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The billionaire financier Bernie Madoff has pleaded guilty to all eleven counts against him for his role at the helm of one of the biggest frauds in Wall Street history. Madoff entered the plea Thursday at a federal courthouse here in New York. In a ten-minute statement, Madoff said he is "deeply sorry and ashamed" for his actions. Madoff is accused of running a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. He has been jailed pending a June sentencing hearing, where he faces up to 150 years in prison. Several former Madoff clients who lost their life’s savings were among the hundreds in attendance. Applause broke out in the courtroom when the judge announced Madoff would await his sentencing in jail.
Madoff victim Burt Ross: "Oh, sure. Tremendous satisfaction when they put the cuffs on him. That’s justice. We don’t live by mob rule. I was concerned that people would be yelling and shouting. There was none of that. It was a dignified courtroom."
An attorney for a group of former Madoff clients, Rob Intelisano, said unanswered questions remain.
Rob Intelisano: "I think they’re satisfied that he’s going to jail immediately. I think they would have been happy to hear a little bit more about, you know, what happened, how long the fraud took place, who else was involved, whether the family members were involved. I mean, you could tell that Madoff was clearly trying to protect the family and his own employees in his elocution."
A new government report says American families lost a record-high amount of wealth last year. According to the Federal Reserve, American families in 2008 cumulatively lost 18 percent of their wealth. The losses amount to $11 trillion, equal to the combined annual output of Germany, Japan and the UK. As losses add up, debt is also skyrocketing. Mortgages and credit card debt now amount to $13 trillion, or 123% of after-tax income. In 1995, debt amounted to 83 percent of income.
The author of an authoritative study on climate change says he underestimated the dangers of global warming. In 2006, the British economist Lord Stern wrote the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, which argued the costs of fighting climate change would amount to one percent of annual global GDP by 2050. By contrast, the report said the cost of doing nothing would amount to up to 20 percent of world GDP. But speaking at a UN meeting in Copenhagen, Stern revised the latter figure, saying the cost of inaction could be up to a third of the world’s wealth.
Among the measures in this week’s omnibus spending bill is a provision reversing the Bush administration’s ban on funding for the UN Population Fund. Funding ceased in 2002 with the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule, which restricts money for organizations that counsel, provide or advocate for abortions. With President Obama’s signing of the spending bill on Wednesday, the US will provide the fund with a $50 million commitment. UN Population Fund director Thoraya Obaid hailed the new US stance.
Thoraya Obaid: "We warmly applaud this action by President Obama. This is a much, much needed support. It will contribute to UNFPA’s ongoing effort to support governments to decrease maternal mortality, improve maternal health, and prevent HIV/AIDS. Certainly, this funding will advance the health and rights of women in all countries all around the globe. We’re very happy to receive this money."
The spending bill also includes a provision that will move the US toward a ban on cluster bombs. Under new rules, US military weapons must now have a self-destruct failure rate of less than one percent, a standard few cluster bombs can achieve.
In Pakistan, at least eighteen people have been killed and another fifty wounded in an apparent US missile attack. A Pakistani security official said the victims were al-Qaeda militants and operatives. The attack occurred in the tribal area of Kurram near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
In other news from Pakistan, opposition activists are vowing to intensify protests despite a heavy government crackdown. The Pakistani government banned public gatherings in two key provinces and jailed hundreds of people ahead of a protest against President Asif Ali Zardari. On Thursday, demonstrators began a march from the city of Karachi to Islamabad to demand the reinstatement of several dismissed judges.
President Obama has extended a section of US sanctions against Iran for at least another year. Thursday was Obama’s deadline to extend or end restrictions barring US companies from involvement in the Iranian oil industry and blocking trade and investment ties.
The US has again complained to Israel over the blockade of aid supplies to the Gaza Strip. The State Department agency USAID says Israel has prevented goods including jam, toothpaste and toilet paper. On Thursday, Israel rejected a shipment of tuna, canned meat, diapers, wet wipes, sterile gauze, blankets, candles and flashlights.
In other news from Gaza, the Hamas government has criticized recent rocket attacks at nearby Israeli towns. In a statement, Hamas said the rockets have not been fired by its resistance fighters and vowed to find those responsible. The Israeli government cited Palestinian rocket fire as the reason for its assault on Gaza, even though it was Israel that broke the ceasefire with a deadly November 4th attack. The news comes as a leading Palestinian human rights group has officially increased its count of the Palestinian death toll from the Gaza assault. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights says 1,434 Palestinians were killed, up from the previous toll of 1,300. The center says 960 of the dead were civilians.
The humanitarian group Doctors Without Border says it’s begun withdrawing remaining workers in Darfur after the kidnapping of three staff members. Three of the group’s five field operations had remained active despite the Sudanese government’s expulsion of aid workers following the International Criminal Court indictment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir last week. But Doctors Without Borders director Christopher Stokes said a new round of kidnappings have forced its complete withdrawal.
Christopher Stokes: '’As a consequence of this kidnapping, given the deteriorating security conditions in Darfur, the remaining MSF sections, knowing that two Medecins Sans Frontieres sections had been expelled last week, but the remaining three — Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium, Switzerland and Spain — who had had full authorization to continue working providing life-saving assistance, have also decided to withdraw their teams, not because they've been expelled, but because of the security conditions for the moment are so unclear and don’t allow us to remain in the field.’’
In Vienna, UN talks over a new global strategy to combat illegal drugs have ended in a gridlock between the US and several other nations. The US led opposition to inclusion of "harm reduction" in the final document for the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Several countries say they’ll interpret the document to condone harm reduction anyway. Harm reduction measures include methadone clinics and needle exchange programs for heroin users. On Thursday, UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs head Antonio Maria Costa said anti-drug programs must approach addiction through a range of social and medical factors.
Antonio Maria Costa: "What do we have in mind for health? Well, certainly we have in mind recognizing — and member states are doing so, growingly, but not all yet — that a drug addiction is a health condition, is a vulnerable condition, is physical, is psychological, is emotional, perhaps is contextual — low income, being at the margin of society, family conditions. It has to be dealt with as an illness, and therefore it has to be dealt with by doctors and not by policemen."
The US has been widely criticized for its longtime resistance to decriminalization and treatment-based alternatives.
Back in the United States, two Republican lawmakers have issued threats over the outcome of Sunday’s national elections in El Salvador. On Thursday, Republican Congress members Trent Franks of Arizona and Dan Burton of Indiana said Salvadorans living in the US could lose their immigration status and the right to send remittances home if the leftist FMLN party wins the vote. Polls indicate the FMLN will beat the right-wing ARENA party, which has long had close ties to Washington. Five years ago, the Bush administration was accused of threatening to cut off aid to El Salvador if voters supported the FMLN.
Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele is coming under criticism from members of his own party after taking an apparent pro-choice stance on abortion. In a new interview with GQ magazine, Steele refers to abortion as an "individual choice." Steele released an immediate retraction, saying, "I tried to present why I am pro-life while recognizing that my mother had a 'choice' before deciding to put me up for adoption. I thank her every day for supporting life." It’s the second time in as many weeks Steele has backtracked over comments that drew Republican ire. Last week, Steele apologized to right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh after the two engaged in a public fight over the leadership of the Republican Party.
And a new study says more than half of leading name-brand infant care products contain dangerous levels carcinogenic chemicals. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, products including Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and Baby Magic lotion tested positive for one or both of dioxane and formaldehyde. The chemicals are not active ingredients but instead a byproduct of the manufacturing process.