30 June 2009

Bernie Madoff and the Wall Street double standard

Yesterday, Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years behind bars for his Ponzi scheme that cost some of his clients their life savings. It's good to see that Madoff is being held accountable for his actions.

But then there are all those Wall Street bankers who recklessly and irresponsibly dealt in subprime mortgages and credit default swaps, which contributed in a big way to the housing bust, huge numbers of foreclosures, and the current global financial crisis in which we now find ourselves.

And how were they punished for their own Ponzi-like scheme? Not with jail time, like Madoff, but with bail-outs and bonuses -- all paid for with our tax dollars.

I guess Bernie just didn't have the right connections on Capitol Hill.

29 June 2009

Jena Six are now free -- sort of

Remember the Jena Six? They're the black students who were thrown in jail in Louisiana in 2006 for beating a white racist who had been harassing them with nooses and other provocations.

Given the prevalence of racial bias in the so-called criminal "justice" system, it was not surprising that a majority of the six were originally charged with attempted murder. Eventually, however, cooler heads prevailed.

The charges were reduced, and, this past Friday, the last of the charges were settled. All six young people will soon be free to move forward with their lives.

But can they? Especially in a place like Louisiana, where Hurricane Katrina became an excuse for ethnic cleansing?

I suspect that the Six still have some struggles ahead of them as they try to find their place in the racially divided Louisiana of today.

And I hope they will be quick to realize that justice is not accomplished through violence, even if you're on the right side.

Because, sadly, even today, black people, brown people, women, gays, and everyone else outside the straight-white-male power demographic must work so much harder, and be so much more careful, in everything we do.

28 June 2009

40 years after Stonewall, still a long way to go

I am writing this on June 28, 2009 -- the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York's Greenwich Village in 1969, which marked the beginning of the LGBT rights movement here in the U.S.

While some progress has certainly been made, we as a society still have a long way to go in this newest civil rights movement.

First, the good news:

Today, same-sex couples in several states are receiving domestic partnership benefits. And President Obama recently signed an executive order granting some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

Better still, same-sex marriage has been legalized in a handful of states, hopefully with others soon to follow.

And same-sex couples are permitted to adopt children in several states.

In addition, we've elected several LGBT members of Congress.

But it is disappointing to note that the nation, and our laws, are still so divided after four decades of fighting for LGBT rights. After all, it is not about special treatment for LGBT persons. It is about their right be treated the same as any other human being, with the same human rights.

And there have been some notable setbacks to consider.

There was the passage last November of Proposition 8, which enacted a constitutional ban against same-sex marriage in California, of all places.

There is the Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton shamefully signed into law, and which Barack Obama shamefully moved to uphold in recent weeks, even after promising its repeal while on the presidential campaign trail.

And there is "Don't ask, don't tell", which has led to the dismissal of thousands of good and valuable military men and women through the years simply because they could not, or would not, indefinitely remain in the closet.

So the movement still has a long way to go.

But I will not give up hope.

Because young people today are much more in favor of gay rights than were their ancestors, just as the younger people of the 1960s were much more in favor of civil rights for African Americans.

I believe that someday, hopefully in my lifetime, homophobia will go the way of racism in this country and become an anomaly that is neither legitimized nor tolerated except in the most extremist pockets of society.

Because this nation was founded on the written principle that "all men are created equal" -- not just the straight ones.

27 June 2009

Another reason to oppose Walmart

Walmart is notorious for forcing mom-and-pop stores out of business; paying its workers poverty-level wages with no health care benefits; and violating workers' rights, both in the Chinese sweatshops that manufacture its goods and in its stores throughout the U.S. where those products are sold.

And now there's a new reason to avoid Walmart. Earlier this week, WakeUpWalMart.com released a new report detailing how Walmart's highly touted $4.00 drug prescriptions are obtained from the controversial Indian drug manufacturer Ranbaxy Laboratories, LTD.

According to the report, Ranbaxy "has been repeatedly investigated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Justice for 'inadequate' safeguards against contamination, falsification of records and submitting false information to the FDA."

Still, Walmart continues to sell drugs obtained from Ranbaxy, because they're cheap.

So those low prices may prove much more costly than you ever imagined. Just so the Walmart executives and shareholders can grow richer and richer.

>> Read the report.

26 June 2009

On June 26, take action for International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

The United Nations has designated June 26 as an International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This date marks the ratification in 1987 of the UN Convention Against Torture.

Back then, who would have imagined that there would be partisan debate here in the United States of America regarding whether or not we should torture our prisoners?

Indeed, who would have imagined that, in our pop culture, Jack Bauer would be seen as a hero by so many?

Enough is enough!

Please take a few minutes to commemorate this day by taking action against torture by U.S. agents paid for with our tax dollars. You can do so with just a few clicks:

>> Demand Congress & President Obama investigate and prosecute torture

>> Urge Presidential Task Force on interrogation to end torture for good

25 June 2009

No, I am not gloating over the Sanford scandal

Yes, I often shine a light on the hypocrisy within the so-called "party of family values".

But no, I am not gloating over the latest Republican sex scandal, this time involving South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's disappearance, followed by two different stories about his whereabouts, followed by his awkward admission of an extramarital affair with a woman in Buenos Aires.

I feel sad for Sanford's wife and children, for the pain and embarrassment they must be feeling.

And I shake my head at this country's puritanical culture, in which a politician's sex life becomes such a big public media scandal.

Sanford's sexual indiscretions should be a matter between him and his wife. I don't think it's any of my business or yours.

I say that generically.

I am not condoning Sanford's affair, or anyone else's. But, as we've seen time and time again through the centuries and millennia, all around the world, politicians have been able to carry on affairs with no adverse effects on their leadership abilities. (Where there were adverse effects, it was usually because busybodies in the opposing factions decided to drag it through the mud for their own political gain.)

So, in this case, yes, it is another example of the hypocrisy of the so-called "party of family values". But Republicans are human, just like Democrats and Independents and Libertarians and Greens and everyone else. Maybe someday they'll realize this.

And maybe someday we'll be able to just stick to the real issues.

24 June 2009

"Christians" vs. sick people

Lately the so-called "Christian" Action League (CAL) has been very busy lobbying the North Carolina state legislature for the "right" to bully school children who are perceived as gay or transgender. Fortunately, they just lost that battle.

So now they will be spending their time picking on sick people.

The group is currently spreading sensationalist lies in order to incite opposition to a North Carolina medical marijuana bill.

They're saying that, if the bill were to pass, "[w]ith a doctor’s recommendation and a $10 ID card, virtually anyone could legally smoke marijuana."

If I were a physician in North Carolina, I would be hugely insulted, because the CAL's words imply that, if this bill passes, doctors in North Carolina will waste no time in issuing pot prescriptions indiscriminately to everyone who asks for one, whether it's warranted by the medical facts or not. The CAL's words imply that doctors would immediately try to turn all good North Carolina residents into Cheech and Chong.

Yes, it's that ridiculous. (That's why we call them extremists.)

The fact is that doctors, in recent years, have become more conservative overall in prescribing pain relief. That doesn't sound like fertile ground for abuse of the new bill, if it should become law in North Carolina.

(And, of course, pot is likely to produce fewer undesirable side effects than, say, Rush Limbaugh's drug of choice -- Oxycontin.)

So, if medical marijuana can help some people to deal with their pain, where is the harm?

Why do the CAL folks want people to suffer needlessly?

I thought Christianity was supposed to have something to do with compassion.

23 June 2009

Sotomayor and a ridiculous double standard

Yesterday I heard the most absurd reason for opposing Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A young man of about 30 was telling his buddy why he doesn't like Sotomayor.

"She's fat," he explained. "She's not at all hot," he continued.

Needless to say, this got my blood boiling.

Since when is the judicial nomination process supposed to be a beauty pageant?!

Is Justice Scalia hot? I don't think so. But then he is a man, so there is apparently a double standard at play.

Women have come a long way since the days of the suffragettes. But we still have a long way to go, apparently, before these people will appreciate us for who we are on the inside.

Meanwhile, I will state unequivocally that Sotomayor's intellect and empathy make her a very hot candidate in my opinion.

And those qualities make her a much more attractive person than her 30-year-old detractor.

22 June 2009

Christian Action League lobbies in favor of school violence

The so-called "Christian" Action League is up to its hateful ways again.

The group has unleashed its sheep in North Carolina to call on their state House members to vote against SB 526, the School Violence Protection Act, which would require local school boards to amend their existing bullying policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

In other words, the Christian Action League is instructing its followers to lobby for the concept that it's OK to bully school children who are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, with no consequences.

This anti-bully bill passed in the state Senate on May 6 by a margin of 26-22. The state House is scheduled to vote on the bill this evening (June 22) at 7:00 pm.

If you are a North Carolina resident, please hurry and ask your state rep to vote in favor of this bill.

The Christian Action League and its hateful, homophobic followers are precisely the reason why we need this kind of law.

20 June 2009

On World Refugee Day, HRF urges the U.S. to improve our treatment of refugees

Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day.

In observance of this day, the group Human Rights First (HRF) is urging the U.S. to strengthen its commitment to refugees, reevaluate current refugee protection policies, and end refugee detention policies that are inconsistent with international human rights standards.

While the issue never seems to make headlines in the mainstream media, we in the human rights community have long been aware of how harshly refugees and asylum seekers are treated when they seek protection in this country.

Accordingly, Eleanor Acer, director of HRF's refugee protection program, issued the following statement:
"It is ironic that here in the United States -- a country that has done so much to help refugees overseas -- asylum seekers who have sought refuge from political, religious and other persecution will spend World Refugee Day detained in prison-like facilities. Though the United States has certainly helped countless numbers of refugees, U.S. detention policies have made our nation a far less 'welcoming' place for those seeking this country’s protection from persecution and danger.

"World Refugee Day presents an opportunity for the Obama administration to commit to taking immediate steps to protect the rights of refugees -- including those who are here in this country. The United States should set the global standard for how refugees will be treated. When the United States falters in its protection obligations here at home, refugees worldwide suffer."

Acer's statements follow a recently issued HRF report titled U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison. The report describes how U.S. detention of refugees and asylum seekers is inconsistent with international human rights standards.

Since 2003, the report notes, the U.S. has spent more than $300 million to detain over 48,000 innocent asylum seekers in jails and jail-like facilities, often without legal representation. This is how we treat human beings in need, who are fleeing wars and/or persecution in their home countries.

The report highlights ways in which the Obama administration can improve the process "in ways that are more cost-effective, just, and humane."

HRF's recommendations include the following:

• Stop detaining asylum seekers in prison-like facilities.

• Provide all detained asylum seekers with the safeguard of an immigration court custody hearing.

• Revise overly broad immigration definitions in order to target actual terrorism (rather than the victims of violence and repression) and implement a more effective process to adjudicate exemptions.

HRF also calls on the U.S. to "continue to lead efforts to ensure protection and assistance for Iraq's refugees and displaced, as well as resettling vulnerable Iraqi refugees -- including those who are at risk because of their ties to the United States."

As I think about this, I am reminded of the inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It proclaims:
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me."
And then we throw them in prison, even though they are innocent of any wrongdoing.

God bless America.

>> Read the full HRF report.

>> Read a summary version of the report.

>> Take action: Tell the Department of Homeland Security to improve the treatment of asylum seekers immediately.

19 June 2009

Supreme Court says convicts don't have a right to DNA testing

All too often, people get convicted of crimes they did not commit. To date, the work of the Innocence Project has resulted in the exoneration of some 240 people who had been wrongfully convicted -- many of whom had been sentenced to death.

Most of those exonerations were based on DNA evidence.

Nevertheless, yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court decided that suspects/convicts do not necessarily have a constitutional right to DNA evidence that could prove their innocence.


I have seen cases, such as that of Tommy Arthur of Alabama, in which states have simply chosen not to bother looking at DNA evidence that could prove a person's innocence, even if that potentially innocent person is sitting on death row for a crime he did not commit.

That is not what I would call justice.

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution describes the mission of that document as follows:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice..." (emphasis mine)
But it appears to me that the U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled against justice.

18 June 2009

McCain wants to be Iran's judge, jury, and executioner

It seems that Senator John McCain has an itchy trigger finger. And he's still got his eye on Iran.

The controversial election results in Iran have given him a new excuse to play the tough guy. And he's taking the opportunity to criticize President Obama's diplomatic approach to the world and to call for U.S. action against Iran.

Speaking on Fox News recently regarding Iran's election, McCain said, "It really is a sham that they’ve pulled off, and I hope that we will act."

Any excuse will do, apparently.

Iran's election may or may not have involved some vote fraud. Either way, it's not our problem to solve.

The neocons didn't like Saddam's regime is Iraq, so they fabricated some excuses to invade and occupy that country, costing us more than 600 billion taxpayer dollars and more than 4,000 American lives.

And now they have set their sights on Iran.

Thank goodness McCain did not win the presidency last November.

17 June 2009

Where's the change I can believe in?

President Obama doesn't seem to want to hold the Bush administration torturers accountable.

He repeats the Bush administration's "state secrets" excuse to cover up possible crimes.

And now he has betrayed the gay community.

Last week, Obama's Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss a case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Under DOMA, same-sex marriages are not recognized at the federal level or (to a more limited extent) an interstate level. A piece on the Huffington Post astutely pointed out that Obama had pledged to try to repeal DOMA while on the campaign trail. Allowing the case challenging DOMA to move forward, thereby shining a light on DOMA's discriminatory (and thereby unconstitutional) nature, could have been big a step towards making that happen.

Sadly, for every step forward by the Obama administration, there is another step backwards.

Where is the change that he promised us?

Now, as I write this, I realize that the news broke late yesterday that Obama will sign an order today granting some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

That is good, but it is not nearly enough. And the timing of this move makes it appear as though he's just throwing a bone to the LGBT crowd in response to all the recent criticism of his inaction on their behalf.

Repeal DOMA, Mr. President.

Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".

That would be some change I could believe in, even as the economy continues to fall.

16 June 2009

Cash for Clunkers: Good idea that might work for the wrong reasons

A "Cash for Clunkers" bill is currently making its way through Congress. The program would allow car owners to turn in their old gas guzzlers in exchange for a voucher for up to $4,500 to help buy a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle.

I think this is a good idea, in general.

But, sadly, I suspect that it would work for the wrong reasons.

Way too many people still drive their SUVs and large trucks because they apparently don't care about the harm that their vehicles do to the environment. Smaller cars generally cost less upfront than big gas guzzlers, and they use much less fuel. But SUV drivers bought SUVs instead. So these drivers are apparently not motivated by the price of a vehicle or the ongoing cost of fuel.

Perhaps they will be motivated by the prospect of a $4,500 voucher.

I hope they will be, because that would mean less gas guzzlers on our roads.

But it pains me to realize that we have to bribe people into doing the right thing.

And it pains me to realize that they would be doing it for the wrong reasons.

15 June 2009

In Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides must be disarmed

Yesterday's breaking news informed us that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is softening to the idea of a Palestinian state.

He apparently called for the creation of a Palestinian state on the condition that it be disarmed.

That call is good, and long overdue. It is potentially the greatest development in the region since Yitzhak Rabin was alive. But the conditions must be expanded.

According to Netanyahu, "In any peace agreement, the territory under Palestinian control must be disarmed."

To be fair, we would need for both sides -- Israel as well as Palestine -- to be disarmed.

Otherwise, the situation is reduced to Netanyahu saying, in essence, "It's OK for Israel to be equipped to attack the Palestinians, but it's not OK for Palestine to be equipped to attack the Israelis."

And that attitude brings back too many memories of Israel's disproportionate retaliation in Gaza last year.

I want to see both sides live in peace. And that means disarmament -- i.e., a retiring of arms -- on all sides, and no double standards.

14 June 2009

Question for Newt Gingrich

Republican mouthpiece and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently declared that he is "not a citizen of the world".

So does this mean we can deport him from it?

13 June 2009

More fun with Ahmadinejad

Presidential elections were held in Iran yesterday. I was hoping that this would be the end of incumbent nutcase Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Sadly, however, the media are reporting that Ahmadinejad will be sticking around to threaten Israel and annoy the world for another term.

My first reaction was one of surprise and disbelief. How could the people of Iran reelect this hardline extremist?!

But then I remembered our own U.S. presidential election in 2004, when a majority of Americans voted to reelect George W. Bush. The similarities continue with allegations of vote fraud today in Iran as we saw here after 2004.

Fortunately, America woke up in time for the 2008 elections.

Hopefully Iran will soon awaken as well.

12 June 2009

Anti-choice extremists have won a battle

We must not let them win the proverbial war.

As you probably know by now, on May 31, an extremist anti-choice nutjob shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, a physician who performed legal abortions in a Kansas clinic.

The murder took place in the church where Dr. Tiller was serving as an usher during Sunday morning services.

And now, sadly, Tiller's family announced earlier this week that the clinic will not reopen.

This was one of the few clinics in the U.S. that still performed late-term abortions, which are sometimes necessary if the woman's life or health is in danger.

So some women will now have one less freedom.

And, ironically, the killer is now suggesting that this was victory for "life".

11 June 2009

Clearing up myths about the EFCA

I was talking with a friend recently, and the subject of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) came up. This friend says he is pro-union, but opposes the EFCA because, he said, it would require workers to openly sign a petition for a union prior to a secret ballot election.

A minimum number of petition signatures would be required first, he said, to move the union possibility forward to the secret ballot election. He thought this additional step was unnecessary and not a good idea. He was pro-secret-ballot, but not for open signatures.

I understand his concern. However, some research showed me that the open signatures are nothing new. They are, in fact, required under current labor law regarding the formation of unions.

Wikipedia describes the current process as follows:
"[U]nder current U.S. labor law, the card check process begins when an employee requests blank cards from an existing union, and requests signatures on the cards from his or her colleagues. Once 30% of the work force in a particular workplace bargaining unit has signed the cards, the employer may decide to hold a secret ballot election on the question of unionization. In practice, the results of the card check usually are not presented to the employer until 50 or 60% of bargaining-unit employees have signed the cards. If the employer decides to demand an election, and the majority of votes in the election favor the union, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will certify it as the exclusive representative of the employees of that particular bargaining unit for the purpose of collective bargaining."
The difference under the EFCA is that employers no longer have the power to decide if the unionization attempt will go to a secret ballot election. Under the EFCA, that decision would be in the hands of the workers, as it should be. And the employers will no longer have the ability to use the election process to delay, obstruct and intimidate workers in an effort to resist organizing efforts.

As the organization American Rights at Work describes it, "[t]he Employee Free Choice Act makes no change to the current union election process. It simply amends the law about majority sign-up to put the choice of how to form a union in workers’ hands, not their bosses'."

But it's not surprising to see the corporations twisting the facts to try to scare workers, the public, and Congress into opposing the EFCA. More often than not, they tend to see the workers as disposable commodities rather than valuable resources. And organized labor poses a threat to their currently unmitigated power.

But there are exceptions -- like a business owner who posted the following comment in response to a misguided anti-EFCA article by Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) on Politico:
"As a small business owner in Ohio, Mr. Voinovich's home state I am a supporter of card check. I have never understood while [sic] business owners would get caught up in denying their employees the right to bargain as a group for better wages and benefits. I wnat [sic] to do everything to ensure my employees are happy ones. Since my business has become a union shop, worker productivity has become more efficient. Even in the depressed economy my profits have been steady. I prefer to have one represenattive [sic] I can talk to about worker isues instead of having to take time out of my busy schedule to discuss concerns with every employee. I am very disapointed [sic] in my sneator [sic] that he is not on board with this issue."
So unionization can, in fact, be a win-win situation. If only the bosses would ignore the right-wing propaganda and set aside their greed long enough to look at the big picture instead of just the immediate bottom line.

10 June 2009

Countdown to 1000th execution in U.S. by lethal injection

It's not something to be proud of.

Next month, we will probably see the 1000th execution in the U.S. by lethal injection.

Here is the current schedule of pending executions over the next few weeks:

June 11: Jack Trawick - Alabama - #997
July 01: Matthew Eric Wrinkles - Indiana - #998
July 09: Michael DeLozier - Oklahoma - #999
July 14: John Fautenberry - Ohio - #1000

If any of the above executions are stayed (knock on wood), there are plenty more pending to get us to the gruesome milestone pretty soon anyway.

I've written many times about the many good reasons to abolish the death penalty in the U.S., and so I won't reiterate them here. But you'll find a good summary of the arguments against the death penalty on website of Amnesty International USA here: www.amnestyusa.org/death-penalty

09 June 2009

US journalists receive 12-year sentences in N. Korea; rights groups speak out

Yesterday, a North Korean court sentenced American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years of hard labor in prison on what rights groups consider to be baseless and fuzzy charges tried in a kangaroo court.

Here I want to share some comments from two such groups.

The group Reporters Without Borders believes that the sentences were designed to scare foreign journalists:
American reporters get "very severe" 12-year sentences designed to scare all foreign journalists

Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the sentences of 12 years of "reform through labour" which a North Korean court passed today on American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee after convicting them in a sham trial of an unspecified "grave crime" and illegally entering the country.

"These 12-year sentences are a terrible shock for all those who have repeatedly insisted on their innocence," Reporters Without Borders said. "The sentences are much more severe than anything we had imagined. The authorities in Pyongyang must urgently reverse this decision and allow Ling and Lee to rejoin their families."

The sentences were clearly designed to scare journalists trying to do investigative reporting in the border area between China and North Korea, which is ranked as Asia's worst country in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

The North Korean state-run news agency KCNA announced today that the trial of Ling and Lee before the country’s top court, which began on 4 June, had "confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation" and their "illegal border crossing."

Arrested on 17 March 2009, Ling and Lee were initially accused of "hostile activities" as well as entering the country illegally. The two journalists, who work for the California-based web television station Current TV, had approached the border from inside China in order to cover the trafficking of North Korean women across the border. Their guide is being held by the Chinese authorities. Ling is of Chinese origin and Lee is of Korean origin.

Reporters Without Borders took part in recent rallies in support of the two journalists. Ling’s sister, Lisa Ling, said: "I will say with absolute certainty that, when they left US soil, they never intended to cross the border into North Korea. If at any point they did, we are truly sorry and we know the girls are too."

Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was recently detained for three months in Iran, said in a message of support: "Laura and Euna, I pray that you remain strong and know that neither your families nor you are alone. I hope that a way will be found to return both of you to your families as soon as possible."
Meanwhile, Amnesty International focused on North Korea's unfair "justice" system and harsh punishment:
U.S. journalists' conviction highlights unfair system in North Korea, Says Amnesty International

(Washington, DC) - The North Korean government should immediately release two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were sentenced to 12 years imprisonment with hard labor, Amnesty International said [Monday].

The two were convicted of an unspecified "grave crime" against the nation by the Central Court in Pyongyang, seemingly ruling out the possibility of any further judicial appeals.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, both of whom work for California-based Current TV media venture in San Francisco, were arrested by North Korean officials on March 17 near the Tumen River, which separates North Korea and China. It is not yet clear whether the two women had crossed the border into North Korea or if they were in China when arrested. The two were investigating human rights abuses of North Korean women.

The journalists had been held separately and in solitary confinement in a "state guest house" near Pyongyang. They had limited consular support and very limited contact with their families after their arrest.

"These two foreign journalists were subjected to the failures and shortcomings of the North Korean judicial system: no access to lawyers, no due process, no transparency," said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director. "The North Korean judicial and penal systems are more instruments of suppression than of justice."

"The North Korean government seems to be using these two journalists as pawns in its dangerous game of escalating tensions with the international community. This sentence was harsher than many observers expected, and completely out of line with any of the accusations that Pyongyang has levelled against them," said Rife.

Amnesty International pointed out that prisoners in North Korea were forced to undertake physically demanding work which included mountain logging and stone quarrying, often for 10 hours or more per day, with no rest days. Guards beat prisoners suspected of lying, not working fast enough or for forgetting the words to patriotic songs. Forms of punishment included forced exercise, sitting without moving for prolonged periods of time and humiliating public criticism.

Prisoners fell ill or died in custody, due to the combination of forced hard labor, inadequate food, beatings, lack of medical care and un-hygienic living conditions.
So now the two young journalists are stuck as pawns in North Korea's game of political posturing.

The handling of this issue will be a huge test for the Obama administration. Fingers crossed in hopes that the two will be returned to the U.S. swiftly and safely.

08 June 2009

On World Oceans Day, take action to protect our seas

Today, June 8, is World Oceans Day.

Please use this occasion to urge President Obama to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, also known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This treaty would protect our oceans and promote peace, security, and sustainability.

>> Email and/or fax President Obama today.

>> Read the text of the treaty.

07 June 2009

Obama: The real uniter

George W. Bush once described himself as "a uniter, not a divider". But talk is cheap. America arguably became more divided under Bush than it had been since Lincoln's day.

Obama's speech in Cairo on Thursday proved to the world that Obama is a true uniter.

Obama called for an end to divisions between the Muslim world and the western world.

He called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian mess, and an end to the violence on both/all sides.

He called for a unified approach to more effectively fight violent extremism.

He called for a world in which nuclear weapons are no longer seen as a defensive necessity by any party.

And he condemned Bush's attempts to arbitrarily spread "democracy" at the point of a gun by rationally acknowledging that "[n]o system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other."

He emphasized that "no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion."


Take that, George W.

During the campaign season last year, the Republicans ridiculed Obama's background as a community organizer. But now we see how those skills can pay off in a very big and global way.

Obama's strong, calm, diplomatic tone is far more conducive to an agenda of unity than the smirking, bullying, cowboy-style approach of his predecessor.

And, that considered, it is clearer than ever that Bush never wanted true unity -- only a forced "with us or against us" kind of "unity" that is neither true nor destined to endure.

06 June 2009

No, Dan, America is not a Christian nation

A letter to the editor in Friday's Chicago Tribune has got my blood boiling.

In it, Dan Schuchardt of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, wrote:
I am getting tired of President Barack Obama's pandering to Muslims.

Despite his pronouncement America is not a Christian nation, the facts say otherwise. It's about time for Americans to wake up to the fact that Obama wants to change America into a secular nation, and the media is helping him accomplish that mission.

If I'm wrong than let's see Obama proclaim his Christian faith as he did when he was running for office -- or was that just another lie?
First of all, despite the insistence of the Christian right-wing extremists, the U.S. is not a Christian nation. And, in fact, many of our most prominent Founding Fathers were not Christians. They were Deists. They did not believe in a personal god. And they did not believe in the Christian God.

Dan needs to reacquaint himself with the U.S. Constitution, which makes absolutely no mention of God or Christianity.

It was with good reason that this nation's founders wrote the "establishment clause" into the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

It was to protect the minority from tyranny of the majority (which today happens to be Christian). Our founders did not want this nation to sink into theocracy. They knew that theocracy always leads to oppression and loss of freedom.

Our founders wanted to establish a democracy in which the government serves all the people, not just the Christian ones.

But Dan in Glen Ellyn would apparently have it otherwise, and won't let the truth get in the way of his fantasy.

Oh, and by the way, Dan, Obama did indeed proclaim his Christian faith during his address to the Muslim world on Thursday. In the seventh paragraph of his speech, Obama said, "I'm a Christian."

So, Dan, next time you might want to actually research the real facts before propagating incorrect extremist talking points.

Otherwise, you might just come across as an ignorant anti-Muslim bigot.

05 June 2009

5,000 for 2,974: Fair trade on body counts?

It's a grim milestone, and one that merits some reflection. On June 1, we reached a total of 5,000 U.S. troops killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All this allegedly to avenge the deaths of the 2,974 who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Doesn't seem like a fair swap to me.

But then there is no such thing as a fair swap when it comes to human-inflicted death of other human beings.

04 June 2009

Supremes to consider Troy Davis case on June 25

I have learned that the U.S. Supreme Court will be discussing the case of Troy Davis on June 25. If they choose not to pursue the case, the state of Georgia will likely set a new -- and likely final -- execution date for him.

The Supremes rejected an earlier appeal in this case last October, so I'm not optimistic that they will save his life this time around.

But I hope that they will come to their senses and acknowledge the strong evidence that Troy is innocent.

Troy's original trial was flawed, and most of the witnesses have since recanted or contradicted their stories. There is no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and his conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses.

Say tuned, with fingers crossed.

03 June 2009

How the Catholic Church survives social progress

I was just starting out as a student at a small-town Catholic elementary school in the mid-1960s when the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II) brought the Catholic Church into the 20th century. The Council's most notable changes for me at the time were that the use of vernacular language was now permitted in the Mass and that the laity became more involved in the Church's ministry. At around the same time, the nuns who taught in my school were given new, more modern habits to wear, which exposed their ankles and their hairlines -- much more progressive than the burka-like garb that they had to wear previously.

All of this was very exciting and appealing to us young folks. But, unfortunately, that is where the progress stopped.

In the 40-plus years since Vatican II, society has evolved, and most Catholics I know have changed with the times. A result is the large number of "cafeteria Catholics", who pick and choose which doctrines they will follow and which they will ignore. A cafeteria Catholic, for example, might faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, but also use birth control or regularly engage in premarital sex. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that U.S. Catholics are more liberal than the general population on social issues like divorce and homosexuality.

The Church, however, refuses to evolve. It's still stuck at Vatican II, and is unlikely to progress any further under the very conservative man who currently occupies the papal throne.

The consequences? Surprisingly, the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic hasn't changed much in recent years. But it has become tougher and tougher to recruit new priests.

And the priests they do recruit are kept on a short and bizarre kind of leash. Celibacy is required, but child molestation is tolerated and covered up.

And so they lose the good priests.

In Miami, former Catholic priest Rev. Alberto Cutie (who certainly is, by the way) last week defected to the Episcopal Church amidst a scandal involving his love affair with a woman. And, per the more reasonable Episcopalian standards of priestly conduct, Rev. Cutie will now marry the woman he loves. After all, Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that "[m]en and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family," although the Catholic Church apparently disagrees.

And, late last year, Father Roy Bourgeois, a beloved human rights advocate, was excommunicated for participating in the ordination of a woman into the priesthood. The Catholic Church, even with all its Virgin Mary worship, still apparently believes that women are somehow inferior.

Defections and transgressions like we've seen in recent months by Fathers Cutie and Bourgeois are guaranteed to continue if the Church remains stubborn on progress.

And now, with millions of followers but so few priests to lead them, can the Church survive over the long term?

Certainly not in its current form, I would think.

But then again, one little trip to the confessional can wipe away a lifetime of progressive conduct by a straying member of the flock.

And that keeps the so-called Catholics comfortably ensconced in an identity, and keeps the Catholic Church comfortably funded.

02 June 2009

Georgia won't let the media talk to death row inmate Troy Davis

Last week, my former Amnesty International colleague Ben Jealous, who is now the president and CEO of the NAACP, met with Troy Davis on Georgia's death row. Troy is awaiting an execution date for a murder that he probably did not commit.

Troy's original trial was flawed, and most of the witnesses have since recanted or contradicted their stories. There is no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and his conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses.

But the state of Georgia apparently doesn't care about the fact that it might execute an innocent man.

And, last week, Ben learned just how far Georgia will go to avoid scrutiny for this injustice:
"Besides the fact that Troy is facing execution for a crime that he may not have committed, he also told me that he is being denied the right to speak out on his own behalf despite the fact that others in his position are allowed to do so.

"In my meeting with Troy, I discovered that 60 Minutes, Dateline, and the Associated Press have all been denied media access to Troy. When Georgia won't let the media talk to the accused man, it is a flagrant abuse of his First Amendment rights."

How you can help:

Please contact Commissioner Brian Owens of the Georgia Department of Corrections today and demand he give Troy the right to speak.

This is literally a matter of life and death. And justice hangs in the balance.

01 June 2009

Killing doctors won't stop abortions

In a Kansas church yesterday, Dr. George Tiller was shot to death during a Sunday morning service.

The motive? Dr. Tiller worked at a women's health care clinic in Topeka where late-term abortions are performed. So I'm assuming that the gunman was an anti-choicer who thought he was rescuing babies or avenging the deaths of the aborted.

Many of the militant anti-choicers cite religion as their motivation. Do they forget that the bible forbids murder, and that two wrongs don't make a right?

In post-Roe America, abortion is legal. Murder is not. So, if they want to put an end to abortion, their best bet is to work to prevent the unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortions in the first place. And that, ironically, means supporting planned parenthood clinics.