A US soldier has been sentenced to ninety years in prison for his role in the rape of an Iraqi girl and the killing of her and her family. The soldier, Specialist James Barker, was sentenced one day after pleading guilty and agreeing to testify against four other suspects. Barker has admitted he raped the girl — Abeer Kassem Hamza al-Janabi — while her parents and five-year old sister were herded into an adjoining room of their home and shot dead. Two other suspects — former soldier Steven Green and Sgt. Paul Cortez — raped Abeer before shooting her and burning her body in an effort to cover up their crime. At his hearing Thursday, Barker wept as he delivered a statement to the court. Barker said: "I want the people of Iraq to know that I did not go there to do the terrible things that I did. I do not ask anyone to forgive me today." Barker will be eligible for parole after twenty years.
Meanwhile in Iraq, the US military says four American security contractors are being held hostage after their convoy came under attack by insurgents. The military also announced the deaths of four soldiers Thursday. This month’s US death toll has now reached forty-five.
The New York Times is reporting US air strikes on Afghanistan are again on the rise. Defense officials say the Air Force has conducted more than 2,000 bombings since June. That’s at least twenty times more than the number of airstrikes in Iraq over the same period.
In Chile, the daughter of former dictator Augusto Pinochet has announced her father is willing to meet with the families of victims tortured or disappeared under his rule.
Lucia Pinochet: "He feels very pained for this and he has told me, that he feels that if he would be able to meet with these people he would express to them a profound apology. And this is the truth because he has not announced this, he told me this in private."
The daughter, Lucia Pinochet, went on to say Pinochet is not willing to seek a national pardon. Her comments come two weeks after Pinochet was put under house arrest for overseeing kidnapping, murder and torture at the secret prison of Villa Grimaldi. Lorena Pizarro, President of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared Group, dismissed the overture.
Lorena Pizarro: "This is not important to us, we are not these poor little relatives that have gone through so much, as I think Lucia Pinochet made out. I think that Pinochet must once and for all go to the tribunals and to speak and to take responsibility for these crimes. We do not have anything to talk about with this dictator, what we want is that the dictator is condemned–judged and condemned–for the crimes for which he is responsible."
Meanwhile, some leading human rights lawyers believe Pinochet’s reported comments may undermine the former dictator’s repeated defense to avoid being brought to court. Pinochet has faced several charges in recent years but has succeeded in having most dismissed on grounds he is mentally unfit to stand trial.
The African Union has reached an agreement with Arab, European and UN leaders for a joint peacekeeping mission with the European Union in Darfur. The planned force could include some 27,000 troops, including the existing 7,000-member African Union deployment. The Sudanese government took part in the deliberations but has not given its unqualified approval. UN Secretary General Koffi Annan is calling for an international conference including the Sudanese government and rebel groups to resolve the outstanding issues by the end of the year. The agreement comes amid reports the pro-government janjaweed militas have increased attacks on Darfurian civilians. On Thursday, Jan Egeland, the UN’s top humanitarian official, spoke from Western Darfur.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland: "We have a total meltdown now for security in Darfur. I never believed it would have gotten so bad in recent weeks. We hear story after story of armed men attacking defenceless women and children, of women being raped."
In Mexico, leaders of the popular uprising in the state of Oaxaca are lashing out at government claims their members were responsible for the fatal shooting of American journalist Brad Will. Will was shot and killed in Oaxaca three weeks ago today. His assailants have been identified as local police officers and government officials. The Oaxacan state government is claiming Will was shot at close range by members of the Popular Assembly of Oaxacan People, or APPO. On Thursday, APPO spokesperson Florencio Lopez Martinez denied the charges and accused Oaxaca’s governor and other officials of backing the crime.
APPO spokesperson Florencio Lopez Martinez: "Now they want to put up a smoke screen to change the real facts about the case to involve even members of the APPO, something we flatly reject. We think Ulises Ruiz, Heliodoro Diaz, and Manuel Martinez are responsible for the murder."
In Israel, a government cabinet minister is calling for an increase in the "targeted killing" of Palestinian leaders. In an address on public radio Thursday, Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer said the attacks should be broadened and that not even Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya should be immune.
Here in the United States, Thursday was a day of victory and defeat for Democratic Congressmember Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill. In a historic move, Pelosi was chosen by acclamation to become the nation’s first female House speaker. But in a direct rebuke to her wishes, House Democrats also voted to make Congressmember Steny Hoyer of Maryland the new House majority leader. Pelosi had openly campaigned for Congressmeber John Murtha of Pennsylvania. The final vote was one hundred and forty nine to eighty six. The session marked an end to a bitter leadership campaign that saw Murtha’s opponents accusing him of corruption.
In other news from Capitol Hill, the Senate approved legislation Thursday to begin nuclear cooperation with India. The measure received bi-partisan support to pass 85 to 12. Dissenting Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota argued the agreement would increase nuclear proliferation and worsen tensions between India and Pakistan.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota): "Any nuclear deal, any relationship we have with another country that deals with nuclear power and nuclear issues should be judged, in my opinion, on whether it reduces the number of nuclear weapons. Does it reduce the number of nuclear weapons that exist, or decrease them? It’s quite clear that what we’re debating today will result in an increase of nuclear weapons in India. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that. This bill fails that test in my judgment."
In other news, a new government audit is warning the Bush administration’s plan for a high-tech virtual border fence will likely cost far more than its initial two billion-dollar estimate. The virtual fence will utilize sensors, cameras and drones to monitor the borders with Canada and Mexico. The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general now says the plan could cost up to thirty billion dollars.
Here in Florida, a journalist whose reporting led to the federal investigation into jailed University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian has admitted he’s romantically involved with one of the case’s lead prosecutors. The reporter, Michael Fechter of the Tampa Tribune, has been widely criticized for displaying bias in his coverage of Al-Arian and his alleged links to the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad. Al-Arian has been jailed for over three years despite the fact the jury in his case failed to return a single guilty verdict on any of the charges brought against him. Fechter insists his relationship with prosecutor Cherie Krigsman began after the end of Al-Arian’s trial last year. Fechter says he’s stopped reporting on the case since the relationship began.
The Miami Herald is reporting the Bush administration is planning construction of a massive new "mini-city" at Guantanamo Bay to hold military trials for prisoners. The one hundred twenty-five million dollar compound would be the largest single construction expenditure since the prison opened four years ago. The administration wants to begin the military commissions by July of next year.
Meanwhile, a recently-freed prisoner from Guantanamo Bay has come forward with allegations of torture at the hands of the US military. In an interview from his home in Turkey, the former prisoner, Murat Kurnaz, said he was beaten, given electric shocks, submerged in water, starved, and chained to a ceiling for days. He said he saw several people die and often thought he would die himself. Kurnaz was held for four years before his release in August because of a lack of evidence against him.
In California, a leading hospital chain has been charged with ridding itself of a homeless patient by dumping her in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Los Angeles. The hospital, Bellflower, is run by Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO in the United States. Prosecutors say the case marks the first time a US hospital has been charged with hospital dumping despite its widespread practice.
And finally, the Bush administration is coming under criticism for its new choice to head family-planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. The appointee, Erick Keroack, is former head of "A Women’s Concern" — a medical organization that discourages handing contraceptives to women. The Washington Post reports the group supports sexual abstinence until marriage, opposes contraception and does not distribute information promoting birth control at its six centers in eastern Massachusetts. Keroack will play an advisory role on reproductive health and adolescent pregnancy and oversee $283 million dollars in annual family-planning grants. Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said: "[Keroack’s appointment is] striking proof that the Bush administration remains dramatically out of step with the nation’s priorities."