On Capitol Hill, Samuel Alito wrapped up his final day of testimony in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings Thursday. Senators began hearing from witnesses in testimony that will continue today. Senate aides predicted Alito will be approved by the Judiciary Committee on a 10-8 vote along party lines, perhaps as early as next week.
This news on the Iran nuclear stand-off — On Thursday, Iran threatened to halt snap inspections of its nuclear sites by the United Nations if it is referred to the Security Council. The protocol allows intrusive and short-notice inspections of the country’s nuclear sites. The move came after the United States, Britain, France and Germany said Thursday that nuclear talks with Iran were at a dead end and the issue should be brought before the Council. The crisis over Iran’s nuclear program intensified this week after Iran removed seals at three nuclear facilities following a two-year freeze. Iran says its nuclear programs are solely for the peaceful generation of electricity.
In Saudi Arabia, Muslim pilgrims attending the annual hajj set off a stampede that killed at least 345 people. Almost 300 more were injured. The deaths occurred during the final day of the ritual stoning of the devil in the Mina desert, in which pilgrims throw stones at pillars to purge themselves of sin. The deaths come a week after the collapse of a pilgrim hotel that killed 76 people. Thursday’s stampede caused the highest death toll since over 1400 people died in a stampede in a Mecca tunnel in 1990. Over 240 were killed in another stampede in 2004.
In this country, Jose Padilla has pleaded not guilty on terrorism charges in Miami. A judge denied his request for bail. Padilla was only charged in November after over three years in solitary confinement on a military brig in South Carolina. At the time of his arrest in May 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft accused Padilla of involvement in "a terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive 'dirty bomb.'" None of his current charges include these allegations. Last month, a federal appeals court suggested the Bush administration only charged Padilla to thwart his pending Supreme Court appeal. His trial has been set for September.
In Virgina, new DNA tests have confirmed the guilt of an executed murderer who went to his death proclaiming his innocence. Roger Keith Coleman was convicted for the 1981 rape and murder of Wanda McCoy and executed 11 years later. The DNA was ordered last month by Virginia Governor Mark Warner — the first of scores of tests he has ordered on convicts before his term ends Saturday.
In Maryland, state legislators passed a law Thursday that would require retail giant Wal-Mart to increase health care spending for its employees. The measure is expected to be replicated in other states. The measure overrode a gubernatorial veto and followed an intense lobbying battle between Wal-Mart and labor groups. Under the new law, employers with 100,000 or more workers must devote at least 8 percent of their payrolls to health insurance, or pay the difference into a state Medicaid fund. A Wal-Mart spokesperson told the New York Times the company is considering bringing a lawsuit to challenge the law. Democratic State Senator Gloria Lawlah, who sponsored the bill, said: "This is not a Wal-Mart bill, it’s a Medicaid bill." This bill says to the conglomerates, ’Don’t dump the employees that you refuse to insure into our Medicaid systems.’ "
This news from Germany — The German intelligence service is coming under heavy criticism amid revelations its agents lent support to the United States invasion of Iraq. According to several media reports, German Federal Intelligence Service agents in Baghdad helped select at least one bombing target aimed at Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in which twelve civilians were killed. The operation was reportedly approved by the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, despite Germany’s public opposition to the war at the time.
In Haiti, residents of the poor community Cite Soleil held a massive demonstration Thursday in protest of a planned UN armed raid on their neighborhoods. UN mission head Juan Gabriel Valdes vowed a raid was imminent last week amid growing calls from Haiti’s business leaders and foreign officials. Aid workers are already reporting one person has been killed and 17 injured in clashes with UN troops this week. The injured included a 12-year old girl. John Joel Joseph, a community organizer for Lavalas, the political party of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide told the Associated Press: "The population is standing up to say 'No' to U.N. persecution in Cite Soleil. Every day, we are counting dead bodies."
In the Philippines, a judge has issued an arrest warrant for four US Marines accused in the rape of 22-year old Filipino woman near a former US Navy base in November. The soldiers are currently detained at the US embassy. The US government has not indicated whether the soldiers will be handed over.
In Kenya, the World Food Programme is warning over two million people are in need of food aid to overcome a drought caused by two failed rainy seasons. President Mwai Kibaki recently declared food shortages in the arid north and some coastal areas a national disaster.
This news from Britain — the London Times is reporting powerful business groups are funding and even drafting the reports of supposedly independent British parliamentary groups investigating policies in which they have a commercial interest. Two thirds of the nearly-300 such groups are now assisted by special interest groups, the newspaper said.
And after nearly 25 years in prison, Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot Pope John Paul the Second, was released from prison Thursday. Agca shot the late John Paul in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. The pope survived the attack, and forgave Agca in a visit to his prison cell two years later. Agca served twenty years in jail before he was transferred to Turkey to serve the remaining years of his sentence in the 1978 killing of Abdi Ipekci, the editor of a left-wing Turkish newspaper. Immediately after his release, Agca was taken into custody by the Turkish army over failing to complete mandatory military service. He’ll be held as military officials review his case.