In Jena, Louisiana, the 17-year-old Mychal Bell, one of the Jena Six, has been released on bail after 10 months in prison. Bell and five other African-American high school students were arrested last year for beating a white student during a schoolyard fight. The fight occurred after white students hung three nooses in a tree in the schoolyard. An all-white jury convicted Bell of aggravated second-degree battery. But earlier this month, a Louisiana appeals court ruled he should not have been tried as an adult. On Thursday, Bell walked out of prison on a $45,000 bail bond. His release came hours after District Attorney Reed Walters announced he would not challenge the ruling ordering Bell’s release.
Reed Walters: "There is a victim in this case. His name is Justin Barker. I want everyone to know that the decision I am about to announce is based upon what I believe is best for him. I have decided not to appeal the decision of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals that overturned the conviction of Mychal Bell in adult court and sent the case back to juvenile court. This means the case against Mychal Bell will now go forward in juvenile court."
Mychal Bell’s release comes one week to the day after tens of thousands of people gathered from across the nation to support the Jena Six. In his press conference, Walters shared his thoughts on the historic march.
Reed Walters: "I firmly believe and am confident of the fact that had it not been for the direct intervention of the lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened. You can quote me on that."
A violent crackdown on a popular uprising in Burma is intensifying. At least nine people were killed Thursday when police opened fire on thousands of demonstrators in the city of Rangoon. There are fears the death toll could be several times more. The Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai was among the dead. Video footage shows him shot point-blank as soldiers charge the crowds. The junta is also trying to stem the flow of information, cutting cellphones and completely blocking public Internet use. British Ambassador Mark Canning described Thursday’s developments.
Mark Canning: "There was a much more visible troop presence on the streets. There were some prison vans on the streets. There were some water cannons. And there was troops stationed in a lot of the strategic areas. The main pagodas were wired off — the Shwedagon and the Sule — where the protesters had been gathering. But the protesters still came out, and they confronted the troops and the police. There had been, as I say, sporadic but quite serious violence in town."
A congressional investigation has issued a scathing criticism of the private military firm Blackwater USA around the March 2004 mission that saw four of its guards killed and led to a major escalation of the Iraq War. The House Oversight Committee says Blackwater sent the guards into the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah unprepared and lacking proper security. The guards were killed, two of their bodies strung over a bridge. The U.S. military responded with devastating attacks on Fallujah that virtually destroyed much of the city, killed thousands and displaced many more. The House Oversight Committee also says Blackwater officials then impeded congressional efforts to investigate. The families of the four slain guards have launched a civil suit against Blackwater for alleged negligence in their deaths. Donna Zovko lost her son "Jerry" Zovko in the Fallujah incident. She said: "Congress can’t change anything for my son. ... But let’s see what they can do for the others out there because someone needs to care for these contractors. Blackwater cares about nothing but the mighty dollar."
Meanwhile, more details have emerged on other killings linked to Blackwater forces aside from last week’s mass shooting in Baghdad. McClatchy Newspapers reports the victims include four media workers killed over the past year. In February, Blackwater guards shot and killed Al Atyaf television reporter Suhad Shakir as she was driving to work. Five days later, three Iraqi security guards were killed at the offices of the state-funded Iraqi Media Network, also known as Iraqiya. The three were picked off by Blackwater snipers on the opposite street. An Interior Ministry official says the guards were killed as if they were "target practice."
The Senate has approved a measure critics say promotes the partitioning of Iraq. The non-binding resolution supports dividing Iraq into federal regions for Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the Senate vote, saying a partition would lead to "catastrophe."
Meanwhile, the Senate has also approved a measure critics say could help open the door to military action against Iran. The resolution calls on the State Department to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. Senators approved an amendment from Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Jon Kyl of Arizona threatening to "combat, contain and [stop]" Iran via "military instruments." Senator Jim Webb of Virginia called the vote "Cheney’s fondest pipe dream" and said it could "read as a backdoor method of gaining Congressional validation for military action." The final vote was 76 to 22. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton voted in favor of the measure. Rival hopeful Senator Barack Obama did not vote.
The Senate has defied a veto threat from President Bush to approve an expansion of the child health insurance program, or S-CHIP. The 67-to-29 vote would be enough to override a presidential veto. But a showdown looms since the House failed to attract a two-thirds majority in passing its version of the measure. The bill would spend $35 billion to expand health insurance to more than four million children. The money would come through a boost in the federal tobacco tax. President Bush has promised a veto because he says it would increase the government’s role in healthcare.
A group of American physicists says the Bush administration has made false claims in defending its plan for a missile system in Eastern Europe. The White House has reassured Russia by vowing that its system would not be able to catch Russian missiles. But six leading scientists, including Theodore Postol of MIT, say the proposed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic would be able to negate Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Majorities in both Poland and the Czech Republic are opposed to hosting the missile system. The plan is widely seen as an overt threat to Iran.
In Washington, D.C., dozens of protesters gathered outside a Bush administration-sponsored meeting of world leaders on climate change. The meeting comes just days after President Bush skipped a major global warming summit at the U.N. General Assembly. The White House says it’s holding its own gathering so leading polluters can set individual voluntary emissions goals. Greenpeace Executive Director John Passacantando denounced Bush’s stance.
Greenpeace Executive Director John Passacantando: "Instead of denying global warming anymore, he wants to put together this lie that he’s doing something about global warming. He’s calling it voluntary. He’s saying there’s going to be no mandatory reductions of global warming pollution, but somehow that will solve it. It’s a lie, and it’s a fraud. And the American people need to know that. People around the world need to know that George Bush doesn’t speak for we Americans."
Also at the rally was the environmental activist Ted Glick of Chesapeake Climate Action. He’s on the 24th day of a hunger strike protesting the U.S. stance on global warming.
Ted Glick: "And then we have this conference on top of that, this sham conference that is a slap in the face to the nations of the world. There was a conference at the United Nations two days ago about coming up with a stronger international treaty, and then George Bush calls this conference to try to obstruct, to disrupt and to move the wrong way on global warming."
The U.S.-sponsored climate meeting continues today.
The Washington Post is reporting the Bush administration will allow 14 Guantánamo Bay prisoners the right to request lawyers for the first time since their capture. The move would grant the suspects their first outside contact aside from representatives of the Red Cross. The 14 are all considered "high-value detainees" transferred from overseas CIA prisons last year. The group includes the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
In campaign news, four leading Republican candidates are coming under criticism for skipping the first presidential debate geared toward African-American voters. Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and Senator John McCain were all absent at last night’s debate at Baltimore’s Morgan State University. They were each attending fundraising events. The debate was hosted by the broadcaster Tavis Smiley.
In other election news, GQ Magazine has reportedly canceled a story critical of Hillary Clinton after her staffers threatened to cut off access to former President Bill Clinton. GQ was apparently told the former president would no longer be available if the magazine went ahead with an article detailing in-fighting within Hillary’s campaign.
An Iraq War veteran has announced he’s returning his military medals as an act of antiwar protest. Josh Gaines was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and National Defense Service Medal following a year-long tour of duty in 2004 and 2005. Gaines says he’ll send the medals to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld because he holds Rumsfeld responsible for sending him to Iraq.
A newly leaked transcript from one month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq shows President Bush was aware that Saddam Hussein offered to go into exile if he was allowed to bring $1 billion and information on weapons of mass destruction. The disclosure is contained in a record of a meeting between President Bush and then-Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar in February 2003. The Middle East analyst Juan Cole speculates that Saddam likely wanted to bring with him information that showed Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had helped fund and support his weapons program. Possessing that information, Cole says, would have protected Saddam from future retaliation out of fear of embarrassing the White House. The transcript also shows President Bush hoped the U.N. Security Council would support the war in part because "[it] would save us fifty billion dollars." The 50 billion figure was the initial estimate of what the invasion would cost. Bush also made clear he expected U.S. forces to invade Iraq within a month of the conversation regardless of U.N. approval. Bush and Aznar met on February 22; the U.S.-led invasion began on March 19. Bush also reportedly said Europeans are opposed to the invasion because they’re indifferent to Saddam’s atrocities. He said: "Maybe it’s because he’s dark-skinned, far away and Muslim — a lot of Europeans think he’s OK." White House spokesperson Gordon Johndroe declined comment on the transcript.
And federal prosecutors have announced they’re now conducting a criminal investigation of the Chicago police torture scandal. For nearly two decades, a part of the city’s jails known as Area 2 was the epicenter for what has been described as the systematic torture of dozens of African-American males by Chicago police officers. In total, more than 135 people say they were subjected to abuse including having guns forced into their mouths, bags placed over their heads, and electric shocks inflicted to their genitals. Four men have been released from death row after government investigators concluded torture led to their wrongful convictions. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald says his office will probe whether former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his subordinates lied under oath or obstructed investigations into the allegations. Fitzgerald also says prosecutors have reopened an investigation into the 1987 fire that led to the conviction of one of the torture victims. The victim, Madison Hobley, has sued Burge and more than 20 officers for allegedly coercing him into falsely confessing to murders.