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Archive for November 14th, 2009|Daily archive page

US lawmaker gets 13 years in prison for bribery

In World on November 14, 2009 at 10:33 am

A disgraced former US congressman who stashed 90,000 dollars in his freezer was sentenced to 13 years in prison Friday for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.

Former Democratic Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson, second from left, is surrounded by reporters as he enters U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. on Friday, Nov. 13, 2009.

William Jefferson, a Democratic lawmaker who represented a district in the southern state of Louisiana that included part of New Orleans, was convicted in August on 11 of 16 counts, including bribery, money laundering and racketeering involving businesses in Africa.

The 13-year prison sentence, far less than the 27 years recommended by prosecutors, is said to be the longest prison term ever for a US lawmaker convicted on charges of corruption.

The previous record came in 2006, when Republican former congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham received a prison sentence of eight years and four months for accepting bribes from defense contractors.

Jefferson, 62, was also ordered to forfeit more than 470,000 dollars in assets.

“In a stunning betrayal of the public’s trust, former congressman Jefferson repeatedly used his public office for private gain,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman said in a statement.

US District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III handed down Jefferson’s sentence at an Alexandria, Virginia courtroom just outside Washington.

“We expect to file an appeal at the appropriate time,” Jefferson’s attorney Amy Jackson told AFP.

She declined to comment on the sentence.

Following a six-week trial, the jury found that from 2000 to 2005, Jefferson used his post as a US lawmaker to obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from oil, communications, sugar and other companies in Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In turn, he advanced the interests of the businesses and individuals who paid the bribes, namely through his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee — the chamber’s top tax-writing panel — without disclosing his own financial dealings with the ventures.

Jefferson’s indictment in 2007, which followed a huge FBI corruption probe, listed a series of alleged schemes in Africa, including telecommunications deals, oil concessions, satellite transmission contracts and the development of industrial plants and other facilities.

The case exploded on the public stage in August 2005, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Jefferson’s Washington home and found the cold cash, allegedly bribe money intended for the former Nigerian vice president, wrapped in aluminum foil and hidden in frozen food containers in his freezer.

In May 2006, FBI agents raided his congressional office — the first raid of its kind — in a move denounced by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.


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Two die in China after swine flu vaccine: govt

In World on November 14, 2009 at 10:32 am

Two people died after they were innoculated with the swine flu vaccine in China, health authorities reported, amid wariness among the Chinese about the quality of the shot.

Deng Haihua, spokesman for the health ministry, said in a statement posted on the website late Friday that authorities had been notified of the deaths in the past two days, but he gave no personal details of the victims.

Preliminary results of an autopsy on one of the victims revealed the patient suffered a sudden death due to heart issues and experts had ruled out a link to an allergic reaction to the vaccine, according to the statement.

Deng said final results had yet to be announced, and an autopsy on the second victim was underway.

But he sought to play down the news amid public concern — a survey published by state media in October revealed that over half of Chinese did not plan to be vaccinated as they were unsure about the safety of the shot.

“Specialists say that it is unavoidable that several serious adverse reactions will happen amid the more than 10 million people who have received the vaccine, and the 20, 30, 150 million who will in the future,” Deng said.

China has so far reported 43 deaths from A(H1N1) influenza and more than 65,900 cases of the disease, according to the health ministry.


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Legal minefield awaits 9/11 trial in New York

In World on November 14, 2009 at 10:32 am

Trying the five men accused of the September 11 attacks poses a unique challenge to US prosecutors forced to sift through torture-tainted evidence to present before a jury of New Yorkers still scarred by the strikes.

US Attorney General Eric Holder holds a press conference at the Justice Department in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo)

Friday’s announcement also sent President Barack Obama’s Republican foes but also some of his Democratic allies howling and was blasted by families of the nearly 3,000 victims of the strikes.

Attorney General Eric Holder vowed the co-conspirators would stand trial “before an impartial jury” and expressed confidence that “we’re going to be successful in the prosecution efforts.”

But some lawyers expressed doubts after the Obama administration announced that the five men, including mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would be tried in a US federal court in New York.

The trial will open just steps from Ground Zero, once the home to the World Trade Center destroyed in the attacks.

“It is inconceivable that we would bring these alleged terrorists back to New York for trial, to the scene of the carnage they created eight years ago, and give them a platform to mock the suffering of their victims… and rally their followers to continue waging jihad against America,” said Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who usually votes with the Democrats.

Suzanne Lachelier, a military attorney for the men, said she was “very worried that it will not be possible to find jurors who have no opinion and who have not suffered from the attacks.”

Beyond finding an objective jury in a city still traumatized by the attacks, a myriad of other problems face prosecutors, including the reliability of the evidence at hand.

During his years in US custody, Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, and was waterboarded 183 times.

“Torture can be a means to dismiss the case,” warned Adam Thurschwell, a death penalty expert who is part of the defense team.

Holder said he expected to push for the death penalty against the five currently held at Guantanamo, where they have already been charged with murder under the military commissions system.

Mohammed and his co-defendants spent years in secret CIA prisons where they were subjected to other interrogation methods, such as sleep deprivation, being forced to stand for long hours in uncomfortable positions or played loud music incessantly.

Given the sensitivity of the case, few experts believe the assigned New York judge would throw it out. But because the post is a life appointment, the judge is independent and free to act as he or she thinks best under the law.

Now that the Obama administration has decided to move the case onto American soil, prosecutors will have to begin the painstaking task of building a case to put before a jury.

“If the prosecution wants to use evidence of later statements, they would have hearings on its admissibility that might require the torture statements to be disclosed,” said Thurschwell.

“Torture plays a mitigating role because all of the details of what happened to the defendant are relevant in the sentencing phase.”

The defense could argue that any declarations by their clients made after they were mistreated are tainted evidence because they were obtained under coercion.

Questions will also be raised over what they said to FBI interrogators when they arrived at Guantanamo in 2006, years after their capture, and read their rights.

The spotlight will also be on their declarations to the military tribunals at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, especially in the case of Ramzi Binalshibh, who his lawyer says suffers from severe mental problems.

Such difficulties mean it could be years before the trial opens.

“We can’t gloss over the question of torture and enhanced interrogation… but on the other hand we can’t be afraid of our own laws,” said former military prosecutor John Hutson.

“These are going to be hard cases and hard fought.”

If the men are convicted, all attenuating circumstances will come into play as concerns sentencing.

But some of the five men have expressed a clear wish to die as martyrs.

Should they win the right to represent themselves in court, they may refuse to present any evidence that could act in their favor in a bid to be sentenced to death.

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Senegal’s dream of a ‘Green Wall’ against the desert

In World on November 14, 2009 at 10:31 am

There is little to show for it apart from small acacia shrubs, but Senegal’s leader believes in a Great Green Wall that will stem desertification across Africa from coast to coast.

A graphic showing the eleven countries associated with the ‘Great Green Wall’ scheme. (AFP Photo)

The project, launched in 2005, was meant to concern nations from Senegal on the Atlantic Ocean to Djibouti on the Red Sea.

But four years later, the Green Wall has barely emerged from the dust, and its supporters are hoping it will get a boost at the Copenhagen conference on climate change next month.

“Africa won’t go empty-handed to the Copenhagen summit,” vowed Senegal’s environment minister Djibo Ka at a ceremony in the northern village of Labgar recently.

He said the Great Green Wall would be presented by President Abdoulaye Wade and feature “at the heart of debate.”

“It’s a dream that is becoming reality,” he stated, leaning over an acacia shoot about 20 centimetres (eight inches) tall, but cautioned that if the wall was to grow, “we’re waiting for firm, major and targetted commitments” by the donor community.

The project’s aim is to build a tree barrier across the Sahel region where desertification is rampant. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that about two million hectares of forest (7,700 square miles) are now being destroyed each year in the Sahel.

The FAO has also warned that global warming will merely worsen the problem, leading to major migrations of people in countries that are already very poor and often unstable.

Eleven countries are associated with the Great Green Wall scheme, which was initially dreamed up by Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005, then adopted by Wade.

If all those nations took part, the wall would be 7,000 kilometres (4,340 miles) long and 15 kilometres wide.

The forest would also include catchment sinks to collect rainwater, which would be stored in reservoirs.

Not everyone is in favour.

“I don’t believe in this project. There’s no political will and woods are being cut down everywhere. And there’s no concern for replanting,” complained Haider El Ali, an ecologist who works for the Oceanium, Senegal’s biggest environmental protection agency.

Such scepticism is understandable, as the plan is scarcely off the drawing board. Only 10 kilometres of the Green Wall have been planted in the past two years.

“We’re planting local species, like acacias, which adapt well and which produce gum arabic, which provides resources to villagers,” said Colonel Matar Cisse, the director of the national agency for the Great Green Wall.

“But the big challenge is to protect the planted areas from livestock, and so there have to be enclosures, as well as firebreaks to protect against bush fires.”

Amid little fuss, the Oceanium has in the past three months planted 5,000 hectares of mangroves, an operation sponsored by the French food group Danone which wanted to compensate for the carbon emissions of one of its plants in France.

“The Great Green Wall is a stunt, a show to appeal to those ready to give money,” El Ali insisted. His deputy Jean Goepp argued that “the idea is good, but first we need to make people aware of the issues.”


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Thaksin departs, Cambodia-Thai relations in trouble

In World on November 14, 2009 at 10:31 am

Fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra left Cambodia on Saturday, ending a contentious four-day visit that deepened a diplomatic crisis between the neighbours.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) talks to former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (L) in Siem Reap province, some 314 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh on November 14, 2009 before Thaksin was due to leave Cambodia. (AFP Photo)

Thaksin, who was toppled by a military coup in 2006 and is living abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption in Thailand, departed the tourist hub Siem Reap by private jet, Cambodia’s deputy cabinet minister Prak Sokhon confirmed.

Officials would not disclose his destination. Thaksin has travelled widely since leaving Thailand for exile in August last year, but has based himself in Dubai, while continuing to have a major influence in politics in his homeland.

His visit, to take up a new role as economic adviser to the Cambodian government, created a diplomatic storm between the already bickering nations.

Bangkok was outraged by the appointment and ties plummeted further when Cambodia refused to extradite him to Thailand on the grounds that his graft conviction was politically motivated.

Both countries recalled their respective ambassadors and Thaksin hit out at the Thai government during an economic lecture in the capital Phnom Penh, accusing Thai rulers of “false patriotism”.

Before his morning departure, Thaksin chatted at a hotel with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a close ally, and political supporters who had travelled from Thailand to meet him.

Some 50 members of parliament from Thailand’s main pro-Thaksin party, Puea Thai, waved him off as his plane left the airport.

Cambodia enflamed the row Thursday when it arrested a Thai man in Phnom Penh on charges of spying on Thaksin and expelled the first secretary to Thailand’s embassy.

Thailand reciprocated, expelling Cambodia’s first secretary from Bangkok.

Siwarak Chothipong, 31, who works for the Cambodia Air Traffic Service, is accused of supplying the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh with details of Thaksin’s flight schedule, according to Cambodian police.

Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, secretary to Thailand’s foreign minister, said the ministry had submitted a request to visit the detained suspect, which Cambodia’s interior ministry confirmed it was considering.

“We have to see him, whatever happens,” Chavanond said. “Thailand categorically denies all of the spy allegations.”

Hun Sen, who had personally invited Thaksin to Cambodia, has strongly defended his friendship with Thaksin and even played a round of golf with him in Siem Reap on Friday.

Thailand has put all talks and cooperation programmes with Cambodia on hold, torn up an oil and gas exploration deal signed during Thaksin’s time in power and placed under review two road-building projects worth 42 million dollars.

Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based political analyst who wrote a biography of Thaksin, said the visit had stoked a “dangerous” row between the two countries, adding Hun Sen would be unwise to fuel it further.

“If Hun Sen wants to take it further it’s very easy indeed, but I can’t see at the moment what the utility for him would be,” said Baker.

“I think he’s got it just where he wants it.”

Tensions were already high between the two countries following a series of deadly military clashes over disputed territory near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple on their border.

The row comes during a weekend summit of regional leaders with US President Barack Obama, although Cambodia’s foreign ministry said Friday it did not want the dispute raised during the historic meeting.

Twice-elected Thaksin fled Thailand in August 2008, a month before a court sentenced him to two years in jail in a conflict of interest case.

He had returned to Thailand just months earlier for the first time since the coup in 2006.

He has retained enormous influence in Thai politics by stirring up protests against the current government, and analysts said that in Hun Sen he had found a new way to push for a return to power.


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