Saturday, February 24, 2007

Americans United Slams Justice Department 'First Freedom Project' For Hypocrisy

Effort Is Another Attempt By The Bush Administration To Undercut Church-State Separation, Placate Religious Right, Says AU's Lynn

WASHINGTON - February 22 - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday unveiled an expanded project allegedly designed to protect religious liberty, an effort that, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, reeks of hypocrisy.

“Expecting the Bush administration to defend religious liberty is a little like asking Col. Sanders to babysit your pet chicken,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This administration has repeatedly worked to destroy true religious freedom by merging church and state.”

As part of the new initiative, dubbed the “First Freedom Project,” Gonzales unveiled a 43-page report detailing the department’s intervention in several cases dealing with religion over the past six years. He vowed that the department would do even more in this arena.

Gonzales announced the new effort during a Feb. 20 speech before the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.

AU’s Lynn said the report documents the administration’s skewed views on religion and government.

For example, Lynn noted that the report speaks frequently about the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting Americans from religious discrimination in the workplace. A few pages later, however, it recounts how the department defended the Salvation Army’s supposed right to take taxpayers’ money to run public social services and still fire staff people who do not agree with its fundamentalist dogma.

Observed Lynn, “Thanks to the Justice Department, the Salvation Army could literally place newspaper ads reading, ‘Help Wanted for Government-Funded Jobs: No Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Liberal Christians, Atheists Or Gays Need Apply,’ and this would be perfectly acceptable to Gonzales. This is a perverse way of supposedly defending our religious freedom rights.”

Lynn also noted that the Justice Department filed a brief in a Florida case arguing that banning religious school vouchers would somehow violate the U.S. Constitution a claim the Supreme Court has never endorsed.

Forcing Florida taxpayers to support religious schools, in fact, would violate their right to support only the religious institutions of their choice, Lynn said.

The First Freedom Project has been run by Eric Treene, an attorney who was formerly employed at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group that works to undermine the separation of church and state.

Lynn said Gonzales’ manner of promoting the new initiative is telling. It was unveiled before the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, an ultra-conservative religious denomination aligned with the Bush administration, and Gonzales granted an exclusive interview to TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” to promote the initiative.

“Religious liberty is for everyone,” said Lynn. “but it seems clear this new initiative has more to do with keeping the administration’s Religious Right allies happy than advancing a great constitutional principle.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cluster Munitions: Governments to Discuss New Treaty

Oslo Conference Plans to Limit Weapon Threatening Civilians

OSLO - February 20 - Governments meeting in Oslo to launch a historic initiative to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians should agree to conclude a new treaty by 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. More than 40 countries are expected to attend the Oslo Conference on Cluster Munitions on February 22-23.

“No conventional weapon poses greater danger to civilians today than cluster munitions,” said Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. “Governments should act with an urgency that matches this threat and conclude a new treaty restricting cluster munitions by next year.”

In November 2006, the Norwegian government announced that it would facilitate a process aimed at concluding a new international treaty to prohibit cluster munitions that have unacceptable humanitarian consequences. The Oslo conference will be the first meeting in the process, which comes after the failure of governments to agree to start negotiations on cluster munitions in the framework of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Nongovernmental organizations – led by the Cluster Munition Coalition that Human Rights Watch helped found in 2003 and now co-chairs – are calling for governments to commit to concluding a new treaty by 2008, and to develop an action plan for getting there. The Cluster Munition Coalition and Norwegian People’s Aid are hosting a Civil Society Forum on Cluster Munitions in Oslo on February 21. Representatives of more than 100 nongovernmental organizations from at least 30 countries, many of them veterans of the successful campaign to ban landmines, are expected to participate in the conference.

“The Oslo initiative on cluster munitions follows in the footsteps of the Ottawa process that led to the international ban on landmines,” said Goose, who represented Human Rights Watch in the 1997 negotiations on antipersonnel mines. “By working together to develop a new treaty, governments and civil society have a chance to save countless lives from the terror of cluster munitions.”

In recent months, some three dozen countries have formally declared their support for a new treaty on cluster munitions, as have the International Committee of the Red Cross and many United Nations agencies. There are parliamentary initiatives to regulate or prohibit cluster munitions in about a dozen countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, two of the biggest users of cluster munitions.

“A new treaty on cluster munitions is urgently needed to protect civilians both during and after armed conflict,” said Goose. “Cluster munitions pose a double threat. If they don’t kill or injure you during an indiscriminate attack, they can still get you later with their landmine effect.”

Cluster munitions endanger civilians because each bomb, rocket or shell spreads hundreds of submunitions over a broad area, virtually guaranteeing civilian casualties when fired into populated areas. Also, cluster munitions leave a large number of unexploded submunitions, or “duds,” that effectively become landmines, killing or maiming people who come into contact with them long after the conflict has ended.

Norway has proposed a prohibition on cluster munitions that cause unacceptable humanitarian harm. What weapons fall inside or outside the prohibition will be determined during the negotiations, but governments will have to demonstrate conclusively that any particular cluster munition does not cause excessive harm to civilians.

A new treaty could stave off a potential humanitarian disaster even worse than the global landmine crisis. There are billions of submunitions in the arsenals of more than 70 countries. If those weapons get used, they will claim untold numbers of civilian casualties during conflict, and leave behind tens of millions – or even hundreds of millions – of duds as deadly as antipersonnel mines.

Some states, including the United States and United Kingdom, have expressed opposition to a process outside the CCW to deal with cluster munitions. Those countries are instead insisting that a British proposal to continue discussions within the CCW on “explosive remnants of war, with a particular focus on cluster munitions” is the way forward on cluster munitions.

Human Rights Watch said the proposal for mere discussions in the CCW is at best a go-slow approach to a looming humanitarian disaster, and at worst a deliberate formula for another failure of the CCW to deal with the threat posed by cluster munitions.

“It’s not surprising that the biggest users of cluster munitions are reluctant to embrace a process aimed at banning such weapons,” said Goose. “The Norwegian initiative is the only credible process for alleviating the suffering caused by cluster munitions, and countries serious about protecting civilians will join it right away.”

The tentative list of participants to the conference includes: Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Holy See, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Latvia, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

This list notably includes several states that are not party to the CCW, such as Afghanistan, Angola, Indonesia, Lebanon and Mozambique, as well as a significant number of countries that produce or stockpile cluster munitions.

Some of the governments expected to attend the conference have not yet expressed their support for a new treaty on cluster munitions, including Egypt, Finland, France, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Among those not expected to attend the Oslo meeting are Australia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States.

Cluster munitions are stockpiled by at least 75 states and have been used in at least 23 countries. Existing cluster munitions worldwide contain billions of individual submunitions. Globally, 34 countries are known to have produced over 210 different types of air-dropped and surface-launched cluster munitions including projectiles, bombs, rockets, missiles, and dispensers. At least 13 countries have transferred more than 50 types of cluster munitions to at least 60 other countries.

With very few exceptions, existing cluster munitions are not sophisticated weapons, because neither the cluster munition nor its submunitions are guided, and very few have self-destruct or other devices to reduce the failure rate.

DC Circuit Court of Appeals Rules That Guantanamo Detainees Have No Constitutional Right to Challenge Their Detention

Court Says Military Commissions Act Strips Habeas Corpus
Center for Constitutional Rights Condemns Decision and Calls on Supreme Court

NEW YORK - February 20 - The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents many of the Guantanamo detainees and coordinates the efforts of hundreds of pro bono attorneys across the country, condemned today's two-to-one decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in the combined cases of Al Odah v. USA and Boumediene v. Bush, the first lawsuits challenging the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) to be addressed by the courts. Todays ruling states that the Guantanamo detainees have no constitutional right to habeas corpus, therefore the passage of the MCA by Congress eliminated the statutory right to challenge their detention in the courts.

The MCA, which was signed into law by President Bush on October 17, 2006, is the second attempt by the Bush administration to strip detainees of their statutory right to challenge their detention in the courts, a right that the Supreme Court has already affirmed twice, in CCR's landmark case Rasul v. Bush in 2004 and in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld in 2006. The act also allows for evidence obtained through torture, - a violation of the Geneva Conventions - and greatly widens the scope of who the president can label an "enemy combatant."

"This decision empowers the President to do whatever he wishes to prisoners without any legal limitation as long as he does it off shore, and encourages such notorious practices as extraordinary rendition and a contempt for international human rights law," said Shayana Kadidal, managing attorney of the Center for Constitutional Rights Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative. "The matter will ultimately have to be resolved by the Supreme Court for a third time."

Al Odah v. USA consists of the first eleven habeas petitions filed after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Rasul v. Bush. The Boumediene appeal, filed jointly by CCR and cooperating counsel Wilmer, Pickering, Cutler, Hale, & Dorr and Clifford Chance, is on behalf of six Bosnian humanitarian workers seized by the U.S. military in Bosnia after the Bosnian courts ordered local authorities to release them. In Al Odah, D.C. District Court Judge Joyce Hens Green stated that detainees possess "the fundamental right to due process of law under the Fifth Amendment." Reaching an entirely different conclusion, Judge Richard Leon dismissed the Boumediene appeals, ruling that the detainees possess no constitutional rights to habeas corpus. Both cases were appealed, and the two cases were consolidated for oral arguments before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which were heard in November 2006.

"We call on the legal profession and all Americans concerned about the loss of liberty undertaken by the Bush Administration and now rubber stamped by the Court of Appeals to join with us in taking this fight to the United States Supreme Court. We call on Congress to take up the fight that the American people sent you to Washington to wage, to quickly enact legislation that will begin the process of restoring our most fundamental rights," said CCR Legal Director Bill Goodman.

"Habeas corpus is a right that was enshrined in the Magna Carta to prevent kings from indefinitely and arbitrarily detaining anyone they chose-the combined actions of the Bush Administration, the previous Congress and two of the three judges today have taken us back 900 years and granted the right of kings to the president," said CCR Executive Director Vincent Warren.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Retired Catholic Bishop Accused of Having Secret Bank Accounts

Newsnet5 reported February 18 that:

CLEVELAND -- The former financial chief of Ohio's largest Roman Catholic diocese, who is facing federal charges accusing him of taking church funds, contends in court documents that the retired bishop kept his own secret fund.

In court papers, Joseph H. Smith, the former chief financial officer of the Diocese of Cleveland, accused former Bishop Anthony Pilla of writing checks and buying furniture from off-the-books church accounts. The diocese on Saturday denied Smith's allegation.

Smith, 50, pleaded not guilty in August in U.S. District Court to 23 counts, including making false personal income tax returns, money laundering, mail fraud and conspiracy. Anton Zgoznik, Smith's friend who once worked under him at the Cleveland diocese, pleaded not guilty to 15 counts, including conspiracy, money laundering and mail fraud.

Zgoznik, 40, joined Smith's motion, filed Friday, which asks the court to order the diocese or prosecutors to produce financial records that defense lawyers say would exonerate the two. Their trial is scheduled for April.

"We are sorry that Mr. Smith has resorted to making false accusations against those associated with the diocese," diocese spokesman Bob Tayek said in a statement on Saturday.

"Any suggestion that those involved with the administration of the diocese knew or approved of the activities charged against Mr. Smith, or engaged in similar acts, is false."

The federal indictment alleges Smith, chief financial officer for 10 years and the highest-ranking lay employee of the diocese, diverted money collected from members of its 233 parishes across eight northeast Ohio counties.

Prosecutors say that from 1997 through 2004, Smith approved inflated payments of more than $17.5 million, some of them for legitimate work, from the diocese to companies owned by Zgoznik, and that Zgoznik then paid $784,000 in bogus consulting fees to companies owned by Smith. Prosecutors accuse Smith of using the money to buy a Florida condominium and pay for his children's tuition, landscaping and a resort membership.

The two men say they were following orders from superiors, including Pilla. Friday's motion says the diocese had hundreds of bank accounts not listed in official financial records that were used to compensate employees.

"We want to demonstrate the diocese was working with off-book accounts and disbursing money," said Robert Rotatori, Zgoznik's lawyer. "This is not something they're unfamiliar with."

The motion details an account that Smith said contained more than $500,000, called the "Anthony M. Pilla Charitable Account."

Smith detailed transactions totaling $177,000 that he said the bishop ordered, which were either payments to the diocese converted into money orders payable to Pilla, payments to a furniture store or checks made out to cash.

"Joe Smith worked at the highest levels of the diocese for over 20 years," said his attorney, Philip Kushner. "He's intimately familiar with diocesan operations and specific transactions."

Pilla, who retired last year citing health concerns, declined through a spokesman Saturday to comment.

The complete story may be found here:

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Iran: End Executions After Unfair Trials

NEW YORK - February 15 - The Iranian Judiciary should immediately halt all executions of people who have been sentenced to death in secret following unfair trials that do not meet minimal international standards of justice, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past year, at least a dozen Iranians of Arab origin have been condemned in this way.

On February 14, 2007 the Iranian authorities executed three men in the southern province of Khuzistan: Majed Albughbish, 30, Raisan Sawari, and Ghassem Salamat, 45. On February 13, prison officials informed the families, who were visiting the prisoners, that the three men, all Iranians of Arab origin, would be executed the next day.

Since March 2006, the Judiciary has executed a total of 12 men in Khuzistan, also ethnic Arabs, accusing them of carrying out bombings in Ahwaz, capital of Khuzistan, in October 2005 and January 2006. At least another 13 ethnic Iranian-Arabs have been sentenced to death in Khuzistan.

“Iran has accused these men of capital crimes, and it must ensure they receive fair trials and full due process protections,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the Iranian Judiciary has conducted secret trials that deny the defendants the most basic legal rights.”

According to Emad Baghi, an Iranian human rights defender who has vigorously campaigned to stop the executions, the authorities arrested 19 men who belonged to a group named Kataib in March 2006, accusing them of involvement in bombings. The authorities held the men in solitary confinement and denied them access to their lawyers until the day before their trials. The Judiciary did not allow the lawyers access to the accused men’s files until one day before their trial.

On July 17, 2006, the revolutionary court in Ahwaz sentenced 10 of the men to death following a one-day secret trial held on July 16. Judge Sha’bani sentenced the men to execution by hanging under Iran’s penal code, charging them as Mohareb, meaning “enemies of God.” The court sentenced the other nine men to imprisonment.

Iran has now executed all 10 men sentenced on July 17, despite strong international condemnations, including an appeal by three senior United Nations human rights officials: Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; Leonardo Despouy, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, and Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

On January 10, the three UN officials issued a public appeal to the Iranian government to stop the executions, stating that the trials “made a mockery of due process requirements.” The Iranian authorities ignored this and other international appeals, executing four of the men on January 24, and three more on February 14. Another three men were executed on December 19, 2006.

The judiciary has sentenced to death another 13 Iranians of Arab origin for armed activity against the state. They are: Zamel Bawi; Awdeh Afrawi; Nazem Bureihi; Alireza Salman Delfi; Ali Helfi; Jaafar Sawari; Abdolreza Sanawati; Mohammad Ali Sawari; Moslem al-Ha’I; Abdulreza Nawaseri; Yahia Nasseri; Abdulzahra Helichi; and Abdul-Imam Za’eri.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Judiciary to rescind their death sentences, and to grant new trials that meet international fair trial standards and are open to the public.

Iran executes more people annually than any other nation but China. In an alarming development, the number of publicly known executions rose 70 percent in 2006 as compared to 2005. Human Rights Watch believes the true number of executions is higher, but remains unknown due to the Judiciary’s lack of transparency and public accountability. Iran also executes more juveniles annually than any other nation.

“Today Iran stands out for handing down the death penalty on a grand scale without giving defendants a fair trial,” Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment under any circumstances due to its inherent cruelty and irreversibility.

Iraq War Plan Assumed Only 5,000 U.S. Troops Still There by December 2006

WASHINGTON - February 15 - The U.S. Central Command's war plan for invading Iraq postulated in August 2002 that the U.S. would have only 5,000 troops left in Iraq as of December 2006, according to the Command's PowerPoint briefing slides, which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and are posted on the Web today by the National Security Archive (

The PowerPoint slides, prepared by CentCom planners for Gen. Tommy Franks under code name POLO STEP, for briefings during 2002 for President Bush, the NSC, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the JCS, and Franks' commanders, refer to the "Phase IV" post-hostilities period as "UNKNOWN" and "months" in duration, but assume that U.S. forces would be almost completely "re-deployed" out of Iraq within 45 months of the invasion (i.e. December 2006).

"Completely unrealistic assumptions about a post-Saddam Iraq permeate these war plans," said National Security Archive Executive Director Thomas Blanton. "First, they assumed that a provisional government would be in place by 'D-Day', then that the Iraqis would stay in their garrisons and be reliable partners, and finally that the post-hostilities phase would be a matter of mere 'months'. All of these were delusions."

The PowerPoint slides reflect the continuous debate over the size of the invasion force that took place within the Bush administration. In late November 2001, President Bush asked Rumsfeld about the status of plans for war with Iraq. He asked for an updated approach, but did not want to attract attention. Rumsfeld ordered Gen. Franks to prepare a commander's estimate of improvements needed, and Franks convened a planning group that adopted the codeword POLO STEP.

POLO STEP was a coded compartment created during the Clinton administration to encompass covert Iraq and counter-terrorism plans and activities. In the mid-1990s, the compartment specifically included the targeting of Osama bin Laden. Following the September 11 attacks, CentCom, among other military and national security components, used the designation to cover planning for the war in Iraq. (Note 1)

In mid-2002, military analyst William Arkin obtained a leaked copy of a briefing on the Iraq plans and revealed the existence of POLO STEP in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times (June 23, 2002, p. M1). According to Arkin, the revelation unleashed the fury of Gen. Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld who immediately ordered a probe of the leak that lasted until the end of 2003 and subjected more than 1,000 military and contractor personnel to sometimes repeated questioning. (Note 2)

The slides in this Web posting are a compilation reflecting various iterations in war planning. The U.S. government maintains plans for conflict with a multitude of possible adversaries. The contingency operating plan for Iraq--OPLAN 1003-98--had last been fully reviewed in 1996 and was updated in 1998. It envisioned an invasion force of more than 380,000 troops. Former CentCom commander Gen. Anthony Zinni (who saw gaps in the plan--particularly in regard to the post-war order) organized a war game--Desert Crossing--in 1999 to examine additional contingencies.

Under pressure from Secretary Rumsfeld for a leaner force (according to accounts in books by Michael Gordon/Bernard Trainor, Thomas Ricks, and Bob Woodward), Zinni's successor, Gen. Franks, reduced the number to 275,000 in the commander's estimate he gave to President Bush on December 28, 2001. During the course of 2002 alternative versions of the plan were developed reflecting various assumptions about levels of allied support--"robust", "reduced", or "unilateral"--and about the amount of lead time available between the order to invade and the deployment of forces. Under the Generated Start option Bush would have provided CentCom with 30 days notice for war, and 60 days to deploy. Following Rumsfeld's mandate to reduce deployment time to prepare for any contingency, Franks developed the alternative Running Start option: conflict would begin with escalating Red, White, and Blue air strikes followed by ground war as troops were deployed. By mid-August 2002 a Hybrid concept had been developed--the U.S. military would quickly mobilize forces in the region, initiate an air strike campaign, then launch a ground invasion.

One account written after the war points out a basic problem with the concept of scaled-down ground forces - a "contradiction" between ends and means (Michael R. Gordon & Gen. Bernard Trainor, Cobra II, pp. 503-504):

"Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tommy Franks spent most of their time and energy on the least demanding task - defeating Saddam's weakened conventional forces - and the least amount on the most demanding - rehabilitation of and security for the new Iraq. The result was a surprising contradiction. The United States did not have nearly enough troops to secure the hundreds of suspected WMD sites that had supposedly been identified in Iraq or to secure the nation's long, porous borders. Had the Iraqis possessed WMD and terrorist groups been prevalent in Iraq as the Bush administration so loudly asserted, U.S. forces might well have failed to prevent the WMD from being spirited out of the country and falling into the hands of the dark forces the administration had declared war against."

In the end, Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair persuaded President Bush that the U.S. needed to go to the U.N. to try to legitimize the invasion. Diplomatic efforts over the next few months allowed more time for war preparations and the final option embraced by Rumsfeld - Lt. Gen. David McKiernan's Cobra II - was closer to Generated Start, the original plan, than the various iterations that were subsequently developed and are reflected in the declassified PowerPoint slides.

Lt. Gen. McKiernan later told Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks (Fiasco, p. 75):

"It's quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense... In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you get a set of PowerPoint slides... [T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides."

Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich told Ricks (Fiasco, pp. 75-76) that PowerPoint war planning was the ultimate insult:

"Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD's [Office of Secretary of Defense] contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology -- above all information technology -- has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionally governing the preparation and conduct of war. To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness."

National Security Archive senior analyst Joyce Battle asked the U.S. Army under the FOIA in 2004 for documents related to the 2001-2003 debates over troop levels for the Iraq war. In response, the Army referred the request to Central Command in 2005; and CentCom responded to the FOIA request in January 2007 with the declassified PowerPoint slides. The slides were compiled at CentCom with tabs labeled "A" through "L" (one slide is unlabeled). The Web posting today reproduces the documents as they were released by CentCom, together with additional items prepared by the National Security Archive: a brief chronology of Iraq war planning based on secondary sources, a glossary of military acronyms (essential for translating the otherwise cryptic references on the slides), and an introduction written by Ms. Battle.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Portugal fails to overturn abortion law

The AP reported today that:

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal's prime minister said he will enact more liberal abortion laws in the conservative Roman Catholic country even though his proposal to relax restrictions failed to win complete endorsement in a referendum.

With nearly all the votes counted, almost 60 percent of voters approved the referendum allowing women to opt for abortions up to the 10th week of pregnancy, while slightly more than 40 percent opposed it.

However, under Portuguese law more than 50 percent of the country's 8.9 million registered voters must participate in a referendum to make the ballot valid. The turnout Sunday was 44 percent.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates, leader of the center-left Socialist Party, said he would stick to his pre-ballot pledge to change the law through parliament where his party holds an overwhelming majority.

"Portugal will now tackle abortion in the same way as most other developed European countries," Socrates said. Women seeking an abortion will first go through counseling "so that the decision is a considered one, not taken out of desperation," he said.

It could still be some time, however, before the law is changed. A bill would have to be voted on first in parliament and then go to the president for approval. It would come into force only when the new legislation is published in the public records — a procedure that usually takes several months.

Debate over the abortion law, one of the most restrictive in the European Union, pitted the Socialist government against conservative parties and the Catholic Church, which claims more than 90 percent of Portuguese as followers.

Under current law, the procedure is allowed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy if a mother's health is at risk. In cases of rape it is permitted through the 16th week, and there is no time restriction if an abortion is the only way of saving a pregnant women's life.

In most other EU nations, abortion is permitted within much broader limits. Women can ask for abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy in Britain and up to the 12th week in Germany, France and Italy.

Church officials made no immediate comment on the referendum.

Luis Marques Mendes, leader of the main opposition Social Democratic Party, said he would not stand in the way of granting broader abortion rights despite his opposition during the referendum campaign.

"Even though the (referendum) result is not binding, we believe it should be democratically respected," he said.

Sunday's low turnout confounded analysts. An editorial in the Diario de Noticias newspaper listed eight possible reasons for the high abstention rate, including the country's conservative character, mistrust of politicians and a reluctance to take a stand on such a hot-button issue.

It was the second time in less than 10 years that a referendum on the deeply divisive issue failed to draw enough voters in Portugal. In 1998, a majority of voters rejected a similar proposal; the referendum was declared void because of a low turnout, and Portugal's policy remained unchanged.

The complete story may be found here:

Obstruction of Investigation into Whistleblower Agency

Special Counsel Staff Afraid to Meet with Investigators in Monitored Offices

WASHINGTON - February 12 - A slow-moving investigation of retaliation complaints within the federal agency charged with whistleblower protection has ground to a halt due to obstruction by the probe’s target, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The beleaguered head of the Office of Special Counsel, Scott Bloch, is now insisting that when outside investigators contact staff members to set up interviews, the investigators must make the appointments through his office.

The original whistleblower complaint against Bloch focuses on illegal gag orders, cronyism and retaliation in forcing the resignations of one-fifth of OSC headquarters legal and investigative staff. First filed in March 2005, the complaint was assigned by Clay Johnson, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and the Budget, to the Inspector General, Office of Personnel Management (OPM-IG) in October 2005.

On January 30, 2007, Rebecca McGinley, one of Bloch’s political deputies, sent an email to all OSC employees directing she be notified if OPM-IG contacts any of them for an interview. She also asserted that OPM-IG must conduct all interviews at OSC headquarters, unless the employee affirmatively declares his or her discomfort with speaking to investigators at the worksite.

Ms. McGinley claimed that this is consistent with the procedure OSC itself follows when conducting retaliation investigations. In fact, OSC does not follow such a policy. Its website confirms that “OSC reserves the right to contact witnesses directly when appropriate” rather than scheduling interviews through the agency which is the subject of the investigation.

Not surprisingly, OSC staff members report that they are afraid to speak with OPM-IG investigators for fear they will be reported back to Bloch. As a consequence, the16-month investigation has stalled.

On February 1st, Debra Katz, the attorney for the current and former OSC employees who filed the retaliation complaint, as well as for PEER, the Project On Government Oversight, the Government Accountability Project and the Human Rights Campaign, wrote a letter of protest to Clay Johnson. In that letter, Ms. Katz pointed out that the McGinley email made false claims designed to intimidate potential witnesses and was only the latest in a series of actions by Bloch to obstruct the OPM-IG probe. Other actions have included suggestions that all witnesses interviewed by the OPM-IG provide Bloch with affidavits describing what they had been asked and how they responded.

“It is beyond ironic that the attorneys and investigators within OSC who are supposed to be protecting others from retaliation are themselves trapped within an occupational gulag,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the OSC staff is kept in the dark about the efforts to address Bloch’s obstruction of the investigation. On February 6, when PEER tried to email copies of the Ms. Katz’s letter of protest to OSC staff, the emails were blocked. “If the Whistleblower Protection Act does not work for these specialists, why would we expect it to work for anyone else?”

Several members of Congress have already called on Bloch to resign and media reports indicate the White House is unhappy with Bloch and would like to see him leave. Bloch has counterattacked by enlisting sympathetic interest groups to pressure the Bush administration to call off the investigation entirely. His allies claim the Bush administration ordered the probe only due to pressure from gay rights organizations.

“If Scott Bloch had any decency he would resign,” Ruch added, noting that the Office of Special Counsel is scheduled for re-authorization in this session of Congress. “The increasingly bizarre tenure of Scott Bloch calls into question the continued existence of the entire Office of Special Counsel.”

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Fans upset that retired bishop Gumbleton not given OK to talk in Tucson

The Tucson Citizen reported today that:

Some were disappointed. Others were disgusted. One had to leave, she said, so she wouldn't get sick because she was so angry.
Those were just a few reactions from the more than 100 people who showed up at First Christian Church on Tuesday evening to hear retired Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit speak.

The strong reactions were not because of what Gumbleton said, but because he wasn't there.
Known for speaking about homosexuality and his own childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, Gumbleton instead spoke via a recorded speech shown on a DVD after Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson refused to give permission to Gumbleton to visit Tucson last month.

"It was a real bummer," said Tucsonan Kim Fortin, 23, about not being able to see Gumbleton in person, adding that she is a lesbian and had resigned from the military because she found it, like the church, stifling.

"They say you can be a good person," she said. "You just can't be yourself."
Gumbleton's speech was titled "Homosexuality and the Church" and, among other things, discussed how the church treats homosexuals, including its own homosexual priests.
Although Gumbleton was not on stage, Fortin said she still found his taped presentation invigorating.

After Gumbleton's speech, the audience was asked if it thought homosexuality was an important issue for the church.
Fortin, like most of the audience, raised both her arms.

Call to Action Tucson, a chapter of a national Roman Catholic reform group at odds with the Vatican over social justice issues and the ordination of women, married people and homosexuals, had invited Gumbleton to speak in Phoenix and Tucson. The archbishop of the Phoenix Diocese also denied Gumbleton permission to visit there.

According to Catholic Church protocol, visiting bishops must obtain permission from the diocese they wish to visit.

"In effect, Bishop Gumbleton was silenced," said Call to Action Tucson president Lynn Bagley.
She said the DVD presentation was arranged so his voice could still be heard.
Contacted Tuesday, Kicanas said he didn't tell Gumbleton outright not to come.
"He asked my permission, and I said I wouldn't give it to him," Kicanas said. "It was his choice not to come."

Kicanas said he did not extend his permission because Gumbleton was invited by Call to Action, which has ideals that are contrary to the Catholic Church's, he said.

The complete story may be found here:

Iraq War Spending Request Brings Total to $456 Billion; Proposed Budget Would Cut Programs for Neediest

NORTHAMPTON, Massachusetts - February 7 - While President Bush requests an additional $100 billion in war spending for fiscal year 2007, his proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 would cut $13 billion from programs that serve low- and middle-income Americans, according to the National Priorities Project (NPP), a non-profit, non-partisan research group that studies the local impact of federal policies. NPP offers an analysis of the President's budget and war spending requests that includes state-level breakdowns.

NPP's analysis includes how the President's budget request for fiscal year 2008 would impact each state in several program areas, including: Community Development Block Grants, Head Start, Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, Special Education, Child Care and Development Block Grant, and Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). New state-level cost of war numbers are also available.

The budget request released by the administration proposes cuts in non-security related discretionary spending. Compared to fiscal year 2006, $13 billion would be cut from these programs, while another $100 billion would be added for more war spending, which, if approved, would bring the total spent on the Iraq War to date to $456 billion.
"While the tab for the Iraq War continues to skyrocket, the President's proposed budget cuts more dollars from education, health care and a whole host of programs that serve our neediest citizens," said Greg Speeter, executive director of the National Priorities Project. "The people of this country deserve to see what these choices will mean to them and their communities."

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

War Objector's 'Freedom of Conscience Must Be Respected,' Asserts Amnesty International

LONDON - February 6 - Pending the trial on Monday 5 February of Ehren Watada over his refusal to participate in the Iraq war, Amnesty International stated that a guilty verdict would be a violation of internationally recognized rights to conscientious objection. “If found guilty, Amnesty International would consider Ehren Watada to be a prisoner of conscience and call for his immediate and unconditional release”, said Susan Lee, Amnesty International’s Americas Programme Director. 28-year-old Army Lieutenant Ehren Watada faces a possible four year prison sentence on charges of “missing movement” – due to his refusal to deploy to Iraq in June 2006 -- and of “conduct unbecoming an officer” -- because of his public comments regarding his objections to the war in Iraq. Ehren Watada has stated that his refusal is based on his belief that the Iraq war is illegal and immoral. In a pre-court martial hearing held on 16 January, a military judge ruled that he could not base his defence on the legality of the war in Iraq.However, the right to refuse to perform military service for reasons of conscience, thought or religion is protected under international human rights standards, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which the US has ratified.Ehren Watada joined the army in 2003 for a three year term, which was due to end in December 2006. In January 2006, he submitted a letter to his army command outlining his reasons for refusing to participate in the Iraq war and asking to resign from the army. He did not formally apply for conscientious objector status because US army regulations stipulate that applicants for this status must be opposed to war in any form; they do not provide for conscientious objector status on the basis of an objection to a specific war. In his letter, Ehren Watada said: “I believe so strongly in this cause that I would sit in prison or die for that belief. I would accept any punishment and take solace in a clean and clear conscience when the easier path, the safer path would have been to serve my year in Iraq” He received a reply in May 2006 stating that his request had been denied. He was ordered to deploy to Iraq with his unit in June 2006, an order he refused.Amnesty International has declared a number of imprisoned conscientious objectors in the US to be prisoners of conscience. They included Camilo Mejia who was sentenced to one year's imprisonment for his objections to the war in Iraq and Abdullah Webster who refused to participate in the same war due to his religious beliefs. Another, Kevin Benderman was sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment after he refused to re-deploy to Iraq because of the scenes of devastation he witnessed there. All three have since been released.

EFF Battles Gambit to Freeze Telecom Surveillance Cases

Friday Hearing on Motion to Stay Proceedings During Appeal

SAN FRANCISCO - February 6 - On Friday, February 9, at 2 p.m., the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) will argue that lawsuits against a number of major telecommunications companies for illegally assisting the National Security Agency (NSA) in spying on millions of ordinary Americans should go forward, regardless of the government's attempt to overturn the judge's previous ruling in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The government is appealing U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker's decision not to dismiss Hepting v. AT&T, EFF's case accusing AT&T of collaborating with the NSA in the illegal electronic surveillance. The government has argued that all proceedings before Judge Walker in Hepting -- and in more than 40 other NSA-related cases against additional telecommunications companies transferred to Walker's court -- should be stayed pending the outcome of that appeal.
Also Friday, the judge will hear arguments on whether motions to dismiss should be re-litigated in all of the remaining telecom surveillance cases against Verizon, MCI, Sprint, BellSouth and others, or if the Hepting v. AT&T Order should apply to those as well.

WHAT:NSA telecommunications records lawsuits
WHEN:2 p.m. Friday, February 9
WHERE:450 Golden Gate Ave.Courtroom 6San Francisco, CA 94102
For more on EFF's case against AT&T: