles” – movie censorship.

Dubbed "unfit for public consumption," two entries were banned from screening. Bugis Street focuses on the life of transvestites in a Singapore nightlife area, while My Teacher Eats Biscuits is a satirical tale about the decline of religious institutions. The first was called pornographic by Thailand’s National Film Board, the second allegedly offended "religious sensibilities.” Censors also ruled that a New Zealand entry, Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, could only be shown if the projectionist put his hand over the lens to block one scene.

In response, Thai movie-makers and intellectuals have called for revision of the country’s antiquated Film Act, passed in 1930. Producers, who currently must cut out or mask scenes deemed unsuitable, want a rating system and a waiver of censorship for films shown at festivals.

Ô’It is very discouraging," says Ing K, director of My Teacher Eats Biscuits. "All of us working on the film would not have spent the amount of time and money involved if we did not care about religion.” Her film exposes corruption within mainstream Buddhism, but reaffirms the essential goodness of all religions.

A pro-democracy movement broke the Thai military’s stranglehold in the early 90s. Though many laws restricting press freedom were subsequently lifted, cinema remains strictly monitored. Vibrant in the 60s and early 70s, the Thai film industry has been steadily declining due to an influx of slick movies from Hong Kong and Hollywood.

An Island Divided

HONG KONG – Recent talks between China and Taiwan may have been a breakthrough, ending open hostilities across the Taiwan Strait. But with most Taiwanese still unconvinced that unification is the way to go, the island’s identity crisis continues. In a recent survey, only 17 percent wished to unite with China; 73 percent opposed the "one country, two systems" formula proposed by Beijing.

Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui has made democracy in the People’s Republic a pre-condition of unification. "One sovereign China" has been the position of his Kuomintang party (KMT) since 1949. The opposition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), officially advocates independence. Lately, however, both parties have been considering more direct links with China and leaving independence out of the discussion.

For the DPP, nevertheless, the "Republic of China" is still Taiwan, and doesn’t belong to the People’s Republic. The KMT, on the other hand, says it represents the Republic of China "on" Taiwan, which means that Taiwan belongs to a cultural and historical Chinese continuum. The future is therefore apt to be a continuation of the status quo.

Drug Confession

WASHINGTON, DC – According to the CIA’s inspector general, the intelligence agency tolerated and protected cocaine traffickers who permeated the Nicaraguan contra movement to a greater extent than previously alleged. In an October report, Inspector General Frederick Hitz identified more than 50 drug-implicated contras and supporters who worked with the CIA-backed operation during the 1980s.

Hitz’s report tracks authorization for some drug smugglers to Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, where Oliver North oversaw the operation. Hitz also found evidence of cocaine trafficking that implicated the principal airline used by North in his Iran-contra activities. Predictably, the report’s release drew almost no notice in the mainstream press. But details are available from the Media Consortium, a watchdog group with a free website at