31 December 2007

Top 10 most underreported humanitarian stories of 2007

During 2007, the U.S. mainstream media focused on the 2008 presidential candidates; the arrests of O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan; and sometimes even the war in Iraq (albeit through rose-colored lenses).

What they failed to cover were some very serious crises facing humanity today. I guess they're just not glamorous enough for prime time.

Fortunately, however, some people are paying attention. That's why, each year, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders publishes a list of the top 10 most underreported humanitarian stories.

Here is this year's list:

• Displaced fleeing war in Somalia face humanitarian crisis

• Political and economic turmoil sparks health-care crisis in Zimbabwe

• Drug-resistant tuberculosis spreads as new drugs go untested

• Expanded use of nutrient dense ready-to-use foods crucial for reducing childhood malnutrition

• Civilians increasingly under fire in Sri Lankan conflict

• Conditions worsen in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

• Living precariously in Colombia’s conflict zones

• Humanitarian aid restricted in Myanmar

• Civilians caught between armed groups in Central African Republic

• As Chechen conflict ebbs, critical humanitarian needs still remain

>> Read more about these crises.

>> View a slideshow of these stories.

30 December 2007

Are women's restrooms for femmes only?

For a bouncer at a Mexican restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village, unless you look like a Barbie doll, you shouldn't be allowed to use the women's restroom.

The following is the text of a press release issued last week by the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC):

'Female' on your drivers' license is no guarantee against harassment and gender discrimination. That's what Khadijah Farmer, a 28-year-old African American lesbian, discovered this past summer when she tried to use the women's restroom at a landmark New York City restaurant.

On June 24, after attending the Gay Pride march in New York City, Farmer and friends went to dinner at the Caliente Cab Company, a Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village. Farmer says that while she was in a bathroom stall, a male bouncer entered the restroom and banged on the stall door, claiming someone had complained that a man was in the women's restroom.

Farmer described the bouncer"s behavior as "hostile and aggressive," and says that even after she told him she was female and in the correct bathroom, he didn't leave. She exited the stall and offered to show him her ID as proof, but he refused, saying, "Your ID is neither here nor there."

Farmer and her friends were told to pay their tab, and escorted out of the restaurant before they could finish their meal.

"I shouldn't be harassed when I'm just trying to do something everyone in the world does," said Farmer in describing the incident. "I was thrown out of the restaurant because of who I am and how I look. It was humiliating."

Farmer has filed a lawsuit against Caliente Cab Company alleging illegal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender expression, as well as illegal sex stereotyping.

"This incident illustrates the discrimination that many women experience if they have short hair, are heavy-set, or wear clothing that is not strictly feminine," said Riki Wilchins, Executive Director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition. "Such a simple act as using a restroom can be stressful -- even dangerous. We need to get the gender police out of people's daily lives."

Added Wilchins, "It's not that Ms. Farmer is too masculine in appearance. It's that the bouncer's idea of what a woman should look like is too narrow."

Best of luck to Kadijah Farmer in her lawsuit.

29 December 2007

Was al-Qaeda behind Bhutto's assassination?

Today's New York Times leads with the headline "Pakistan Says Bhutto’s Death Has Qaeda Link".

Others are blaming Musharraf's government.

Either possibility is disturbing, of course.

If it was the government, it speaks poorly of any chance for much-needed political reconciliation in that unstable country.

And, whether or not it was al-Qaeda, this new accusation serves as another reminder that Pakistan is providing al-Qaeda a safe haven in which to plan and carry out new attacks.

Still, George W. Bush keeps telling us that Pakistan is "a loyal ally in fighting terrorists."

A loyal ally, perhaps, in fighting al-Qaeda by letting them be, as we did when we diverted our attention from catching bin Laden to instead launching an unnecessary war on Iraq, which had no terrorist ties.

It is amazing how world affairs have gotten so bizarre over the past six or seven years.

28 December 2007

The Bhutto assassination: A human rights perspective

On Thursday, December 27, Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan and the current opposition party leader, succumbed to an assassin's bullet. Chaos has ensued.

Will this be a step backwards in efforts to restore democracy in nuclear Pakistan? I hope not, but Bhutto's assassination is not a good sign.

Benazir Bhutto was good for Pakistan and good for the world. She worked tirelessly to promote democracy in her country, and to stand up for the rights of the poor and the needy. This is in stark contrast to Pakistani President Musharraf's preferred method of governance by military dictatorship.

As the first woman ever elected to lead a Muslim state, Bhutto was also a symbol of progress for women's rights in the Islamic world.

With Bhutto's death, the human rights community has lost a strong and steadfast ally.

In response to the assassination, Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch said, "Benazir Bhutto was a democrat who believed in the supremacy of constitutional rule and, throughout her career, sought power through the ballot box. She died campaigning for votes and calling for a free election."

Amnesty International (AI) is calling on Musharraf's government to uphold the rule of law and the rules of democratic behavior in the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination. AI's Catherine Baber stated, "The killing of Benazir Bhutto must not be allowed to become a setback to civilian governance or indeed lead to a further crackdown on civil liberties."

My condolences go out to Bhutto's family and political followers.

May she rest in peace.

27 December 2007

Reader feedback: If insurance won't pay and a patient dies -- tough!

I recently wrote about the case of Nataline Sarkisyan, a 17-year-old California girl who died because CIGNA refused to pay for a liver transplant. Public outcry led CIGNA to reverse its decision, but it was too little, too late, and Nataline died later that same day.

Most of the feedback I got from readers called for a universal healthcare program that bypasses the for-profit insurance companies.

But then I got a disturbing note from someone on the other side of the fence, whom I'll simply refer to as "Deidre".

Deidre wrote:
What you fail to realize is that not everyone will get the same chance. You and I can both die of cancer next year. It appears that you are like everyone else. Find someone to blame!! God forbid it is not going to be your fault that your body can't fight cancer. Must be the insurance companies (sic) fault!! Maybe we can blame you when a tree falls in your way and you swerve and hit and kill a child on a bike. We can put you in jail for murder as well. Hey! We have to blame someone for the death of the child. People get sick and die. If they can't afford it, tough. That is how it works. The weak humans die.
There you go. If they can't afford it, tough. The weak humans die.

And that, to Deidre, is just the way it is, so get over it.

To Deidre:

I sincerely hope that you never find yourself in Nataline's shoes. If, perish the thought, you do, I will be the first to fight for your rights as a patient.

That is because you are a human being, and all human beings deserve better than what Nataline got.

I would like to remind you of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which, as noted in my original article, proclaims that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

Yes, it's a human right: Medical care and security in the event of sickness or disability.

And didn't Jesus Christ himself make a career of curing the sick and defending the weak?
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. -- Matthew 25:40

26 December 2007

Will Alabama execute an innocent man?

I have written before about how we've seen more than 200 wrongfully convicted people released from U.S. prisons in recent years after proving their innocence via DNA or other evidence.

It is good that we can do this post-conviction testing, to ensure that we're punishing the right person. And, in the case of death row inmates, we certainly don't want to execute the wrong guy. Right?

Well, while most people of conscience would probably agree, Alabama Governor Bob Riley seems to have a problem with the concept.

Here is the story:

For more than 20 years, Tommy Arthur has been sitting on Alabama's death row for a crime he says he did not commit. Of course, many people in prison claim that they're innocent, and we can't just take their word for it. But those 200+ aforementioned exonerees prove that sometimes they really are telling the truth.

In Arthur's case, DNA is available that could either prove his innocence or confirm his guilt. Since last August, the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people, has repeatedly requested that Gov. Riley order the crucial DNA testing in this case. But, so far, the governor has refused.

Now why would a governor not want to order DNA testing that would either confirm that you have the right guy in custody, or else prove that you've been holding an innocent man and that the real killer might still be at large?

I couldn't imagine an answer. And so I decided to call Gov. Riley's office and get a firsthand perspective on the case.

I called several times from December 19 through December 21, and all I got was the runaround, and no returned phone calls.

On two occasions, I was transferred to a "Lisa", who is apparently the person in charge of the Tommy Arthur Case. On the third call, I was transferred instead to the Media Department.

Each time, I left a very polite voicemail message. I did want to come across as confrontational. In my messages, I said that I was a writer in Philadelphia, and that I was interested in the Tommy Arthur case, and was wondering what the next steps will be, and when, to do the DNA testing that will either prove Arthur's innocence or confirm his guilt. I left my cell phone number. And I never heard back.

Recognizing that I was calling during the holiday season, when many people take extra time off from work, I decided to call again to see if Lisa or the Media folks might be on vacation. The receptionist checked and said no, they were all at lunch. This was two days after my initial call. I left another message for each.

It has now been more than a week since my initial phone call. Either they take very long lunches in Alabama, or they don't want to talk about the Arthur case.


Why in the world would Gov. Riley not want to grant the DNA testing?

And why in the world does his staff refuse to talk about it?

For those of you who want to keep up the good fight, please call Gov. Riley's office at 334-242-7100, ask for the comment line, and urge the governor to order the DNA testing for Tommy Arthur. While they might not want to hear from you, and they probably won't respond, I know from my 30 years of activism that this kind of pressure eventually wears down the bad guys in a whole lot of cases.

You've got nothing to lose, and a human life hangs in the balance.

25 December 2007

What's Christmas like in Iraq?

I don't think anyone will be having a very merry Christmas in Iraq.

First of all, Muslims typically do not celebrate Christmas.

But then, of course, for almost five years now, the Iraqis have had to share their country with the Western occupiers -- most of whom are Americans, and most of whom are used to celebrating Christmas in a big, glitzy way.

Imagine being an Iraqi child. Your life has not been easy for as long as you can remember. The soldiers may have broken into your home, roughed up your family members, and taken your father away for no apparent reason. Blackwater or KBR contractors may have shot your dog or raped your sister.

And, once a year, those same soldiers and mercenaries put on fuzzy red hats, sing strange but catchy songs, and shout the odd words "Merry Christmas". Some of them give out extra candy to the Iraqi kids. Some of them seem drunk. Most of them seem happy, or else they're trying to be happy. Probably the latter.

What is an Iraqi youngster to think?

Can anyone be truly happy in Iraq this December 25?

There is no safety there, neither for soldier nor for child.

There is no security there of any kind for any civilian.

There is no real freedom there, despite what George W. Bush might tell us time after tiresome time.

For most Iraqis, life was better with Saddam.

And our troops must spend another Christmas thousands of miles away from their families.

Enough is enough.

We cannot afford to wait to get a Democrat in the White House. Besides, as we've learned in 2007, having Democrats in power is no guarantee of change.

Nevertheless, I have to repeat the necessity that Congress must grow a backbone and must finally take a firm stand to end the war and bring our troops home so that they can have a truly merry Christmas in 2008.

But I won't hold my breath.

Meantime, I wish the troops a happy holiday season (as happy as it can be under the circumstances), and I thank them for their brave service to this country. Most of them are just trying to do their jobs and cope with the horrific situation they've been forced into.

To Congress: You're on Santa's naughty list. No Christmas presents -- or reelections -- for you until you earn them.

To the folks in the White House: A big black lump of coal for you. But please don't burn it as fuel. You've already done enough damage to the environment.

And to everyone else: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Happy Festivus, Happy Kwanzaa, etc., etc., and a happy and healthy New Year.

Peace on earth and goodwill to all. (Hey, I can dream, can't I?)

24 December 2007

Rendition victim tells his story on Democracy Now!

On the December 18th TV/radio broadcast of Democracy Now!, host Amy Goodman interviewed Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, an innocent victim of the CIA's rendition program, who was kidnapped, held in secret prisons, and tortured.

It's a chilling and horrifying tale.

All paid for by our tax dollars.

Since his release, Bashmilah has brought a lawsuit against Jeppesen Dataplan, a Boeing subsidiary accused of abetting his kidnapping.

Bashmilah is joined in the interview by his attorney, Meg Satterthwaite, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at New York University Law School.

>> Download the audio or video stream for free, or read the transcripts.

23 December 2007

Teenage girl dies so CIGNA execs can get richer

It's like a story straight out of the movie SiCKO.

A pretty 17-year-old California girl needed a liver transplant, but her insurance company, CIGNA (based right here in Philadelphia), said they would not pay for it.

The public caught wind of this, and the public protested. As a group of nurses and other citizens rallied outside CIGNA's office in Glendale, California, on December 20, the company decided to reverse its decision.

But it was too little, too late.

Nataline Sarkisyan died just a few hours after CIGNA's reversal, after having spent weeks of her short life in a vegetative state.

Now Nataline's family is planning to sue CIGNA, as well they should. They have hired superstar attorney Mark Geragos, who plans to ask the district attorney to press murder or manslaughter charges against CIGNA in this case.

Ironically, CIGNA uses the slogan "A Business of Caring" in its advertising and on its website. But they didn't seem to care much about whether Nataline lived or died.

As this case demonstrates, and as filmmaker Michael Moore illustrated through several similar cases in SiCKO, the U.S. health insurance industry is more concerned with their own profits than they are with the health of their subscribers. If people must suffer and die so that their insurers can make money, then so be it.

It's no coincidence, then, that the United States ranks 37th in the World Health Organization's rankings of the world's health systems (below Malta, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, and numerous other countries that might surprise you). Yes, apparently you can get better health care in the United Arab Emirates than you can in the good ol' USA.

We've got good medical technology. We've got good hospitals. We've got good doctors and nurses. But the insurance companies get in the way.

This is not just a medical issue or a political issue. It is a human rights issue. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

Got that? Medical care, and security in the event of sickness or disability. But not for Nataline Sarkisyan. Because CIGNA needs to make big money.

CIGNA yielded $16.5 billion in revenue in 2006 (yes, that's "billion" with a "b"), but they couldn't afford to give Nataline a new liver when she needed it.

The U.S. is considered the richest country in the world. Clearly those riches are not distributed in interest of the common good.

And, given Congress's lack of a backbone with which to stand up for the rights of the non-rich and non-powerful, I don't hold out much hope for change. And I wonder how many more Natalines will have to die so that corporations can continue to rake in their obscene, bloody profits.

21 December 2007

For your last-minute holiday shopping: Teddy Bear Muhammad

It had to happen.

Remember the British teacher who was thrown into a Sudanese prison last month for allowing her students to name a teddy bear "Muhammad"?

Well, now you can have your own official Teddy Bear Muhammad™.

What a great way to slap the figurative face of fundamentalist repression!

I want one.

20 December 2007

More hate mail, and a glimpse inside the mind of a pro-death-penalty advocate

The December 19th edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer featured a Letter to the Editor that I had submitted in praise of New Jersey's recent abolition of the death penalty.

Here is the text of my letter:
Kudos to New Jersey lawmakers for recognizing that revenge isn't justice, and that it makes no sense to kill someone who killed someone in order to show that killing is wrong (Inquirer, Dec. 18). Enough killing.
As always happens when I write publicly about very controversial issues such as this one, I get a lot of feedback -- much of it in the form of hate mail.

In that hate mail over the years, I've been called every name in the book, and have been accused of being a Communist, a traitor, a terrorist sympathizer, and a moron.

Much of the hate mail is entertaining, and much of it is disturbing.

One of the most disturbing examples to date was this e-mail message I received in response to the above-quoted Inquirer letter:
Enough killing? Tell it to the murderers. In the meantime they ought to give a medal to one who kills a member of your family, (sic) I'm sure you wont (sic) mind.
It's also very, very telling -- about the mindset of someone who sees things in a black-and-white, kill-'em-all kind of worldview.

Never have I suggested that killers should be forgiven, much less given medals. I've written many times before in favor of an alternative sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for very dangerous convicts.

By the way, the writer of that e-mail did not bother to include his name; however, his e-mail address suggests that he is a Major in the U.S. Air Force. If that is the case, I am disappointed that someone who has gotten that far in life is yet so ignorant as to suggest that someone might deserve a medal for killing one of Mary Shaw's family members.

As for my feelings if someone were to kill a member of my family: One can never guess how one might really react to something like this. It's not so simple or clear-cut, anyway. With such things, there are usually stages. But, ultimately, I hope I could live up to the example set forth by the amazing members of the organization Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). These enlightened souls "oppose the death penalty for a variety of reasons -- endless trials re-open emotional wounds and put off the time when real healing can begin, the vast resources and attention spent on the death penalty is better spent supporting victims and preventing crime in the first place, the risk of executing the innocent is too high a price to pay, biases of geography, race, and class plague the system, executions create more families who have lost a loved one to killing, and many of us think it is just plain wrong for the state to kill."

This perspective from MVFR reminds me of the attitude of much of the western democratic world which has rejected the death penalty as barbaric and counterproductive.

The U.S. is one of the few nations of the world that still allow the death penalty, and 38 states in this nation still do. In this way, we align ourselves with the other executing nations of the world such as Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and a handful of other countries known for their systematic violations of human rights.

It's been said that you are the company you keep.

I would rather keep company with those who are less barbaric. Like the folks in New Jersey.

Killing a killer will never bring the victim back.

Again, enough killing.

19 December 2007

Addict doctors are still allowed to practice (even surgery)

According to an article by the Associated Press, physicians who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are allowed to keep their problem secret while they go through rehab. While in treatment programs, they can continue to practice medicine -- even surgery.

Here are some of the consequences cited in the article:

In Montana, a patient accused a doctor enrolled in the state's treatment program of not following up on her abnormal test results, delaying her cancer diagnosis by more than a year. Montana revoked Dr. Robert Schure's license last year after he flunked out of treatment six times since 1994, according to board documents. The patient's suit was settled for an undisclosed sum.

A North Carolina surgeon enrolled in the state's program for alcoholism charged patients for one type of gastric bypass and then performed a shortcut procedure that led to serious complications, including stomach ulcers and vomiting, according to patients and a medical board investigation.


Opponents of California's program have focused on the case of Dr. Brian West, a Long Beach plastic surgeon who has been accused of negligence by the state medical board and is fighting to keep his license.

In 1999, West performed a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery on Becky Anderson. The procedure left her with gaping, infected wounds that wouldn't close and, ultimately, a grotesque lump the size of a melon caused by organs spilling through an unhealed hole in her abdomen.

Weeks before performing his final, futile procedure on her, West was arrested for a drunken-driving accident.

After his conviction, West entered the diversion program for alcoholism. A year later he performed a tummy tuck on a 37-year-old woman that also healed poorly.
>> Read the full article.

The risk of doing harm while going through drug or alcohol treatment is too high. The AMA needs to do something about this. A patient's safety should be more important than protecting the doctor's privacy and reputation.

Keep doctors away from patients until they're certifiably clean.

In the meantime, I say: Physician, heal thyself.

18 December 2007

UN message on International Migrants Day

Lou Dobbs won't like this. But it's Dobbs vs. the international human rights community.

Today, December 18, is International Migrants Day. In honor of this occasion, United Nations officials issued the following statement, calling for "protection of migrants' human rights regardless of legal status."

The UN is not calling for no regulation of a country's borders. Nations have every right to regulate immigration. But sometimes xenophobia takes matters to extremes, like in recent months here in the U.S.

Anyway, below is the text of the UN statement:


New York, Dec 18 2007 12:00PM

United Nations officials today called on all countries to protect the human rights of the world's 200 million migrants, regardless of their legal status, stressing that they provide vital services to the States where they live, yet often face abuse, discrimination, and even violence in return.

"Millions of migrants provide essential services to the economies and societies of the countries they live in while supporting their families and communities back home, where remittances boost the national economy," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in message marking International Migrants Day, in which he called on all States to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

"Unfortunately, migrants rarely receive recognition for their contributions. Instead, they often contend with abuses and discrimination ranging from the absence of protection mechanisms to discriminatory national legislation. In extreme cases, they are victims of racist or xenophobic attacks," he added, noting that only 37 countries had so far ratified the treaty.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour underscored the primacy of migrants' human rights over their legal status. "It is particularly important to recall that all migrants, irrespective of their legal status, enjoy the protection of international human rights standards laid down in human rights instruments," she said in a message, condemning working conditions that amount to modern forms of slavery.

"Irregular migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to all kinds of abuses, as their irregular status exposes them to a wide range of abuses and violations. Their children are often at risk, deprived of access to schools or health care facilities. Violations committed by private individuals often go unpunished when committed against irregular migrants."

Calling on all countries to ratify the International Convention, she highlighted abuses facing migrant workers: long working hours, payment of salaries well below minimum wage established by law, exposure to degrading and dangerous working conditions, and confiscation of travel documents.

"They often face restrictions on access to health care and are at times deprived of the right to marry. They suffer from restrictive policies that limit family reunification," she added. Yet today's economies could barely function without their contribution.

Two independent UN experts called for the decriminalization of irregular or undocumented entry into a country. "Any migrant worker detained in a State of transit or in a State of employment for violations of provisions relating to migration should always be separated from convicted persons or persons detained pending criminal trial," said Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Jorge Bustamante and the Chairman of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, Prasad Kariyawasam.

The two emphasized the hardships faced by irregular migrant women, often exposed to all sort of abuses by their employers, including sexual harassment and physical violence, yet denied legal protection and access to effective remedies because of their status.

"Women migrant workers in domestic service should have access to mechanisms for bringing complaints against their employers and all abuses, including sexual abuses, should be investigated and punished," they said.

They also called on Member States to ensure access to education for all migrant children irrespective of their migratory status and to intensify their efforts to prevent these children from falling victim to any kind of exploitation, and notably economic or sexual exploitation.

2007-12-18 00:00:00.000

To Huckabee, women are second-class citizens

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has been under a lot of scrutiny lately, since his poll numbers have shot up.

Sure, at first glance, Huckabee seems personable and likeable.

Then you look at his record.

It was bad enough when we learned earlier this month that Huckabee, in his early days as Governor of Arkansas, played a key role in setting free a rapist who was supposed to serve many more years.

According to the LA Times:
After being released, [Wayne] DuMond moved to Missouri, where less than a year later he suffocated the mother of three in a Kansas City suburb. Police suspect that he killed another woman there as well.
The plot thickens when we learned that DuMond's original victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton, who was Governor at the time the crime was committed. (And the conspiracy theorists go wild.)

Yes, that was bad enough.

But now I just stumbled upon a recent Associated Press article that sheds some light on how Huckabee feels about women:
Republican Mike Huckabee's record on women's rights is coming under increased scrutiny, including his endorsement of the Southern Baptist Convention's stance that women should "submit graciously" to their husbands and his opposition to sending women into combat.
So women must "submit graciously" to their husbands. The husband is the boss. The woman is the slave.

And it gets worse. The same article goes on to tell us that Huckabee has faced questions before over his support of the marriage statement, with a rival in his 1998 re-election campaign citing the statement and accusing Huckabee of opposing equal pay for women.

According to Wikipedia, Huckabee has a daughter, Sarah. I wonder what Sarah thinks about all this.

17 December 2007

Good news: Saudi king pardons rape victim, spares her the 200 lashes

I have written before about the young Saudi woman who was sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in prison after being gang raped. The sentence was passed because of the fact that she had been alone in a car with a male friend. Both she and the friend were gang-raped that day and subsequently sentenced to harsh punishment. How's that for adding insult to injury?

Today I have good news: The Associated Press is reporting that Saudi King Abdullah has pardoned the woman.

This is another example of the power of public outcry.

As I've learned in my 20+ years with Amnesty International, when individuals and nations speak out against injustices, sometimes it really does pay off.

U.S. booed in Bali (and so we'll just continue to pollute)

As we know, George W. Bush and his corporate cronies don't want any interference. No restrictions. No rules or regulations. Too inconvenient.

And so they opposed and ignored the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This past week, at the U.N. climate change conference in Bali, the U.S. had an opportunity to reverse course, and take a leadership role in addressing the problem of global warming. But, of course, we blew it.

From an article by the Associated Press:
In a hushed conference hall, as envoys from 186 nations looked on, the world's lone superpower took a tongue-lashing from its most powerless, nation after poor nation assailing the U.S. "no" on the document at hand. Then the delegate from Papua New Guinea leaned into his microphone.

"We seek your leadership," Kevin Conrad told the Americans. "But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way."

The U.N. climate conference exploded with applause, the U.S. delegation backed down, and the way was cleared Saturday for adoption of the "Bali Roadmap," after a dramatic half-hour that set the stage for a grinding two years of climate talks to come.
A Washington Post article elaborates:
Delegates from nearly 190 countries emerged from a final 24 hours of bruising negotiations Saturday with an agreement on a new framework for tackling global warming, one that for the first time calls on both the industrialized world and rapidly developing nations to commit to measurable, verifiable steps.

The deal, which will form the basis for a two-year, U.N.-sponsored process aimed at forging a binding international climate pact by the end of 2009, could transform the way rich and poor nations work together to preserve a rapidly warming Earth, observers said. But it also postpones many tough decisions and provides more incentives than penalties when it comes to addressing global warming.

The consensus document was accepted by acclamation following an acrimonious confrontation between the U.S. delegates and leaders of developing nations, who bluntly accused Washington of pressing them for commitments while refusing to make its own. Finally, after a succession of delegates lambasted the American position, the U.S. delegation acceded to language pledging industrialized countries to provide quantifiable technological and financial aid to less well-off nations, including the economically burgeoning China, India and Brazil.
We needed to give a mile, and we barely gave an inch.

Meantime, the U.S. -- with about five percent of the world's population -- remains the world's chief polluter, generating 26 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions.

Let's hope that the next occupant of the White House cares more about this planet and its inhabitants than corporate profits.

16 December 2007

Speak English or starve: The Philly cheesesteak saga continues

It's back in the news again.

On Friday, December 14, a hearing was held here in Philadelphia on whether Joey Vento, owner of the popular South Philly cheesesteak shop Geno's, violated non-discrimination policies when he put up a sign that reads: "This is America. When Ordering, Speak English." A decision by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations is at least two months away.

This has been a very divisive issue in Philly and beyond ever since it first hit the news in 2006. People seem to have very strong feelings about this -- those who are offended by the perceived bigotry vs. those who seem to be offended by foreigners and immigrants who aren't so fluent in English.

A very amusing aspect to the story is that, when you visit Geno's or any of several other cheesesteak shops in Philly, the ordering hardly sounds like English:

"Gimme a Whiz, wid."

"Provolone widdout. Scoop it."

At Geno's, this is the "English" you must speak in order to get your cheesesteak quickly and with minimal harassment.

That irony aside, when this issue first hit the news, I found the sign offensive, and I still do. My immediate reaction was that it is discriminatory and should not be allowed. But then I cooled down and started to look at it as a free-speech issue. And this is exactly the argument that Vento's attorneys are using.

Let Vento keep the sign up, I thought, and let fair-minded people boycott his shop and support Vento's competitors, like Pat's Steaks across the street. Money talks.

But then I heard the argument set forth at Friday's hearing by Rev. James Allen, chairman of the Commission, who said that the sign at Geno's reminded him of signs he saw while growing up in the segregated South.

And I thought about my own Grandma Leoni, who immigrated from Italy in the early 20th century but never really got a good grasp on the English language. She was loved by all in her neighborhood, even though her English was very poor. She was a warm and kind-hearted person, always ready to set another place at the table. And people gladly made the extra effort to communicate with her.

If Grandma Leoni were alive today, how would she feel about that sign at Geno's?

Isn't Vento himself a first- or second-generation Italian American? Did his grandparents speak English as fluently as he would like to require of his customers?

What would Grandma Vento think?

Finally, we need to think of the tourism industry. What does Vento's sign say to all the people from around the world who visit our city and want to experience our most famous cuisine? If Philadelphia is ever to be seen as a world-class city, can we as a city really condone this kind of apparent discrimination?

I said it when this issue first arose in 2006, and I want to end with it again: Philadelphia is supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love, not the City of Xenophobic Bigotry.

Philly's own Ben Franklin, that great proponent of brotherhood and tolerance, is surely spinning in his grave.

15 December 2007

New Jersey abolishes the death penalty, and the Colosseum lights up in tribute

This past week, the New Jersey legislature joined the civilized world and voted to abolish the death penalty in that state. With this move, New Jersey becomes the first state to abolish the death penalty since the Supreme Court reinstated it as a sentencing option back in 1976.

Governor Corzine plans to sign this legislation within the next few days.

Kudos to the New Jersey lawmakers for recognizing that revenge isn't justice, and that it makes no sense to kill someone who killed someone in order to show that killing is wrong.

Enough killing.

Some pro-execution folks believe that New Jersey is being soft on crime. They're afraid that New Jersey will now allow killers to run free. This is not a valid argument. Instead of executing those found guilty of such serious crimes, New Jersey will now lock them up and throw away the key. Life in prison without parole. Let them live in those horrible conditions and spend each day thinking about why they're there. That's a much harsher penalty than a quick death, in my opinion.

And now New Jersey will also no longer run the real risk of executing the wrong person.

And it gets even better: In a tradition dating back to 1999, the Colosseum in Rome is dramatically lit up every time a death sentence is commuted somewhere in the world or a country abolishes capital punishment. And now Rome says it will be lighting up the Colosseum in honor of New Jersey's abolition of the death penalty.

What a fitting tribute to the fact that New Jersey has finally seen the light!

Today, 36 other states in this nation still retain a perceived right to kill people. Hopefully, one by one, they will join New Jersey and the rest of the civilized world and choose justice over revenge.

Let's keep the Colosseum shining brightly.

14 December 2007

Bush again chooses tobacco over children

He did it again. This past week, George W. Bush, the self-proclaimed "compassionate conservative", again vetoed a bill that would provide health care for children.

According to an article in yesterday's Washington Post, "Bush cited the same reasons that led him to veto a version of the bill on Oct. 3 -- that it raised cigarette taxes and provided coverage for children of middle-class families instead of focusing on the working poor."

First I'll address his second objection -- that the bill would provide coverage for children of middle-class families. Um, there are a lot of middle-class families in this country who don't have health care coverage, and it's not necessarily their fault. They work. They work very hard. But they cannot afford medical insurance. And so, in the case of a catastrophic illness or injury, they're out of luck. And, thanks to George W. Bush, if that catastrophic illness or injury happens to a child, well, tough. The kid will just have to suffer. And maybe die.

Now for the other excuse -- that it would raise cigarette taxes. Wow. This is extremely telling. And it's telling us that Bush believes that affordable cigarettes and tobacco industry profits are more important than the health of our children.

This is Bush's "culture of life".

13 December 2007

Former critic of military tribunals is now the chief judge at Gitmo

Today's New York Times leads with the revelation that "The chief judge of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay once wrote a paper criticizing the use of such tribunals to try suspects held there."

I guess they paid him enough to cross over to the dark side.

An excerpt from the Times article:

Back in 2002, a master's degree candidate at the Naval War College wrote a paper on the Bush administration's plan to use military commissions to try Guantanamo suspects, concluding that "even a good military tribunal is a bad idea."

It drew little notice at the time, but the paper has gained a second life because of its author's big promotion: Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann of the Marines is now the chief judge of the military commissions at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The system, Judge Kohlmann wrote in 2002, would face criticism for the "apparent lack of independence" of military judges and would have "credibility problems," the very argument made by Guantanamo's critics.

He said it would be better to try terrorism suspects in federal courts in the United States. "Unnecessary use of military tribunals in the face of reasonable international criticism," he wrote, "is an ill-advised move."

The paper is becoming a reference work of sorts in the curious history of Guantanamo, which includes a number of former officials who have become outspoken critics, including several former intelligence officers and a former chief military prosecutor.

Judge Kohlmann may be the only one who has switched the order, first delivering a fervent attack on Guantanamo and later becoming one of its officials.

Now that's one serious flip-flop.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have long criticized the kangaroo court system at Guantanamo. But, unfortunately, passage by Congress last year of the Military Commissions Act turned that bad policy into bad law. With this current system, there is no real justice for the detainees.

I'm sure some of them are indeed "the worst of the worst". But we have reason to believe that some are there by mistake -- having simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time, or arbitrarily sold to U.S. troops by bounty hunters. Under the current system, there is no fair way to sort them out.

Why can't we just give each of them a good old-fashioned fair trial? Then we can justly punish the guilty ones and let the innocent ones go home to their families.

I have asked this before, and I must ask again: Why is a fair trial so unacceptable to the Bush administration?

12 December 2007

Is Nancy Pelosi complicit in torture?

This is really disgusting: It appears that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Dem leaders had been briefed in the past about the Bush administration's use of waterboarding, rendition, and other crimes against humanity, but did not object. In fact, they may have actually encouraged it.

According to AlterNet,
"[S]ince 2002 leading Democrats [sic] lawmakers received 'about 30 private CIA briefings, some of which included descriptions of waterboarding, overseas rendition sites, and other harsh interrogation methods.' Officials present at some of the meetings, told the [Washington] Post that the reaction from legislators 'was not just approval, but encouragement.'"
If this is true, then things are even worse in Washington than I thought.

And it confirms the theory that the Democrats are merely "Republican light".

If this is true, then torture may be tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, in the foreseeable future by our elected officials on both sides of the aisle, despite what they might tell us in public.

And, if this is true, then it doesn't matter how we voted in 2006, and (perish the thought) it might not matter how we vote in 2008.


This is what we, as a nation, have become.

God bless America. Or, as the other bumper sticker says: Who would Jesus torture?

11 December 2007

Al Gore's Nobel Prize acceptance speech and call to action

I have written many times about how the environment, particularly global warming, is a human rights issue. People's lives, livelihoods, land, and lifestyles hang in the balance.

So I was delighted when Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Yesterday, December 10 (which, appropriately, was International Human Rights Day), Gore accepted the award in Oslo, Norway, with a very moving and inspiring speech.

An excerpt:

We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency - a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst - though not all - of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively, and quickly.

However, despite a growing number of honorable exceptions, too many of the world’s leaders are still best described in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored Adolf Hitler's threat: "They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent."

So today, we dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow, we will dump a slightly larger amount, with the cumulative concentrations now trapping more and more heat from the sun.

As a result, the earth has a fever. And the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal by itself. We asked for a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. And the consistent conclusion, restated with increasing alarm, is that something basic is wrong.

We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.

Last September 21, as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is "falling off a cliff." One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.

Seven years from now.

In the last few months, it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter. Major cities in North and South America, Asia and Australia are nearly out of water due to massive droughts and melting glaciers. Desperate farmers are losing their livelihoods. Peoples in the frozen Arctic and on low-lying Pacific islands are planning evacuations of places they have long called home. Unprecedented wildfires have forced a half million people from their homes in one country and caused a national emergency that almost brought down the government in another. Climate refugees have migrated into areas already inhabited by people with different cultures, religions, and traditions, increasing the potential for conflict. Stronger storms in the Pacific and Atlantic have threatened whole cities. Millions have been displaced by massive flooding in South Asia, Mexico, and 18 countries in Africa. As temperature extremes have increased, tens of thousands have lost their lives. We are recklessly burning and clearing our forests and driving more and more species into extinction. The very web of life on which we depend is being ripped and frayed.

>> Read the full text of Gore's speech.

>> Watch video of a portion of the speech.

Yes, we are confronting a planetary emergency.

And we must act today. There is no time to waste.

Meantime, this week, representatives from over 180 countries are in Bali for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. As Gore noted in his speech, hopefully they will "adopt a treaty that establishes a universal global cap on emissions and uses the market in emissions trading to efficiently allocate resources to the most effective opportunities for speedy reductions." Kyoto is expiring. Now they have a chance to put together something even better.

And we must find a way to get U.S. cooperation in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will be inconvenient for the White House's corporate bedpartners. But the alternative will be far beyond inconvenient for the world.

10 December 2007

December 10th is International Human Rights Day

Today, December 10th, is the anniversary of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly.

This project was led by Eleanor Roosevelt in the wake of World War II, to define a worldwide, inter-cultural set of non-derogable human rights.

It wasn't an easy undertaking. There were lots of disagreements, lots of arguments. But, in the end, this inter-cultural group, representing virtually all regions and cultures of the world, agreed on the 30 articles set forth in the Declaration.

These rights were determined to be the fair universal standards required to ensure the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The cultural diversity involved in developing this Declaration is a testament to its universality and lack of bias.

So, on this 59th anniversary of the UDHR, I hereby present the Declaration in its entirety below.

Please read this Declaration, think about what it says, and think about how we still come up short, worldwide and here in the USA, on many of the principles contained therein. Then take action to do something about it.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

09 December 2007

Romney says you can't have freedom without religion

On Thursday, December 6, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech entitled "Faith in America". Its purpose, per the mainstream media, was to try to quell concerns about his Mormonism.

As it turned out, he seemed to do his best to pander to the radical religious "right". He promised that he would not allow his church, or any other church, to influence his decisions as president.

However, he also said the following, which I find quite disturbing:

"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."


Freedom requires religion?

Since when?

I consider myself an agnostic, and I do not subscribe to any religion. So is Romney telling me that I cannot, or should not, have freedom?

And what about the First Amendment, in which our founding fathers declared that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion? Apparently they did not believe that you needed religion in order to have freedom.

I wish the mainstream media would call him on this. But I shall not hold my breath.

>> Read the full text of Romney's speech.

08 December 2007

The Mumia case: What is true justice?

With the December 9th anniversary of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, emotions are running high here in the Philadelphia area and beyond. And Mumia Abu-Jamal continues to sit in prison for the crime, which he maintains that he did not commit.

In 2001, a U.S. District Court judge upheld Abu-Jamal's conviction but questioned the original death sentence and ordered resentencing. The case is currently under appeal.

Abu-Jamal's supporters insist that he is innocent, that he was set up, and that racial bias and witness coercion had played a big part in an unfair trial. They also point out that Faulkner was killed with a .44 caliber gun, while the gun that Abu-Jamal was licensed to carry as a nighttime taxi driver was a .38 caliber.

On the other side of the fence, supporters for the prosecution assert that Abu-Jamal is guilty without a doubt, and many continue to call for his execution. An eye for an eye. Pay for death with more death.

I don't know whether Abu-Jamal is guilty or not. But the best way to find out for certain is to ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial. And, given all the doubts about the fairness of Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial, I believe that a new trial is not too much to ask. After all, another life hangs in the balance here.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International agrees. Back in 2000, after an extensive investigation of the case, the organization issued a report that concluded the following:

"Amnesty International has determined that numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings. Amnesty International therefore believes that the interests of justice would best be served by the granting of a new trial to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The trial should fully comply with international standards of justice and should not allow for the reimposition of the death penalty. The organization is also recommending that the retrial take place in a neutral venue, where the case has not polarized the public as it has in Philadelphia. Finally, the authorities should permit prominent jurists from outside the USA to observe the proceedings, to ensure that the retrial complies in all respects with universally-recognized human rights safeguards."

In the report, Amnesty International expressed concerns about judicial bias and hostility, police misconduct, and the apparent withholding of evidence from the jury.

My heart goes out to Officer Faulkner's family. It is always difficult, if not impossible, to find closure after losing a loved one, especially when that loved one was the victim of a violent death. But true closure cannot be gained simply by executing Abu-Jamal. That would be reckless revenge, not justice.

As long as the outstanding questions remain unanswered, there will continue to be reasonable doubt as to Abu-Jamal's guilt.

As long as the outstanding questions remain unanswered, there is still a chance that Faulkner's real killer is still at large.

As long as the outstanding questions remain unanswered, justice has not been served.

And, unfortunately, as long as the outstanding questions remain unanswered, true closure remains an impossible dream.

07 December 2007

Amnesty speaks out on the 25th anniversary of lethal injection

Today, December 7, is the 25th anniversary of the first use of lethal injection in an execution in the United States of America.

Back then, they believed that lethal injection would be a more humane alternative to the electric chair. Recent evidence suggests, however, that this is not the case.

So, to mark this gruesome anniversary, Larry Cox, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, released the following statement:

"In the past 25 years, the United States has carried out 929 executions by lethal injection. These include numerous botched executions that contradict the notion of a gentle death. Various autopsies have revealed severe, foot-long chemical burns, collapsed veins and multiple puncture marks on the skin. In some cases executions have lasted up to an hour, with prisoners visibly gasping for air or convulsing in visible pain.

"Texas was the first state to use lethal injection with the December 7, 1982 execution of Charlie Brooks. Since then almost half of such executions have been carried out in Texas, where the chemical mix has been used to put 405 human beings to death. Ironically, in 2003 Texas passed a law prohibiting the use of this very same cocktail to euthanize cats and dogs -- a ban that exists in law or in practice throughout most of the country. If this procedure is unacceptable for pets, clearly it is unacceptable for human beings.

"Furthermore, lethal injection has a corrosive effect on the medical profession, which finds itself reluctantly conscripted to play a lead role in state-sanctioned killing. Health professionals who have sworn to do no harm and to sustain human life are mired in an ethical morass when they must participate in a process that extinguishes it.

"In January the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments to determine if lethal injection constitutes 'cruel and unusual punishment.' Amnesty International maintains that lethal injection is a failed experiment designed to make the death penalty seem more sanitized and humane. At its core, this system is arbitrary, capricious, racially biased, and includes the very real potential of executing the innocent. It exacts a toll on all involved and can never be humane."

For more information on Amnesty International's work on the death penalty, please see: www.amnestyusa.org/abolish

06 December 2007

Evidence of innocence rejected at Guantanamo

While the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments yesterday in the case of Al Odah v. United States, the Washington Post ran an article alleging that the U.S. has been deliberately ignoring proof of a detainee's innocence.

An excerpt:

Just months after U.S. Army troops whisked a German man from Pakistan to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002, his American captors concluded that he was not a terrorist.

"USA considers Murat Kurnaz's innocence to be proven," a German intelligence officer wrote that year in a memo to his colleagues. "He is to be released in approximately six to eight weeks."

But the 19-year-old student was not freed. Instead, over the next four years, two U.S. military tribunals that were responsible for determining whether Guantanamo Bay detainees were enemy fighters declared him a dangerous al-Qaeda ally who should remain in prison.

The disparity between the tribunal's judgments and the intelligence community's consensus view that Kurnaz is innocent is detailed in newly released military and court documents that track his fate. His attorneys, who sued the Pentagon to gain access to the documents, say that they reflect policies that result in mistreatment of the hundreds of foreigners who have been locked up for years at the controversial prison.


The process is "fundamentally corrupted," said Baher Azmy, a professor at Seton Hall Law School who represents Kurnaz. "All of this just reveals that they had the wrong person and they knew it."

He added: "His entire file reveals he has no connection with terrorism. None. Confronted with this uncomfortable fact, the military panel makes up evidence" to justify its claim that only real terrorists are incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay.

Where is the justice in this?

>> Read the full article.

05 December 2007

Supremes hear landmark Guantanamo case today

Today, December 5, is a big day at the Supreme Court. Attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights will be fighting for habeas corpus rights for more than 70 Guantanamo detainees in the case of Al Odah v. United States.

This is a big deal. If we lose this case, those detainees may never have a chance at due process. Imagine being stuck in a foreign prison with no rights, and no means to challenge your detention or prove your innocence.

The Bushies say that the Gitmo detainees are "the worst of the worst" and therefore don't deserve basic human rights.

Some of the detainees probably are terrorists. But we have good reason to believe that some are there by mistake -- having simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time, or arbitrarily sold to U.S. troops by bounty hunters.

So let's give each of them a fair trial, in accordance in international law, and sort them out that way. Then punish the true bad guys.

Why is a fair trial so unacceptable to the Bush administration?

>> Click here to read more about this landmark case.

04 December 2007

Philadelphia Boy Scouts must pay for their bigotry

Up until now, the Philadelphia area chapter of the Boy Scouts of America got a nice building from the city for only $1 per year.

But now their free ride is over, because of their policy against homosexuals.

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts are a private organization, and are therefore entitled to bar whomever they want from their ranks.

But the city doesn't have to support the Boy Scouts' exclusionary policy, and so, according to a report from KYW New Radio, "City solicitor Romy Diaz had given the 'Cradle of Liberty Council' of the Scouts until Monday to renounce the Scouts' national policy against homosexuals, or pay market rate rent ($200,000 a year) for its headquarters on city-owned land, or find a new home."

The report goes on to say, "Solicitor Diaz acknowledges that the US Supreme Court has ruled that the national Boy Scouts, as a private organization, had the right to exclude homosexuals from its ranks. But he says the city 'will not subsidize that discrimination by passing on the costs to the people of Philadelphia.'"


But I am concerned for the innocent young boys who join the Scouts. What are they learning from this?

I hope they are learning that bigotry is not acceptable.

I hope they're not being brainwashed into believing that the city is wrong for not supporting discrimination with taxpayers' dollars.

03 December 2007

Sudan pardons teddy bear teacher (Now I just wish they would stop the killing in Darfur)

Good news: The teacher who had been sentenced to 15 days in prison in Sudan was released today, and the Sudanese president has issued her a pardon.

Gillian Gibbons had received the sentence for allowing her class of 7-year-olds to name a teddy bear "Muhammed".

The government of Sudan did the right thing here.

Now we just need them to stop enabling the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region.

When rights and rules collide

In my work as a human rights advocate, I am frequently asked about what we should do in cases where human rights conflict with religious or civil laws.

This question comes up most often when we see press reports about the victims of Sharia law, like those horrific cases of adultresses being stoned to death in the public square. This is definitely cruel and inhuman punishment, forbidden by international law -- but it is allegedly in line with Islamic law.

Two cases have come to light in recent weeks that exemplify this kind of dilemma.

The first is the case of a rape victim in Saudi Arabia. She had gotten into a car with a former boyfriend in order to get a photo that he had promised to return to her. Then the two were jumped and raped. And so she now faces 200 lashes and six months in prison, because she entered a car, unsupervised, with a man who wasn't her relative.

When I was young, I was grounded for getting into cars with boys. But this young woman is going to jail. And she is going to be tortured with 200 lashes. Can a woman even survive 200 lashes? How is that not cruel and inhuman punishment?

The other recent case is of a teacher, a British national, who got into trouble in Sudan for enabling her students to name a teddy bear Muhammed. She got sentenced to 15 days in jail, luckily avoiding a possible 40 lashes.

Wait a minute. Muhammed (or any of the many variations thereof) is a very common name in Islamic countries. But kids can't give that name to a teddy bear, lest their teacher be punished?

Why then do they let Muslims name their children Muhammad, or some derivation of that name?

After all, one of the 9/11 hijackers was named Mohamed Atta, which name can be translated into "Muhammad 'Ata as-Sayyid".

That's OK, but giving a beloved teddy bear a common name is not?

Again, it's a cultural thing, but that doesn't necessarily make it right.

I don't want to offend anybody, but human rights always trump religious or civil laws. After all, anyone can start a religion or a civil entity and make up all kinds of misguided rules for his followers. See Jim Jones. See David Koresh. See Warren Jeffs. And see any number of ridiculous dictatorships around the world.

See also the U.S. Military Commissions Act of 2006, which abolishes the right of habeas corpus. See also the use of torture by the U.S. government.

On the other hand, human rights are universal. In the wake of World War II, the United Nations assembled a committee, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would define a worldwide, inter-cultural set of non-derogable human rights.

It wasn't an easy undertaking. There was a lot of fighting, a lot of arguments. But, in the end, this inter-cultural group, representing virtually all regions and cultures of the world, agreed on the 30 articles set forth by the Declaration.

These rights were determined to be the fair universal standards required to ensure the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The cultural diversity involved in developing this Declaration is a testament to its universality and lack of bias.

Therefore, it clearly trumps any arbitrary religious or civic law.

Human rights are always foremost.

No excuses.

01 December 2007

A message for World AIDS Day from the UNHCHR

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day.

In a press release marking this day, Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminds us that HIV/AIDS is a human rights issue.

Below is the text of the press release:

Confronting AIDS: Real Leadership on Hard Human Rights Issues

This year, as we mark World AIDS Day, we do so in a world where 6,800 HIV infections are occurring and 5,700 people are dying of AIDS daily. An individual's survival prospects frequently hinge upon his or her place of birth, residence, and socio-economic status. This is both an affront to human dignity and a challenge to leadership at global, national, and local levels.

The first and primary leadership call is for governments to step forward and provide the basic human rights guarantees necessary for HIV to be overcome. Governments have committed themselves to achieving universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support by 2010. This is a truly ambitious goal. It is also a human right.

To achieve this goal, we must harness our efforts on many fronts. Firstly, we must end the discrimination against people living with HIV and support them to become strong, active players in determining policies and programmes that will prevent further infections and provide treatment. There must be an end to punitive measures against people living with HIV, for instance, by enacting travel restrictions or criminalizing HIV transmission. Governments should enact and enforce laws that will protect women from infection, from violence inside and outside marriage, as well as laws guaranteeing their economic and social equality.

Finally, governments must care for the most disaffected and marginalized in their societies, even those who engage in activities which may be illegal in some countries. Sex workers, prisoners and persons in detention, men who have sex with men, and injecting drug users must have their human rights respected and protected, including rights to health, non-discrimination, and freedom from violence. These people are amongst the worst affected in the pandemic, yet their rights are disproportionately violated.

In the lead up to the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must be reminded that keeping the commitment to human rights means keeping the commitment to stop HIV.