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The City of New York has reached a settlement with around 10,000 rescue and cleanup workers who were exposed to dangerous toxic chemicals at the World Trade Center site following the 9/11 attacks. The plaintiffs had filed suits for a range of illnesses developed out of inhaling the toxic dust and not receiving adequate respiratory equipment while working at Ground Zero. They’ll receive a combined $657.5 million if 100 percent of the plaintiffs accept the settlement, with a minimum of $575 million if 95 percent accept. Plaintiffs will have ninety days to opt out. The first twelve lawsuits in the Ground Zero cleanup were supposed to go to trial in May but will now be canceled unless the plaintiffs reject the settlement.
In Pakistan, at least thirty-nine people have been killed and nearly 100 injured in a double suicide bombing in the city of Lahore. A number of army vehicles were targeted and at least six Pakistani service members were among the dead. It’s the latest in a series of deadly militant attacks that have spiked since the Pakistani government launched a major offensive near the Afghan border in October. This week militants have also struck a government building used to interrogate suspects, killing at least thirteen people, as well as the office of the US-based Christian charity World Vision, killing six.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government has imposed new closures on the West Bank. The Israeli government has sealed off parts of the West Bank to prevent what it called anticipated Palestinian protests. The move comes just hours after Vice President Joe Biden left Israel after a trip marked by Israel’s announcement of building 1,600 new homes in an East Jerusalem settlement. On Thursday, Biden reiterated the Obama administration’s objection to the settlement plan and pinned the blame for Israel’s blockade of Gaza on Hamas.
Vice President Joe Biden: "Our policy and our concerns about Israel’s settlements remain unchanged. And while Hamas has condemned Gaza’s populace to misery and hopelessness, Israel too has a responsibility to address their many needs. That’s why we’re working with the Israeli government to do just that: address some of those legitimate needs without — without — further endangering Israel’s security."
Despite the Obama administration’s criticism of the settlement plan, it has refused to call for cutting any of the billions in US aid to Israel until it accepts a settlement freeze. Israel has apologized for the timing of its announcement to build new homes, but has also refused to abandon the construction plan. Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said Israel is trying to undermine peace talks.
Hanan Ashrawi: "Israeli deliberate measures at expanding settlement activities, at carrying out further building of illegal settlements in and around Jerusalem, all these are designed to scuttle all American efforts at trying to relaunch any kind of talks, be they direct or indirect, proximity or long-distance."
Meanwhile in Gaza, a British journalist was released on Thursday after nearly four weeks in jail under the Hamas government. Hamas has accused the journalist, Paul Martin, of being a spy for Israel and says he will be permanently barred from the Occupied Territories. Upon his release, Martin said he was targeted for being a journalist.
Paul Martin: "My release today is a great victory for freedom of the media, freedom of the press, to be able to follow difficult stories in war zones, in zones of conflict, in difficult places, to be able to do so without fear of arrest, detention or intimidation. I have gone through a lot in the last few days and weeks, but I think if my release today is worth anything, it is worth showing the world that journalists must do their stories irrespective of the risks involved, if they wish to maintain freedom of the media."
In Yemen, the United Nations is warning millions of people are enduring starvation amidst an international focus on security issues and confronting al-Qaeda. The UN’s World Food Programme says nearly one in three Yemenis — more than seven million people — struggle to find adequate food, with 2.7 million deemed "severely food insecure." Yemen has the world’s third highest rate of malnutrition. The UN says it will be forced to suspend food distribution in several areas unless it receives millions of dollars in emergency funding by June.
In Somalia, heavy fighting continues between Islamist militants and government-backed troops. At least forty-three people have been reported killed and over 150 wounded since Wednesday.
In Greece, a nationwide strike was held Thursday to protest new austerity measures announced to tackle the Greek debt crisis. Clashes erupted after more than 10,000 people marched through Athens to denounce a series of spending cuts and tax increases. Federal regulators are currently probing major Wall Street firms for their role in Greece’s financial collapse. Goldman Sachs is said to be the most important of more than a dozen banks used by the Greek government to manage its national debt using derivatives.
In Chile, a 7.2-magnitude aftershock hit a central region on Thursday, the most powerful to hit Chile since the initial earthquake last week. The aftershock came shortly before right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera was sworn in as Chile’s new president. Piñera replaces Michelle Bachelet, a former political prisoner who took office in 2006 as Chile’s first female president. On the morning of the handover, hundreds of people gathered at the presidential palace in Santiago for a farewell ceremony. Bachelet supporters paid tribute to the outgoing president.
Bachelet Supporter #1: "She is a great example for the people, and I think she will be remembered by history, not only because she is a woman, but because of her concrete actions on social issues."
Bachelet Supporter #2: "She has done a great job and made a great change in the country. I am very sad because Piñera, in the end, marks a regression in the political process. I believe he will manage things badly."
Bachelet was ineligible to run for reelection under a recent change to Chilean term-limit laws. Piñera is Chile’s first right-wing president in twenty years.
In South Africa, the anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has stoked a major controversy after publicly criticizing her ex-husband, former South African President Nelson Mandela. In an interview with the London newspaper the Evening Standard, Madikizela-Mandela criticized the terms of the agreement that ended apartheid in South Africa, saying it had preserved the economic subjugation of the country’s black majority. Speaking of her former husband, Madikizela-Mandela said, "He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside." She went on to describe the Mandela name as "an albatross around the necks of my family" and said she could not forgive Mandela for accepting the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with former South African President F.W. de Klerk.
Back in the United States, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has formally informed Republicans he plans to use the legislative process known as budget reconciliation to pass a healthcare reform bill. This would enable Senate Democrats to approve legislation with fifty-one votes, rather than the sixty votes they would need to overcome a Republican filibuster. A vote is expected in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile in the House, Democratic leaders have reportedly dropped an effort to appease anti-abortion lawmakers in their version of the healthcare bill. House leaders are said to have decided on supporting the Senate version of the bill, which omitted the harsh anti-abortion restrictions approved in the initial House measure.
In other congressional news, a bipartisan effort at overhauling financial regulation has collapsed. On Thursday, Senate Banking Committee Chair Christopher Dodd said he would unveil his own bill on Monday after failing to reach agreement with Republican Senator Bob Corker. The news comes as a new poll shows a wide majority of Americans support a major overhaul of financial regulation. The Harris poll says 82 percent want the government to limit excessive bonuses and salaries at bailed-out firms. A slight majority of Americans disagreed with the statement that what’s good for Wall Street is good for the United States. Two-thirds of Americans agreed with a statement that most people on Wall Street would break the law if they believed they could profit without getting caught.
President Obama has unveiled a new economic plan that could signify a major push toward so-called "free trade." Obama says he wants to help double US exports over the next five years to make it more competitive abroad.
President Obama: "The fact is other countries haven’t always played by the same set of rules. America hasn’t always enforced our trade rights or made sure that the benefits of trade are broadly shared. And we haven’t always done enough to help our workers adapt to a changing world. Now, there’s no question that as we compete in the global marketplace, we’ve got to look out for our workers. But to look out for our workers, we’ve got to be able to compete in the global marketplace. It’s never been as important an opportunity for America as it is right now."
Obama’s plan could re-ignite the debate over US-backed so-called "free trade" agreements, which critics say have shipped US jobs overseas while depressing wages for workers in the US as well as abroad.
In other news from Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced a bill that would change cocaine sentencing laws. The initial proposal called for completely eliminating the discriminatory 100-to-1 disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. But in a bid to win Republican support, Democrats agreed to weaken the proposal and reduce the ratio to 20-to-1. Drug reform advocates have criticized the move. Jennifer Bellamy of the American Civil Liberties Union said, "There is no justification for this remaining sentencing gap. This legislation is long overdue, but it does not go far enough."
In New Orleans, a second former police officer has pleaded guilty in the cover-up of the police killing of two unarmed African Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The victims, forty-two-year-old Ronald Madison and nineteen-year-old James Brissette, were crossing the Danziger Bridge in search of food. Madison, who was mentally handicapped, was shot seven times, five in his back. On Thursday, former New Orleans Police officer Jeffrey Lehrmann admitted to knowing of the cover-up but failing to report it. Last month, a retired police lieutenant who oversaw the investigation admitted to a conspiracy charge in fabricating witness statements, falsifying incident reports, and planting a gun at the crime scene. Police now say the officers also held a secret meeting to coordinate their fabricated accounts of the shooting. In sentencing Lehrmann, US District Judge Lance Africk said, "I have neither imagined or heard of more despicable conduct by law enforcement officers."
And in Mississippi, a county school board has canceled an upcoming high school prom rather than allowing a lesbian student to bring her partner as her date. Constance McMillen, an eighteen-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, has challenged a school policy barring her from bringing her girlfriend and also wearing a tuxedo to her April 2nd prom. In canceling the prom, the school board urged the community to hold a private prom not under its oversight. The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the school board to reverse its decision or face legal action. Upon hearing the news, McMillen said, "The message they are sending is that if they have to let gay people go to prom that they are not going to have one."