US, South Korea Raise Military Alert Level

The United States and South Korea have raised their military alert level after North Korea said it would abandon the 1953 truce that ended the Korean War. North Korea’s move follows its nuclear test and several missile launches earlier this week. The US-South Korea Combined Forces Command says it’s raised the alert level to three, the highest since North Korea’s only other nuclear test in 2006.

Ex-Officer: Blocked Photos Showed Rape, Sexual Abuse at Abu Ghraib

The former Army officer in charge of investigating the Abu Graib scandal says the photos recently blocked by President Obama include images of rape and sexual abuse. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Major General Antonio Taguba said at least one picture shows a US soldier raping a female prisoner while another shows a male translator raping a male prisoner. Taguba says other photographs show sexual assaults with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube. The Obama administration recently drew criticism when it reversed a pledge to allow the photographs’ release.

US Military Toll Highest in Iraq Since September ’08

In Iraq, four Iraqi civilians and a US soldier were killed Wednesday in a Baghdad car bombing. At least twenty US troops have died in Iraq this month, the most since September 2008.

Israel Vows Continued Settlement Building as Obama, Abbas Meet

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House today for his first meeting with President Obama since Obama’s inauguration. Ahead of Abbas’s arrival, the Obama administration renewed calls for Israel to stop settlement construction in the Occupied Territories. But Israeli officials, meanwhile, said they’ll continue expanding settlements to accommodate so-called "natural growth" amongst settler communities.

Israeli Figures Attribute Settlement Growth to Migration

Israel says it needs to keep building to meet the housing needs of growing settler families. But recent Israeli government statistics show a large percentage of settlement growth was caused by settlers moving in from outside the territories. Despite its call for a settlement freeze, the Obama administration has still refused to demand Israel dismantle any of the large settlements that carve up the West Bank and that the World Court has deemed illegal. In Ramallah, independent Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouthi called on the US to exert meaningful pressure on the Israeli government.

Mustafa Barghouthi: "I believe that the Palestinian president should demand American immediate, clear-cut pressure on Israel. Without American pressure on Israel, there can be no progress for peace and there can be great threat to the idea of peace based on two-state solution."

Report: Israel Taking Vast Majority of West Bank Water

A new World Bank study says Israel is now drawing four times as much water as Palestinians from a critical shared aquifer in the Occupied West Bank. Palestinians are taking just one-fifth of the water supply amidst a fifth consecutive drought this year.

Amnesty: Economic Crisis Fueling Repression

The human rights group Amnesty International says the worldwide economic decline is leading to greater repression across the globe. In its annual global report, Amnesty warns, "We are sitting on a powder keg of inequality, injustice and insecurity, and it is about to explode." The report says abuses are increasing as marginalized communities demand basic rights amidst worsening economic security. It also says incidents of racism and xenophobia are on the rise in addition to new restrictions on refugees and asylum seekers. Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said the United States needs to address growing inequality at home.

Irene Khan: "We saw in the Americas in the last year still the issue of inequality very much on the agenda. The economic crisis has made it even more prominent now, where poor people are being ignored, indigenous peoples’ rights are being trampled upon, business and the economy taking precedence over livelihoods and lives of people. That is a major problem in the Americas."

The full Amnesty International report comes out today.

Lengthy Sentences Handed Down in Holy Land Case

Five founders of a defunct Muslim charity have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in a controversial case that critics have called a political witch-hunt. The Holy Land Foundation founders were convicted last year on charges of funneling money to the Palestinian group Hamas. Holy Land was the nation’s largest Muslim charity until the Bush administration shuttered it in 2001. The case relied on Israeli intelligence as well as disputed documents and electronic surveillance gathered by the FBI over a span of fifteen years. It was the second trial against the defendants after the first ended in a mistrial. Defendants Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu Baker were sentenced to sixty-five years apiece. At his sentencing hearing, Elashi said, "Nothing was more rewarding than...turning the charitable contributions of American Muslims into life assistance for the Palestinians. We gave the essentials of life: oil, rice, flour. The [Israeli] occupation was providing them with death and destruction." Another defendant, Mohammad El-Mezain, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He was found guilty of supporting Hamas but acquitted on thirty-one other charges. Volunteer fundraiser Mufid Abdulqader was sentenced to twenty years in prison. And the fifth defendant, Abdulrahman Odeh, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

Army Halts Training at Base over Record Suicides

The US Army has temporarily suspended regular operations at a Kentucky base that leads the military in suicides. At least eleven soldiers have taken their lives at Fort Campbell this year. The Pentagon says it will halt regular training for three days so commanders can identify and help soldiers at risk of suicide.

Admin Mulls Single Agency for Regulating Banks

The Obama administration is reportedly considering establishing a single agency to regulate the banking industry. The new bureau would replace the several bodies that failed to prevent or foresee the nation’s economic collapse. The White House is expected to unveil a formal proposal in the coming weeks.

Obama Orders Secrecy Review

In other White House news, President Obama has ordered a review of government secrecy and whether too many documents are being kept from the public. Obama has asked National Security Adviser James Jones to vet Cabinet officials on their disclosure process and appointed Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to head a task force on government secrecy.

Torture-Linked Firm Vacates Spokane Headquarters

The torture-linked military contractor Mitchell Jessen & Associates has moved out of its Spokane, Washington, office to an undisclosed location. Named for its founders, the military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the firm played a key role in developing the Bush administration’s torture methods used on foreign prisoners. The investigative website ProPublica reports Mitchell Jessen has disconnected its phone number and hasn’t left a forwarding address at its now-vacated offices.

Activists Raise Environmental Concerns at Chevron Meeting

Activists gathered in and outside a shareholders meeting for the oil giant Chevron Wednesday in an attempt to call attention to the company’s environmental practices. Activist shareholders were able to address the meeting and propose a motion calling for a report evaluating Chevron’s environmental record. Hundreds of people also gathered outside for a protest against Chevron’s practices in several countries. Chevron is facing a $27 billion damage claim over jungle pollution in Ecuador.

Dozens Protest Shell over Niger Delta Trial

Meanwhile, dozens gathered outside a New York courthouse where a landmark civil trial against the oil giant Shell had been set to begin. The case accuses Shell of supporting human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, including complicity in the torture and execution of Nigerian writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists. The trial has been delayed until next week. Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change International said he hopes the trial will bring attention to problems facing the Niger Delta.

Steve Kretzmann: "What we really hope as a result of the trial is the underlying issues that Ken and the other Niger Delta peoples were trying to address: the constant gas flaring, the pollution of their homeland, the complete abject poverty. We hope these issues are addressed in Nigeria, because that’s ultimately what Ken and the Ogoni were struggling for and what communities in Nigeria are still struggling for today."

The case was brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-citizens to file suits for human rights abuses overseas.

Illinois Senate Backs Medical Marijuana

In Illinois, the State Senate has passed a measure to legalize medical marijuana. The measure now goes to the State House, where it’s already passed in a committee vote.

US Plans Massive Embassy in Pakistan

The US is planning a massive diplomatic presence in Pakistan similar to its current embassy in Iraq. In a recent funding request, the Obama administration asked Congress for $736 million to build a new US embassy as well permanent housing for US officials in Islamabad. The request falls just below the $740 million cost of the US embassy in Baghdad.

Burmese Court Bars Suu Kyi Witnesses

In Burma, the court overseeing the trial of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected three of four witnesses that would have testified on her behalf. Suu Kyi is accused of violating her house arrest over an unwanted visit from an American citizen who swam across a lake to reach her home. The American, John Yettaw, testified Wednesday he was prompted by a "vision" of Suu Kyi’s assassination. Yettaw is believed to be mentally unstable. Wednesday marked both the nineteenth anniversary of Suu Kyi’s victory in national elections that Burma’s military junta has refused to acknowledge and the sixth anniversary of the last time she was free from house arrest.

Ex-Chilean Soldier Indicted in Jara Killing

In Chile, a former soldier has been indicted on charges of involvement in the 1973 killing of the Chilean protest singer Victor Jara. Chilean military forces tortured and killed Jara days after the US-backed overthrow of the elected president Salvador Allende. Jara’s hands were smashed so he could no longer play guitar, before he was shot forty-four times. The former soldier, Adolfo Paredes Márquez, has admitted to involvement but denies pulling the trigger. Chilean human rights attorney Nelson Caucoto said he hopes the commanding officers can be located and prosecuted.

Nelson Caucoto: "I hope we get to the bosses, the ones who gave the orders, because I imagine that in this chain of command an eighteen-year-old didn’t have much of a chance to resist orders."

Ethnic Studies Pioneer Ronald Takaki Dies at 70

Back in the United States, the ethnic studies professor and author Ronald Takaki has died at the age of seventy. Takaki taught at University of California, Berkeley, for more than three decades. He is widely considered a founding figure in the field of multicultural studies.

Haitian Priest, Activist Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste Dies at 62

And the Haitian spiritual and political leader, the Reverend Gérard Jean-Juste, has died. He was sixty-two years old. Doctors say he suffered a stroke unrelated to the leukemia he battled three years ago. Jean-Juste was well-known as an advocate for Haitian refugees and later an outspoken supporter of the ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after his overthrow in the 2004 US-backed coup. The US-appointed provisional government jailed Jean-Juste two times during its rule. The latest came in 2005, right before he was expected to register as a favored candidate in Haiti’s national elections. In 2004, I interviewed Father Jean-Juste right after his release from his first prison term.

Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste: "Look what they have done to Haiti. It’s broken into pieces. Now we have to collect the pieces and allow the people to come together. And I don’t see any way now, unless President Aristide is restored to power and democracy has been corrected, the same way we did it in 1994."

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