Tensions remain high on the Korean Peninsula after South Korea conducted a live-fire military drill near the disputed maritime border. The drill occurred earlier today on Yeonpyeong Island, where four South Koreans were killed last month when the North shelled the island. North Korea had threatened to strike if the South went ahead with the military drill, but so far there has been no military response from the North. South Korea went ahead with the drills despite protests from China and Russia. The United States supported the military drill, and some 20 U.S. military personnel attended the exercise in various support and observer roles. In South Korea, antiwar protesters held a rally in Seoul earlier today to oppose the live-fire military drill.
You Young-Jae: "Is there any reason that the army is conducting firing exercises in areas with problems, and which the other side is against? It might be called a full-scale war. On this point, the South Korean government must stop conducting the firing exercise right now and stop lying that it is a justifiable exercise."
In a historic move, Congress has struck down the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. military. On Saturday, the Senate voted 63 to 31 to repeal the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. Eight Republicans joined with Democrats to approve the repeal and send the measure to President Obama for his signature. The bill passed in the House last week. We’ll have more on the vote after headlines.
Senate Republicans have blocked passage of the DREAM Act, a provision that would grant undocumented young people a chance at citizenship. Under the measure, immigrant youth could obtain permanent residency with a chance for citizenship, provided they attend college for at least two years or enlist in the military. Following the bill’s defeat, many immigrant rights advocates openly questioned the Obama administration’s immigration strategy. Over the past two years, the Obama administration has deported a record number of undocumented immigrants but has failed to gain support from Republicans on any immigration reform legislation.
In other news from Capitol Hill, the Senate has passed the Local Community Radio Act, which will open up more of the radio dial for new Low Power FM stations. The Prometheus Radio Project and other media advocates have been pushing for the legislation for 10 years.
The Democratic-led Senate is still trying to secure enough votes to pass two other closely watched pieces of legislation: the 9/11 healthcare bill for sick Ground Zero workers and the START Treaty, the long-stalled arms reduction treaty with Russia. President Obama has urged lawmakers to sign the START treaty.
President Obama: "Without a new treaty, we’ll risk turning back the progress we’ve made in our relationship with Russia, which is essential to enforce strong sanctions against Iran, secure vulnerable nuclear materials from terrorists, and resupply our troops in Afghanistan. And we’ll risk undermining American leadership, not only on nuclear proliferation, but a host of other challenges around the world."
Vice President Joe Biden has confirmed the U.S. is looking at ways to pursue WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is under house arrest in Britain. In an interview on Meet the Press, Biden described Assange as being more of a terrorist than a whistleblower.
Vice President Joe Biden: "I would argue it’s closer to being a high-tech terrorist than the Pentagon Papers. But look, this guy has done things that have damaged and put in jeopardy the lives and occupations of people in other parts of the world. He has made it more difficult for us to conduct our business with our allies and our friends."
On Friday Julian Assange spoke to reporters outside Ellingham Hall, a friend’s mansion in eastern England, where he must live while on bail.
Julian Assange: "The big risk, the risk we have always been concerned about, is one with extradition to the United States, and that seems to be increasingly serious and increasingly likely. We heard reports yesterday that a secret indictment has been made against me in the United States, not confirmed to us, but I read today in The Guardian newspaper that there are more suggestions of that. Senior legal figures are saying they believe it’s possibly 80 percent likely, and principal figures that would be responsible for such an indictment are refusing to comment, which is normal in a case of a secret indictment. The question then becomes what’s going to be done with that secret indictment, how will it be executed?"
Julian Assange also expressed concern about the condition of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private who has been held for seven months on suspicion that he leaked the massive trove of government documents to WikiLeaks.
Julian Assange: "I have heard today that Mr. Manning is in poor mental health, that the solitary confinement is getting to him. No surprise. Having spent ten days myself in conditions in London, one can only image what the conditions must be for this young soldier in the United States."
In other WikiLeaks news, newly released cables have shed more light on the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Last week on Democracy Now! we reported how Pfizer hired investigators to find evidence of corruption against the Nigerian attorney general to pressure him to drop legal action over fatal drug tests on Nigerian children. Now Pfizer’s actions in New Zealand have been exposed by WikiLeaks. Newly released cables show the pharmaceutical company lobbied against New Zealand getting a free trade agreement with the United States because it objected to New Zealand’s restrictive drug buying rules. In addition, cables show drug companies tried to get rid of New Zealand’s former health minister.
In news from Africa, international pressure is mounting for Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo to concede defeat to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, whose victory has been recognized by the United Nations, the United States, France and the African Union. At least 50 people have been killed in recent days in Ivory Coast. Hundreds of people have also reportedly been abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniform. Gbagbo, the Ivory Coast president, has been accused of hiring mercenaries from Liberia and Angola to attack his political opponents. Over the weekend, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Laurent Gbagbo to step down.
Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General: “The results of the election are known. There was a clear winner. There is no other option. The efforts of Laurent Gbagbo and his supporters to retain power and flout the public will cannot be allowed to stand.”
In news from Mexico, the murder of an anti-crime crusader has sparked outrage and sadness throughout the country. Marisela Escobedo Ortiz was gunned down on Thursday as she held a vigil outside the governor’s office in the northern city of Chihuahua. Escobedo became a prominent crusader against the drug cartels after her 17-year-old daughter was murdered last year. Last week, Escobedo set up a vigil outside the office of the Chihuahua governor, saying she would not move until there was progress on the case. On Friday, mourners lined up at Marisela Escobedo Ortiz’s coffin in Ciudad Juárez, and demonstrators protested Mexico’s justice system outside.
Angelina Arce: "We are asking for justice for all the murdered and disappeared women and for Marisela and her daughter, because it is not fair that her life is taken for being a crusader."
In other news from Mexico, at least 27 people died Saturday in an oil pipeline explosion in Puebla state. The blast also injured 52 people and damaged 115 houses. Mexican authorities blamed the blast on criminals who were trying to steal oil from the pipeline.
A new report from Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of harshly discriminating against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank while pouring funds into Jewish settlements. Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch said Israel was carrying out "systematic discrimination merely because of (Palestinians’) race, ethnicity and national origin, depriving them of electricity, water, schools and access to roads." The Human Rights Watch report is titled "Separate and Unequal."
A new study has confirmed that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts is increasingly siding with the interests of corporate America. The Roberts court has ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time over the past five years. Under Chief Judge William Rehnquist, big business won 46 percent of the time. The new study by the New York Times also confirms the increasing power the Chamber of Commerce has over judicial decisions. In the last term, the Chamber filed briefs in 16 cases. Its side won 13 times, most significantly in the Citizens United case that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election campaigns.
The states of Arizona and Nevada have sued Bank of America alleging that the bank has engaged in widespread fraud by consistently misleading consumers about its home loan modification process.
The NAACP is organizing a march in Charleston, South Carolina today to protest plans by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to hold a ball tonight to mark the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union and the start of the Civil War. The ball will feature a reenactment of the signing of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. Lonnie Randolph, state president of the NAACP, said, “This is nothing more than a celebration of slavery."
And in education news, a group of students at the City University of New York are suing the school’s board of trustees to block additional tuition hikes. Since 2003, CUNY has raised the tuition on undergraduates by 44 percent.