IPS Blog

Rwanda arrests U.S. Lawyer defending Opposition Candidate

ErlinderLawyers in this country often get a bad rap for charging predatory rates and manipulating the fine print for their personal gain. It is too easy to forget that lawyers play a vital role of enforcing the rule of law and protecting our most basic rights and liberties. So how do we respond when the tables are turned and a lawyer’s rights are being violated /in need of defense?

The US State Department suggests we sit on our hands. Nothing has improved for almost a week since Rwandan police arrested Peter Erlinder, a US lawyer and head of the International Criminal Court’s defense lawyer’s association, in Kigali last Friday. He had just arrived to defend his client, presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, when he was arrested and charged with the same crime for which she is wanted: practicing “genocide ideology.”

Rwanda’s recent constitution includes a “Genocide Ideology Law,” intended to penalize genocidaires and those who deny the reality of the1994 genocide. Although this law rests on good intentions, President Kagame has employed it with increasing frequency and in situations where it is unsubstantiated. In essence, the law has become a tool of the regime for political targeting and elimination of their opposition.

Erlinder’s arrest is especially notable in this trend because it is the first time Rwanda has used “genocide ideology” charges to detain a foreign national. While Erlinder never denied the genocide, he has said it is inaccurate to blame only one side and criticized Kagame for suppressing open discussion of the subject. Ironically, the Rwandan government responded to Erlinder’s rational appeal by making him an example of his own criticisms.

Kagame’s regime has leveled this emotionally charged indictment against its political opponents in the lead up to presidential elections August 9th. The most recent and high profile charge came against Victoire Inagabire April 21st, after she announced her candidacy for Kagame’s seat.

The international community, particularly the World Bank, has heaped praise on Kagame’s regime for its role in Rwanda’s economic recovery and political stability since the disastrous genocide there in 1994. This praise should not overshadow the increasingly authoritarian tendencies in Rwanda, however. These include muzzling of the independent press, harassment and intimidation of opposition parties in elections, and now criminal indictments against political opponents and their lawyers. Read more about the regression of democracy in Rwanda here.

The United States is incontrovertibly required to address Rwanda’s actions, both to protect Mr. Erlinder and to send a broader diplomatic message that such unlawful action against US citizens abroad will not be permitted. Yet so far, the US has prioritized maintaining its healthy political relationship with Rwanda.

“The US has had a special relationship with Rwanda, which remains one of the largest recipients of US foreign assistance in Africa. Given the US government’s expressed commitment to democracy and the rule of law, it is critical that the Obama Administration and the US Congress uphold these values in Rwanda and demand the immediate release of Peter Erlinder, an advocate of justice,” said the Institute’s Emira Woods.

The National Lawyers Guild, of which Erlinder was formerly president, was first to issue a statement demanding his immediate release. At a national press conference in Washington June 3rd, the president of the National Lawyers Guild, David Gespass, said, “Professor Erlinder has been acting in the best tradition of the legal profession and has been a vigorous advocate in his representation of his clients. There can be no justice for anyone if the state can silence lawyers for representing defendants it dislikes.”

The injustice of Erlinder’s arrest and detainment is on the hands of both Rwanda and now the United States for its continued inaction. “The real issue here seems to be whether the US and the world will stand by and allow my father to be detained and prosecuted for doing his job, as an attorney and advocate for his clients,” said Sarah Erlinder, daughter of Peter Erlinder.

The detainment became extremely critical Tuesday, when reports that Erlinder was hospitalized and had tried to commit suicide while in jail were released by the Rwandan government. “He mixed between 45 and 50 tablets in water and took the concoction in an attempted suicide,” Rwandan Police Spokesman Kayiranga said. “However, the police managed to intercept and took Erlinder to hospital before the drugs could take their toll on his body.” Erlinder’s family disputes the validity of this claim and is pressing the Red Cross to make an independent investigation into his condition.

Why are NGOs the only reliable mechanism for news here? The US Embassy in Rwanda has been disturbingly absent throughout this affair.While the US Embassy staff took off work this Monday for Memorial Day, a holiday to commemorate those who fought for justice and freedoms, a champion of those very values remained behind bars just miles away in Kigali. Justice and rule of law shouldn’t take vacations, especially when champions of the law like Peter Erlinder need our help.

You can write to the Rwandan government demanding Peter Erlinder’s release here.

Outraged by Drone Strikes? Some Drone Operators Are Too

Investigative reporter and historian Gareth Porter at IPS News writes in an article titled CIA Drone Operators Oppose Strikes as Helping al Qaeda:

Some CIA officers involved in the agency’s drone strikes programme in Pakistan and elsewhere are privately expressing their opposition to the programme within the agency, because it is helping al Qaeda and its allies recruit, according to a retired military officer in contact with them.

The interview he landed is an eye-opener.

“Some of the CIA operators are concerned that, because of its blowback effect, it is doing more harm than good,” said Jeffrey Addicott, former legal adviser to U.S. Special Forces and director of the Centre for Terrorism Law at St Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, in an interview with IPS.

Not only that, but neither are “‘The people at the top . . . believers,’ said Addicott, referring to the CIA. ‘They know that the objective is not going to be achieved.'”

Especially discouraging . . .

Addicott said the drone programme has been driven by President Barack Obama, rather than by the CIA. “Obama’s trying to show people that we’re winning,” he added. …

Within the administration, it appears that the logic behind the programme is that it has to be seen to be doing something about al Qaeda. … “Very frankly,” Panetta declared May 18, 2009, “it’s the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership.”

CIA officers: Come to Florida, where you, too, can become a victim of PTSD while dealing out indiscriminate death from the comfort of your own console.

Be sure to read the rest of Gareth Porter’s exclusive at IPS News: http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=51706

U.S. Support for Israel Mirrors 80s Support for El Salvador Junta

It’s like the 1980s all over again.

During that decade, the Reagan administration – with the support of Congress – sent billions of dollars worth of unconditional military and other support to the right wing-junta in El Salvador, just as the Obama administration is today with the right-wing government in Israel.

When Salvadoran forces massacred 700 civilians in El Mozote, Congressional leaders defended the killings, saying that the U.S-backed operation was “fighting terrorists.” Similarly, when Israel massacred over 700 civilians in the Gaza Strip early last year, Congressional leaders defended the killings for the same reason.

When Amnesty International and other groups investigated the El Mozote killings and found that it was indeed a massacre targeted at civilians by the Salvadoran army, members of Congress denounced these reputable human rights organizations as “biased.” There was a similar reaction when Amnesty and other groups documented similar Israeli war crimes, with Congressional leaders accusing them of “bias.”

Even when the Salvadoran junta murdered international humanitarian aid workers, that right-wing government’s supporters in Washington insisted that the victims were actually allied with terrorists and that they somehow provoked their own deaths. We’re now hearing the same rationalization regarding the attack on the humanitarian aid flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean.

The difference is that, back in the 1980s, members of Congress and the administration who were responsible for such policies were targeted with frequent protests, including sit-ins at Congressional offices and other kinds of nonviolent direct action. Unlike supporters of the El Salvador’s former right-wing government, however, today’s Congressional supporters of Israel’s right-wing government seem to be getting a free ride.

Senators Barbara Boxer, Ron Wyden, Russ Feingold, Barbara Mikulski, and Carl Levin – who led the attack against Justice Goldstone and others who documented Israeli war crimes – are still supported by many so-called “progressives” who apparently believe that, despite these senators’ attacks on basic human rights, they should still get their vote, campaign contributions, and other support. For example, here in California, Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans and singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt, who were active in opposition to U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s, are major contributors to Boxer’s re-election campaign. The willingness to challenge such right-wing Congressional militarists has substantially diminished.

The problem is less a matter of the power of AIPAC and the “pro-Israel lobby” as it is the failure of those on the left to demand a change in Obama administration policy. Progressives must recognize that the lives of Arab civilians are as important as the lives of Central American civilians; that it is just as inexcusable for the United States to support a government that kill passengers and crew on a humanitarian flotilla in international waters as it is to kill nuns, agronomists and other civilians working in the Salvadoran countryside; and that, when it comes to international humanitarian law, the differences between the policies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are not as great as we would like to think.

Split This Rock Poem of the Week: Philip Metres

Philip MetresA weekly featured poem of provocation and witness. You can find more poetry and arts news from Blog This Rock.

For the Fifty (Who Formed PEACE With Their Bodies)

In the green beginning,
in the morning mist,
they emerge from their chrysalis

of clothes: peel off purses & cells,
slacks & Gap sweats, turtle-
necks & tanks, Tommy’s & Salvation

Army, platforms & clogs,
abandoning bras and lingerie, labels
& names, courtesies & shames,

the emperor’s rhetoric of defense,
laying it down, their child-
stretched or still-taut flesh

giddy in sudden proximity,
onto the cold earth: bodies fetal or supine,
as if come-hithering

or dead, wriggle on the grass to form
the shape of a word yet to come, almost
embarrassing to name: a word

thicker, heavier than the rolled rags
of their bodies seen from a cockpit:
they touch to make

the word they want to become:
it’s difficult to get the news
from our bodies, yet people die each day

for lack of what is found there:
here: the fifty hold, & still
to become a testament, a will,

embody something outside
themselves & themselves: the body,
the dreaming disarmed body.

-Philip Metres

Used by permission.

Reader Challenge: Do Alternate Cheonan Narratives Ring True?

Asia Times Online periodically provides a forum for Kim Jong-il mouthpiece Kim Myong Chol. In an early May article titled Pyongyang sees US role in Cheonan sinking, he suggests that the incident may have been the result of friendly fire on the part of the United States.

Is it possible that North Korea carried out the daring act of torpedoing a South Korean corvette participating in a US-South Korean war exercise? The answer is a categorical no. The circumstantial evidence is quite revealing, showing who is the more likely culprit.

Among the evidence he cites:

The disaster took place precisely in the waters where what the Pentagon has called “one of the world’s largest simulated exercises” was underway. This war exercise, known as “Key Resolve/Foal Eagle” did not end on March 18 as was reported but actually ran from March 18 to April 30.

North Korean submarines are not stealthy enough to penetrate heavily guarded South Korean waters at night and remain undetected by the highly touted anti-submarine warfare units of the American and South Korean forces. A North Korean submarine submarine would be unable to outmaneuver an awesome array of high-tech Aegis warships, identify the corvette Cheonan and then slice it in two with a torpedo before escaping unscathed, leaving no trace of its identity.

Or as Lex, who frequently writes for Scholars & Rogues, put it:

If that’s how good the DPRK is, I’m not so sure we want to be rattling sabers.

Sticking the knife in and twisting, Chol declared that “the US repeated the kind of friendly fire incident for which it is notorious in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, another alternative narrative, in the form of an open letter to Hillary Clinton, finds neither the United States nor South Korea culpable. Its author, S.C. Shin, a civil investigator recommended by Korean National Assembly to investigate the sinking of Cheonan, seeks only to stay their hand from retaliating. He writes: “I could not find even a slight sign of ‘Explosion’ but could find so many evidences of grounding in/out of the vessel.”

Chin provides a detailed analysis, complete with images, of the shallow and rocky area where he believes the Cheonan went aground, to which the initial Mayday calls also attested. He further provides pictures of damage to the hull and propeller blade which show (drawn from his bullet points): “No penetration, No burn damage, No heat, No splinters, Cable covers are not damaged, Oil tank and dump area not damaged at all.”

If the boat was hit by a torpedo, he asks:

How are the bodies of victim who were found near the cutting area so clean while a big explosion [supposedly] broke out that is enough to tear down the vessel in two?

  • How could the bottom of the hull no& penetrations by splinter at all?
  • Why couldn’t we find even dead fish in that area . . . ?
  • Why nobody got otolaryngologic disease at all? Even no nose-bleeding.

The crew of the Cheonan, Chin maintains, actually managed to free the ship, but another incident followed when it then collided with another ship (because it had lost the ability to steer?).

Chin also cites the initial reports, which, of course, may have just been attempts to head an international incident off at the pass.

Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence, . . . told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April . . . that there was no evidence linking North Korea to the Cheonan’s sinking. South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo, while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected . . . (in) the waters where the accident took place.”

Obviously, if there’s any merit to these alternative narratives (not conspiracy theories, at least in this instance) them, they deserve a hearing to prevent an international incident. Do Focal Points readers find them credible and compelling? Also, let’s try to dissect the motives on the part of South Korea and the United States for representing a grounding and/or accident as an act of aggression.

Who Killed Hatoyama’s Career?

Yukio Hatoyama’s political career is dead, and Washington’s fingerprints are all over the murder weapon.

Hatoyama Announces To Quit Japan's Prime MinisterThe Japanese prime minister announced yesterday that he’s resigning and taking his number 2, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Ichiro Ozawa, with him.

The press has made a big thing about Japan’s political instability, that Hatoyama is the fourth prime minister to step down in four years. But this was a resignation that could have been avoided.

The Obama administration never warmed to Hatoyama. Washington didn’t like his critique of American-led globalization. His calls for a more equal partnership with the United States fell on deaf ears.

But it was the Okinawa base issue that sealed the deal. The Japanese prime minister had the temerity to call for a renegotiation of the 2006 deal that would close the Futenma Marine Corps base in Okinawa, shift thousands of Marines to Guam, and build a new base elsewhere in Okinawa for the remainder. The Obama administration went into overdrive in its efforts to persuade Hatoyama and his upstart DPJ to change their minds.

It wasn’t just a matter of convincing the prime minister or his party. The DPJ’s ruling coalition partners were against the relocation plan. And the vast majority of Okinawans rejected the 2006 plan. Tens of thousands of protestors gathered in a mass demonstration in April. Another 17,000 formed a human chain around Futenma in May.

So, Hatoyama was in a quandary. He couldn’t afford to piss off Washington. And he couldn’t afford to alienate his own constituencies. So, he committed political suicide by accepting the fiat from Washington and then resigning.

“Hatoyama’s popularity collapsed, in large measure, because he could not make up his mind,” writes Blaine Harden in The Washington Post.

That’s not exactly true. The prime minister was flawed in many ways. He was inexperienced. There were some shady financial dealings in his political circles.

But he couldn’t make up his mind because he was in an impossible position, a position that the United States forced him into. In my opinion, Washington used the Okinawa base as a weapon against a politician that it didn’t fundamentally trust.

Japanese voters wanted a big change when they supported the Democratic Party of Japan last August. They didn’t realize that the U.S. government was not interested in big change in Japan, not if it challenged U.S. interests in the region.

Japanese voters can still make new leaders. But the United States reserves the right to break them.

Oil Begins to Hit Florida Beaches; Disaster May cost BP $37 Billion

A small amount of oil has reached Florida’s Panhandle, the Wall Street Journal reports. A much larger “sheen” remains less than 50 miles away. According to the latest estimates, cleaning up the oil gushing from BP’s deepwater well could cost the company $37 billion, Bloomberg News reports. As OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower put it, when corporations promise to clean up a mess, things rarely go as they say. “This lesson is literally oozing over us in the form of the Gulf of Mexico’s disastrous oil slick,” Hightower said in a recent column.

Aftermath of the Israeli Flotilla Attack

Howard Zinn’s statement rings true for any nation, whether it be Israel, Palestine, or the United States: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

The Institute’s Israel/Palestine expert, Phyllis Bennis, had a scathing statement out today on The Huffington Post, on the Israeli military’s “massacre” of nine-plus activists. She says:

By coincidence, I am in Istanbul at the moment. In Turkey, home to most of the dead and injured among the international activists, 10,000 people marched from the Israeli consulate to the city’s main square, while thousands more took to the streets in Ankara, expressing outrage and demanding international accountability and immediate action to end the blockade of Gaza.

Maybe someone in the Israeli intelligence services or in the military really believed that the high profile threats that the Gaza Freedom Flotilla would “not be allowed” to reach Gaza shores would somehow convince the 700+ human rights defenders to simply give up. That they would agree to turn their 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid over to the Israeli military in the hope that the IDF, which has enforced an illegal and crippling siege against the 1.5 million Gazans for more than 3 years, would abide by their claim that they would send the aid on to Gaza… a Gaza that Israel continues to assert is not facing the humanitarian catastrophe that has been documented by the United Nations, by Amnesty International, by every Israeli and Palestinian and international human rights organization working in the region.

But anyone who knew anything about the Gaza boats knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Our own Netfa Freeman overlaid interviews of people protesting Israel, protesters’ chants, speeches, and music to create an audio story of the Gaza flotilla attack. It runs about 20 minutes long, but is worth every second.

CODEPINK provides an interactive timeline of the flotilla attack in Gaza yesterday, including firsthand stories of the attack – which they describe as “nothing short of state-sponsored terrorism.” It’s not quite complete yet, but should be a great resource for information as it comes.

Al-Jazeera is also liveblogging updates on the attack’s aftermath.

Kevin Drum wonders: How will this end?

There are now planned protests at Israeli embassies worldwide, if you want to let your country’s leaders know that you’re against the Israeli government’s actions.

Israel Plans to Meet Next Aid Ships with more Force

Two more activist-manned ships are traveling to Gaza to deliver aid, just a day after Israeli soldiers killed at least nine volunteers aboard vessels attempting to bring supplies. The commando-style raid, the deaths, and the arrest of nearly 700 activists sparked global condemnation, yet the Israeli military intends to meet the next ships with even more “aggressive force,” The Jerusalem Post reports. “Israel has decided that it is better to be perceived as savage than as weak,” Phyllis Bennis, an Institute for Policy Studies fellow and an OtherWords contributor, wrote on the Huffington Post op-ed. Many of the dead and injured are believed to be Turkish, and the incident is wrecking relations between Turkey and Israel.

Italy: Tomatoes and the Color Purple vs. Silvio

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, increasingly under attack by trade unions angered at his austerity proposals and a feckless economic program that has produced virtually no growth, now finds himself besieged on the Internet. There is a certain irony that this rightwing media mogul should find himself beset by the electronic media.

Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi looks down during a news conference at Palazzo Chigi in RomeThrough his massive holding company, Fininvest, Berlusconi owns Mediaset, one of the largest communications companies in Europe. It controls Italy’s three most watched channels, as well as Telecinco in Spain. Because he controls the government, Berlusconi also dominates the public station, RAI. What Italians see on their televisions is what Silvio wants them to see, and that means sports, soaps, and news shows that look like a joint undertaking by Fox News and Victoria’s Secret.

Shortly after a quarter of a million people turned out in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo last October to challenge Berlusconi’s control of the media and the Prime Minister’s efforts to make himself immune from the law, the “Purple Movement” sprang up on the Internet. According to one of the group’s founders, Emanuele Toscano, purple is the “symbolic color of battle for the affirmation of democracy, for the respect of our Constitutional Charter as the foundation of civilized living, for the defense of a free and plural information system.”

Using Internet tools like Face book, the “Purples” set up a nationwide network of Internet users, who turned out leaflets, organized transportation, and on Dec. 5 put several hundred thousand people into Rome’s San Giovanni Square for a “No Berlusconi Day.” The Rome police estimated the crowd 90,000, but even Berlusconi cabinet member, Robert Calderolli, put the number at 350,000.

Dec. 5 was Italy’s first Internet-promoted demonstration, similar in many ways to the massive 1999 demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Seattle.

“The net is a natural incubator of dissent,” argues Toscano, although the “Purples” also used old-fashioned methods as well, like handing out leaflets downloaded off the web, and flooding local newspapers with letters. The latter strategy was essential because only about one-third of Italy’s 60 million people are connected to the Internet, and only seven million of those use it with any regularity.

Other on-line groups, like “More People Love Tomatoes than Silvio Berlusconi,” have sprung up, and the torrent of Internet opposition, coupled with growing union resistance, is starting to seriously dent the Prime Minister’s popularity. His poll numbers have plummeted from 49 percent approval in January, to 35 percent in May.

Political figures all over the continent are taking a beating because of the current recession, but nothing like Silvio. Even Europe’s basket case, Greece, gives its Prime Minister, George Papandreou, a 43 percent approval rating—a drop of 10 percent—and crisis-wracked Spain and Portugal have seen their prime ministers’ poll numbers fall only 3.5 percent and 4.5 percent respectively.

Some of Berlusconi’s wounds are self-inflicted, including his squabbles with rightwing allies in the Parliament, his sexual escapades, his fight with the Catholic Church, and his rather bizarre falling out with Rupert Murdoch. His admiring use of a quote by fascist leader Benito Mussolini during a Paris news conference on May 27 is not liable to help.

Italian unions are gearing up for a one-day general strike to protest Berlusconi’s austerity package, and Guglielmo Epifani, head of the General Confederation of Italian Unions (CGIL), has called for a June 12 protest in Rome. “The cuts are all concentrated on workers, the same old recipe that leaves out the high wage earners,” Epifani told the Financial Times. The austerity package calls for a three-year wage freeze.

Besieged on the streets, hounded by the Purples and the Tomatoes on the Internet, the Capo di tutti capi of Italian politics looks headed for a fall.

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