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President Obama spoke in Cairo earlier today in a much-anticipated speech aimed at Muslims across the world. Obama defended his decision to escalate the occupation of Afghanistan and refused to apologize for the invasion of Iraq that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. On the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama refused to call for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories but said settlement building should stop.
President Obama: "At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
On the eve of his visit to Cairo, dozens of right-wing Israeli protesters demonstrated outside the US consulate in Jerusalem. The protesters criticized Obama’s push for a freeze to Israeli settlements.
Protester: "Yes, it’s important to have good relations with America, but not at the expense of our survival. And today, we are once again — we are going to repeat this over and over again: Barack Hussein Obama, no, you can’t! No, you can’t! You can’t appease the Muslim world by selling out the Jews! No, you can’t!"
Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is again threatening an Israeli attack on Iran over its alleged nuclear activities. Barak spoke Wednesday after meetings in Washington.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak: "I’ve already given my opinion, and it hasn’t changed, even after meeting with the foreign secretary. I repeat what I have always said: Israel still thinks it’s time for engagement and sanctions, but Israel isn’t taking any options off the table. But there needs to be a time frame to how much time we give to these negotiations, and if this doesn’t work, Israel will have to look at other options."
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on student and pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government has increased censorship ahead of the anniversary. Authorities have blocked access to social networking and email websites including Twitter and Hotmail. Foreign journalists have been barred from Tianamnen Square, and many activists have been forced to leave Beijing or confined to their homes. Zeng Jinyan, the wife of the jailed AIDS activist Hu Jia, told reporters she’s been barred from leaving her residential community.
Zeng Jinyan: "Many people, they don’t care about June 4th. But June 4th is really important for the whole country, for all the Chinese people. So if I have freedom and I have the ability, I will do civil society education through human rights education to the public."
The Organization of American States has lifted its forty-seven-year suspension of Cuba. The surprise vote came Wednesday after the US won conditions granting Cuba a path to membership if it carries out democratic reforms in line with the OAS’s founding principles. Cuba has rejected reentry, because it no longer considers the OAS a viable grouping.
A top UN official is calling for a probe into the killings of innocent civilians by US forces and private contractors. Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said many US military strikes, shootings and drone attacks have killed scores of people without any accountability.
Philip Alston: "The government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-rank soldiers for such deaths and has not held senior officers responsible under the doctrine of command responsibility. Worse, it has effectively created a zone of impunity for private contractors and civilian agents by only rarely investigating and prosecuting them."
Alston says the US should establish a national commission of inquiry and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the killings of innocents abroad.
A federal judge has dismissed more than three dozen lawsuits against telecommunications corporations that aided the Bush administration’s warrantless spying. On Wednesday, Northern California US District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled the companies, including Verizon and AT&T, are protected under the retroactive immunity granted in last year’s Democratic-backed surveillance act. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union say they plan to appeal on the grounds the retroactive immunity is unconstitutional. In a related ruling, Judge Walker rejected Obama administration efforts to dismiss a case from a defunct Oregon-based Islamic charity that says it was the target of illegal spying.
The Justice Department has reversed a Bush administration ruling that immigrants don’t have a constitutional right to proper legal counsel during deportation proceedings. On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder restored the right of immigrants to appeal deportations on the grounds of attorney incompetence. But Holder also said he would leave intact existing government cases based on the rescinded Bush administration principle.
The Obama administration has announced it will let thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims remain in trailers they had been told to leave by the end of last month. The White House says the Gulf Coast residents will be allowed to purchase their trailers for nominal fees of $5 or less. And it says it will give the more than 3,400 families living in trailers priority for $50 million in housing vouchers. The eviction plans had come under wide criticism, because almost none of the housing destroyed by Katrina has been rebuilt or replaced.
New Hampshire has become the sixth state to legalize gay marriage. On Wednesday, Governor John Lynch signed legislation OKing same-sex marriages after winning exemptions for churches who choose not to officiate.
In Arizona, a human rights activist from the group No More Deaths has been convicted for leaving plastic jugs for undocumented immigrants crossing near the US-Mexico border. The activist, Walt Staton, says the water jugs were left to prevent migrants from dying of dehydration. On Wednesday, Staton was found guilty of "knowingly littering" in the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge. In a move criticized by defense attorneys, the jury was ordered to reach a verdict after initial deliberations ended in a deadlock. Staton is a member of No More Deaths, which has worked for years to provide migrants with humanitarian aid. Over the past decade, nearly 2,000 men, women and children have died while trying to cross the border into Arizona. In a statement, No More Deaths said, "By penalizing life-saving work, the United States is showing callous disregard for the lives of our neighbors to the south, whose only crime is to seek a better life."
A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit against the Nigerian subsidiary of the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell over the 1995 killings of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Nigerian activists. The case against the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria was initially dismissed in March 2008. The suit is separate from another case brought directly against Shell over the Nigeria killings. On Wednesday, that case was again adjourned indefinitely after its initial delay last month.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus met with backers of single-payer healthcare Wednesday after excluding them from last month’s hearings on healthcare reform. Baucus reportedly expressed regret for refusing to hear their voices and said he would seek the dismissal of charges against thirteen single-payer advocates he had thrown out of the hearings after they protested their exclusion. But the advocates say Baucus expressed no willingness to reverse his principled opposition to single payer. Dr. David Himmelstein, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, said activists will need to continue protesting Baucus and other lawmakers who support for-profit healthcare.
In other healthcare news, the Obama administration has indicated it could support establishing a healthcare system that would require Americans to purchase health insurance. President Obama opposed a similar plan from Hillary Clinton during their race for the Democratic nomination. But on Wednesday, Obama said he would consider the plan if it includes a waiver for low-income Americans.
And a federal inspector has revealed aviation officials ignored his warnings about a twin-engine aircraft model more than a year before one flown by Colgan Air crashed near Buffalo in February. The inspector, Christopher Monteleon, told the New York Times he found pilots had flown the plane faster than manufacturer specifications allowed. Monteleon says Colgan Air refused to report the breaches and have the plane inspected for damage. He says he was then suspended overseeing sections of Colgan Air’s operations after he reported his concerns to Federation Aviation Administration superiors. Fifty people were killed in the crash of Continental Flight 3407 on February 12th. The victims included Alison Des Forges, one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda, and Beverly Eckert, who had become an advocate for 9/11 families after losing her husband in the attacks on the Twin Towers.