Asian leaders organize for “great game”
ALMATY, Kazakhstan – The leaders of Russia, China and four Central Asian states held a two-day anti-terrorism summit in Kazakhstan last week, amidst criticism of growing U.S. influence in the region. The meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) brought together Russia and China, which jointly issued a "21st century world order" communiqué opposing any one state’s "domination of international affairs," and the leaders of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia had observer status.
On July 6, the group called for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to set a time frame for withdrawing from member states. Leaders at the summit also vowed to step up security cooperation and accused unnamed outside forces of trying to destabilize Central Asia.
Supporting the idea of an Asian union, India’s external affairs minister, K Natwar Singh, attended the summit, calling for closer economic and strategic ties between his country and the oil-rich Central Asian nations, Indo-Asian News Service reported. The region is fast emerging as the center of a new “great game” between global powers.
According to Agence France Presse, SCO members have expressed uneasiness over a growing U.S. presence in Central Asia. The United States has military airbases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and is viewed as a proponent of regime change (At the same time, regional leaders used the meeting to stave off criticism about their own hard-line policies, characterizing them as essential to fighting “extremism.”
Although officially allies in the global war on terror, U.S. and Russian views on Central Asia have diverged in Kyrgyzstan, where Russian officials believe the United States backed a popular revolt that deposed Pres. Askar Akayev. In May, Moscow and Washington also disagreed over the suppression of a revolt in Uzbekistan. Russia and China publicly backed Uzbekistan Pres. Islam Karimov while the events were widely condemned in the West.
U.S. leads the prison pack
LONDON – The United States and Russia lead the world in putting criminals in jail, according to new figures assembled by the International Center for Prison Studies at London’s King’s College. The United States detains 714 per 100,000 people for a total of more than 2 million prisoners, or 22 percent of the 9 million reportedly held throughout the world. Russia has 786,900 inmates, or 550 per 100,000 people.
The U.S. government says putting criminals in jail is working, and points to figures showing a decline in the violent crime and murder rates. Critics say that alternatives to incarcerating people are being ignored, many prisoners aren’t dangerous, and people from minority groups are far more likely to end up behind bars.
Notably high rates in European countries include Belarus, with 532 inmates per 100,000 people, and Ukraine with 416 per 100,000. High-ranking Asian countries include Turkmenistan, at about 489 per 100,000, and the Maldive Islands, which jails 414 per 100,000 people. South Africa leads Africa with 186,739 of its 44 million people in prison, or 413 per 100,000. Suriname has the top rate in South America, 437 per 100,000.
The center compiles data from a variety of sources, mostly from prison administrations in each nation. Data for the survey was mainly from mid-2002 or later.
U.S. prison news:
* In California, a federal judge plans to seize control of the prison health-care system and place it under a receiver, declaring that "extreme measures" are needed to fix a system that kills one inmate each week through incompetence or neglect, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Attorneys on both sides called the decision historic and say it would be the first time that such a large government operation is placed under a federal receiver. Henderson said the action, which will shift power for all decisions related to inmate care to the federal court, would be a "multiyear effort."
* Seven high-security U.S. federal prisons will be getting lethal electrified fences in a $10 million project intended to reduce the number of perimeter guards. According to the Associated Press, the 12-foot-high "stun-lethal" fences, similar to those already used at some state prisons, can be set to deliver a shock if touched once, and a fatal jolt if touched a second time.
The Bureau of Prisons expects to award contracts for the fences in late fall, spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said. Stun-lethal fences were pioneered in South Africa and used to protect infrastructure, noted Mike Allen, president of Crowley Co., part of a team putting together a bid. He described them as no less humane than the shoot-to-kill orders given to guards when inmates are escaping.
Dueling plans complicate UN reform
NEW YORK – Third World countries are becoming suspicious that UN reform, which will be negotiated in the world body’s General Assembly this September, could turn it into a police force devoted to Western interests. What worries underdeveloped nations the most, according to analysis from Prensa Latina, is that many proposals seem tailored to fit critical recommendations made by a U.S. congressional panel. A package of reforms is expected to be approved by more than 170 heads of state Sept. 14-17.
The U.S. panel was formed last December to suggest measures to make the UN more effective, as well as ways to help the United States stimulate the necessary changes, including a willingness to support intervention when necessary. U.S. influence comes with its 22 percent contribution to the UN’s operational budget. It also covers nearly 27 percent of the funds devoted to peacekeeping missions.
U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-IL, has introduced a bill to keep half of the U.S. debt to the UN suspended unless it complies with "certain field requirements." One U.S. proposal is to create a Council on Human Rights, replacing the current body and keeping its membership small and made up of democracies.
Various countries are also lobbying to join an expanded UN Security Council. According to a resolution developed for the recent African Union summit, Security Council members should be increased from 15 to 26, with six of the 11 new members being permanent with veto power, and the rest non-permanent. Asia and Africa would get two veto-wielding permanent seats. Latin America, the Caribbean and Western Europe would each get one.
Eight African countries have announced their intention to bid for a seat. The position of the 53-member African Union carries weight in deciding the fate of UN reform, especially Security Council expansion, because any resolution on expansion must be approved by two-thirds of the 191-member UN General Assembly. The AU stresses that Africa has a “legitimate right to fair and equitable geographical representation.”
Meanwhile, the so-called Group of Four – Brazil, Germany, India and Japan – have proposed adding 10 seats to the Security Council, six permanent and four non-permanent. Under this proposal, the four permanent seats would go to themselves; the other two permanent seats would be given to African nations. The idea has met strong opposition from Italy, Pakistan, South Korea, Mexico, and dozens of other nations. They favor increasing the non-permanent council seats from 10 to 20, and are calling for consensus on Council reform to avoid a rift among the UN membership.
Green light for Indonesian military aid
WASHINGTON – Six years after the Indonesian military last attacked East Timor, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to lift restrictions on military assistance for Indonesia in the 2006 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. Karen Orenstein, Washington coordinator for East Timor Action Network (ETAN), called the move “a grave setback,” and described the Indonesian military as “still unreformed, unaccountable and intensely corrupt.”
ETAN spokesman John M. Miller noted that the “military refuses to accept a ceasefire [with Aceh] and opposes any concessions toward a negotiated settlement." He added, "Under the new Indonesian president, humanitarian and human rights conditions have significantly deteriorated in West Papua and militarization of the entire archipelago has increased. Accountability for crimes against humanity in East Timor remains a distant goal."
Congress first voted to restrict International Military Education and Training (IMET), which brings foreign military officers to the United States for training, in response to the November 1991, Santa Cruz massacre of more than 270 civilians in East Timor by Indonesian troops. All military ties were severed in September 1999, as the military and its militia proxies razed much of East Timor.
In response, Congress banned foreign military financing, IMET, and the export of lethal defense articles until a wide range of conditions were met, including presidential certification that the Indonesian government is prosecuting members of the armed forces accused of rights violations or aiding militia groups and punishing the guilty.
In late February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice restored full IMET for Indonesia. Two days late, the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices said, "Security force members murdered, tortured, raped, beat and arbitrarily detained civilians and members of separatist movements, especially in Aceh and to a lesser extent in Papua."
In May, 53 U.S. organizations urged Pres. George Bush not to offer military assistance to Indonesia. But after Indonesia’s president visited Washington that month, the administration announced it would permit government sales of "non-lethal" military equipment and excess defense articles.
Crime on the beach
CANCUN – U.S. citizens are being warned away from Mexican border areas such as Nuevo Laredo because of drug violence, according to the Dallas Morning Herald and other press reports, but the average tourist may face more danger on a Cancun beach. In June alone, two 18-year-old U.S. women were raped in separate incidents in Cancun. Activists say U.S. and Mexican authorities are sweeping the problem under the rug.
"Cancun is one of the safest places in Mexico and one of the safest places in the world," said Mayor Francisco Alor Quezada. "But it is also not the exception to the fact that bad things happen everywhere." A top Mexican tourist spot, Cancun saw its local government nearly melt down this year, as the city ran out of funds, allegedly because of corruption, and police went on strike.
MOSCOW – Crust instability in the earth under Moscow could explain a cave that brought down buildings at the Transvaal water park last year, the head of the Digger-Spas underground research center told reporters at a press conference last week. According to Pravda, Vadim Mikhailov said that more than half of the city rests on geotectonic fractures, raising the risk that the ground could cave in and destroy buildings.
"The park was built in the area of one of the fractures. A series of mini-earthquakes took place on the site of the park before its dome collapsed," he said.
On June 21, at the construction site of an elite residential complex, eyewitnesses saw one of the buildings start sliding down in the foundation pit. The hole was quickly filled with sand and diggers weren’t allowed to examine it. Similar accidents occur in Moscow regularly, but the city government has yet to acknowledge the problem, and continues to approve huge residential projects.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Genocide, slavery, and sugar candy
"We didn’t come this far because we’re made of sugar candy. Once upon a time, we elbowed our way onto and across this continent by giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans. That was biological warfare. And we used every other weapon we could get our hands on to grab this land from whomever.
"And we grew prosperous. And yes, we greased the skids with the sweat of slaves. So it goes with most great nation-states, which – feeling guilty about their savage pasts – eventually civilize themselves out of business and wind up invaded and ultimately dominated by the lean, hungry up-and-coming who are not made of sugar candy."
– Paul Harvey, ABC radio personality, June 23, lamenting the decline of U.S. resolve
Evidence of covert prison network mounting
DIEGO GARCIA – On a secluded atoll in the Indian Ocean, the United States has created a floating aircraft carrier that houses 1,700 personnel who call it Camp Justice. But intelligence analysts contacted by The Toronto Star say the little-known British possession, leased to the United States in 1970, is also part of a network of secret detention centers being operated by the Central Intelligence Agency to interrogate high-value terrorist suspects beyond the reach of U.S. or international law.
The newspaper’s sources claim that the prisoners, sometimes called "ghost detainees" or the "new disappeared," are being subjected to treatment that makes the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay look small-time.
"Diego Garcia is an obvious place for a secret facility," explained U.S. defense analyst John Pike. "They want somewhere that’s difficult to escape from, difficult to attack, not visible to prying eyes, and where a lot of other activity is going on. Diego Garcia is ideal." The atoll is more than 1,000 miles from land. The British government has denied that detainees are being held there.
Analysts believe other unacknowledged facilities are located in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Jordan. The United Nations has begun to investigate allegations that the United States is detaining terrorist suspects in undeclared holding facilities, including on board ships believed to be in the Indian Ocean.
Various news outlets have confirmed that the CIA has been transferring or "rendering" suspects to third countries for aggressive interrogation since 2001. In June, an Italian judge ordered the arrest of 13 CIA agents and operatives on charges they kidnapped an Egyptian cleric on a Milan street two years ago and flew him to Egypt for interrogation.
The policy was initiated in 1998 by the Clinton White House after the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. After 9/11, the policy changed to “extraordinary rendition.” Since 2001, according to The New York Times, between 100 and 150 people have been abducted to Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, all countries with records of practicing torture.
However, since rendering means giving up control to the other country, Pike believes that only low-value suspects are transferred. "The CIA keeps the high-level ones to themselves," he claimed, "and they work them over."
David Danzig, spokesman for Human Rights First, said the International Red Cross has a list of 36 individuals, almost exclusively high-value detainees, who are being held at undisclosed locations. "But our conversations with government officials, former detainees and others suggest it’s safe to say hundreds, probably thousands,” he added.
A veil of silence shrouds the ghost detainees, Danzig said. “Both the (Bush) administration and the CIA are stonewalling and blocking efforts to get a credible investigation.” But he said "the landscape is starting to change," pointing to the fact that a Republican heavyweight, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, as well as conservative Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, have joined the call for a commission to investigate the U.S. detainee policy.
Impeachment idea entering the mainstream
WASHINGTON – Not only did Pres. George Bush’s recent televised address about Iraq fail to bolster his approval rating, in a Zogby poll taken after the speech, 42 percent said they would favor impeachment if the president misled the nation about his reasons for going to war.
Half of those contacted don’t hold that view, but supporters of impeachment outweigh opponents in some parts of the country. Among those living in the Western states, 52 percent favor Congress using the impeachment mechanism while 41 percent are opposed, according to Zogby.
In Eastern states, 49 percent are in favor and 45 percent are opposed. In the South, meanwhile, impeachment is opposed by three in five voters and supported by just 34 percent; in the Central/Great Lakes region, 52 percent are opposed, with 38 percent in favor.
In terms of “red” and “blue” states, just 36 percent of red staters say they agree that Congress should use impeachment if the president is found to have lied on Iraq, while 55 percent rejected this view. In blue states – those that went for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 – 48 percent favored such proceedings while 45 percent were opposed.
Recent polls show that U.S. citizens have turned against the war. A solid majority believe it was a mistake, and more than 60 percent said they think Bush has no plan for winning or leaving. The Zogby poll also showed that after Bush’s speech his approval rating dropped by a point to 43 percent, the lowest for a fifth-year president in the history of polling.
CIA agent leak leading to Rove
WASHINGTON – Karl Rove, the political mastermind known as “Bush’s Brain,” has been named as one of the White House officials who leaked the identity of CIA agent Valeria Plame, according to Newsweek magazine and senior MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell.
Citing lawyers involved in the case, Newsweek has reported that e-mails surrendered by Time magazine to a grand jury indicate that Rove was one of the sources. On the syndicated McLaughlin Group political talk show, O’Donnell last week claimed to know that Rove’s name is mentioned in notes written by Time reporter Matt Cooper. Other panelists suggested that, if true, this might mean a perjury right for Rove if he told the grand jury he didn’t leak to Cooper.
An attorney for Rove, Robert Luskin, told Newsweek that his client "never knowingly disclosed classified information" and "did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA." Plame’s husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, angered the Bush administration when he claimed that statements by the President and others that Iraq was attempting to buy yellowcake Uranium were erroneous.
Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller have been ordered to testify or face prison. Both indicated they would rather go to jail than reveal their sources, but Time subsequently agreed to hand over internal e-mails, largely correspondence between editors and Matt Cooper, along with his notes on the leak.
It’s a federal crime to deliberately reveal the identity of an undercover CIA official. A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the leak and began subpoenaing reporters to find the source. In a case argued before the Supreme Court, attorneys for Miller and Cooper argued that the Constitution shields them from having to testify before the grand jury. The high court refused to hear the case.
Sponge bath, anyone?
WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Showering in manganese-contaminated water for a decade or more could have permanent effects on the nervous system, Science Daily reports. The damage may occur even at levels of manganese considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
Scientists believe that breathing in small amounts of manganese dissolved in the water may harm the nervous system. The damage may occur even at levels of the naturally occurring metal normally considered safe, the North Carolina-based researchers say.
Dr. John Spangler, who led the study, noted, "If our results are confirmed, they could have profound implications for the nation and the world. Nearly 9 million people in the United States are exposed to manganese levels that our study shows may cause toxic effects. Inhaling manganese, rather than eating or drinking it, is far more efficient at delivering manganese to the brain."
Although manganese levels in public water supplies are monitored, in the journal Medical Hypothesis the researchers claim that regulators haven’t considered the long-term effects of inhaling vaporized manganese while showering. Using animals, Spangler’s team calculated the amount of manganese people would absorb by showering for 10 minutes a day.
After 10 years of showering in manganese-contaminated water, children would be exposed to levels of the metal three times higher than the doses needed to leave deposits in rats’ brains, the researchers found. Adults with a longer history of showering could be exposed to doses 50 percent higher.
Librarians worry about PATRIOT Act
CHICAGO – During a satellite interview at the American Library Association’s annual conference last week, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury told his audience not to be afraid if the government comes asking for information. Instead, they should get angry, he advised. About 27,000 people attended the gathering.
Many librarians already are taking action, with the ALA leading efforts to roll back parts of the USA PATRIOT Act. In June, the group successfully lobbied the U.S. House to pass the Freedom to Read Amendment to the appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice, and State Departments. The amendment cuts funds for bookstore and library searches under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Section 215 allows the FBI to secretly demand access, without probable cause, to the records and "tangible items" of any organization or person.
The provision is one of 15 marked to expire at the end of the year, but the Bush administration wants Congress to keep the act intact and has threatened to veto any bill that includes amendments weakening it.
"We’ve been protecting our patrons’ privacy for years," outgoing ALA
Pres. Carol Brey-Casiano told The Beacon News, a suburban Chicago newspaper. But during one workshop Barbara Jones, head librarian at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, raised the concern that many people, especially the young, are ignorant about constitutional rights. She referred to a survey conducted among 100,000 students last winter. More than one-third felt the First Amendment went "too far" in guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, worship and assembly. Only half felt newspapers should be allowed to publish stories that did not have the government’s approval.
Jones’ concerns echo Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which describes a society in which ideas and knowledge are considered dangers. According to Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, these days the author sees a large threat coming from growing illiteracy.