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Venezuelans Mourn Chávez; Guard Recounts Last Words

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans flooded the streets of Caracas on Wednesday in a march with the casket of President Hugo Chávez. The massive procession brought Chávez’s body to a military academy where he will lie in state until a funeral on Friday. Foreign leaders including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Argentine President Cristina Kirchner have begun arriving in Venezuela to pay their respects. The head of Venezuela’s presidential guard told the Associated Press Chávez died of a massive heart attack triggered by his advanced stage of cancer. General José Ornella said Chávez’s last words, mouthed with his lips, were: "I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die."

Sen. Rand Paul Ends 12-Hour Brennan Filibuster over Drones

Republican Senator Rand Paul held up Senate proceedings for more than 12 hours on Wednesday with an attempt to filibuster the confirmation of CIA nominee John Brennan. Paul challenged Brennan’s bid over the Obama administration’s use of drones in targeted killings, singling out the White House refusal to rule out strikes on U.S. soil.

Sen. Rand Paul: "I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court."

Paul began the filibuster shortly before noon and lasted until after midnight, noting he would fall well short of Senator Strom Thurmond’s record 24-hour attempt to block the Civil Rights Act in 1957.

Sen. Rand Paul: "And I would go for another 12 hours to try to break Strom Thurmond’s record, but I’ve discovered that there are some limits to filibustering, and I’m going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here."

Holder: Obama to Answer Soon on Assassination Program

A number of senators joined Rand Paul throughout his effort. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said although he supports John Brennan’s nomination, he still wants the White House to release more legal memos on the assassination program.

Sen. Ron Wyden: "Every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them. So now the executive branch has gradually provided Congress with much of its analyses on this crucial topic, but I think more still needs to be done to ensure that we understand fully the implications of what these heretofore secret opinions contain and we have a chance to discuss them, as well."

Appearing that same day before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder pledged that President Obama will soon explain the legal rationale underpinning targeted assassinations.

Holder Defends Prosecution of Internet Freedom Activist Aaron Swartz

During his testimony, Attorney General Eric Holder also publicly defended the federal prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the Internet freedom activist who took his own life in January. Swartz was weeks before a trial date for downloading millions of articles provided by the nonprofit research service JSTOR. He was facing 35 years in prison, a penalty supporters called excessively harsh. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder told Republican Senator John Cornyn he thinks prosecutors acted appropriately.

Eric Holder: "There was never an intention for him to go to jail for longer than a three-, four-, potentially five-month range. That was what the government said specifically to Mr. Swartz. Those — those offers were rejected."

Sen. John Cornyn: "Does it strike you as odd that the government would indict someone for crimes that would carry penalties of up to 35 years in prison and million-dollar fines and then offer him a three- or four-month prison sentence?"

Eric Holder: "Well, I think that’s a good use of prosecutorial discretion to look at the conduct, regardless of what the statutory maximums were, and to fashion a sentence that was consistent with what the nature of the conduct was. And I think that what those prosecutors did in offering three, four, zero to six was consistent with that conduct."

Sen. John Cornyn: "So you don’t consider this a case of prosecutorial overreach or misconduct?"

Eric Holder: "No, I don’t look at what necessarily was charged as much as what was offered in terms of how the case might have been resolved."

Holder’s comments were his most extensive on the Swartz case to date. In response, Sen. Cornyn told Holder he thinks Swartz was unfairly targeted.

Sen. John Cornyn: "I would suggest to you if you’re an individual American citizen and you’re looking at criminal charges being brought by the United States government, with all of the vast resources available to the government, it strikes me as disproportionate and one that is basically being used inappropriately to try to bully someone into pleading guilty to something that strikes me as rather minor."

Arkansas Approves Nation’s Harshest Abortion Ban

Arkansas lawmakers have approved the harshest anti-abortion law in the country. On Wednesday, the state General Assembly voted to override Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto of a measure banning abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy, the point at which an abdominal ultrasound can detect a fetal heartbeat. Opponents expect the law to be overturned before it can take effect later this year. Federal law gives women the right to abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, double the Arkansas limit.

Federal Judge Strikes Down Idaho’s 20-Week Abortion Ban

On Wednesday, a federal judge struck down a 2011 Idaho law banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It is believed to be the first time a federal court has declared such measures unconstitutional, likely setting a precedent for challenges to similar measures nationwide.

House Passes Temporary Budget to Avoid Federal Shutdown

House lawmakers have passed temporary legislation to avert a possible government shutdown later this month. The bill would keep the government funded through September 30 and shift billions of dollars to military operations to soften the blow of automatic spending cuts that kicked in last week under so-called sequestration. The measure now heads to the Senate, which could extend relief to other departments. President Obama met with Republican senators over dinner Wednesday evening for talks aimed at reaching a longer-term deal.

Syria Rebels Capture U.N. Peacekeepers

Rebel fighters in Syria have captured a group of 21 peacekeepers near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The rebels are demanding the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from the area in return for their release. A U.N. spokesperson confirmed the peacekeepers’ capture.

U.N. secretary-general spokesperson Eduardo del Buey: "Approximately 30 armed fighters stopped and detained a group of about 20 peacekeepers within the area of limitation, east of the B-Line. The U.N. observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity, at Al Jamlah."

UNICEF: Israel Abusing Detained Palestinian Children

The United Nations Children Fund, or UNICEF, is accusing Israel of systematically abusing Palestinian children in military custody. In a new report, UNICEF says Israeli forces have subjected detained Palestinian youths to "to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" as defined by the U.N. Convention Against Torture. UNICEF special representative Jean Gough unveiled the report’s findings.

Jean Gough: "We identified a pattern of ill-treatment when children are in military custody, and what we see is that this happens in the first 48 hours. Imagine a child sitting in front of an interrogator without sleeping. So that’s very hard on the child, and that’s difficult for him. So this is where we want to make the changes to make sure that that doesn’t happen."

According to UNICEF figures, Israel arrests and interrogates around 700 Palestinian children aged 12 to 17 each year.

Report: U.S. Colonel Ignored Torture of Iraqi Militias Under His Watch

The Guardian of London has revealed new details on the Bush administration’s support for sectarian militias in its bid to defeat the Iraqi resistance after the 2003 invasion. The Guardian reports a key U.S. Army colonel behind the effort, James Steele, had firsthand knowledge of brutal torture carried out by Iraqi surrogates but did nothing to stop it. Speaking to The Guardian, an Iraqi general said Steele was unfazed when the torture of a young prisoner interrupted his lunch.

Munthader al-Samari: "One of the detainees was screaming. By chance, James Steele was there outside washing his hands. He opened the door and saw the detainee. He was hanging by his legs upside down. James Steele didn’t react at all when he saw this man. It was just normal. He closed the door and came back to his seat in the advisers room."

Steele served as then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s liaison with Iraq’s Special Police Commandos. His stint in Iraq came 20 years after overseeing the U.S. special operations forces that trained government death squads in El Salvador.

NY State Assembly Advances Fracking Ban

The New York State Assembly has approved a measure that would impose a two-year ban on the gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. New York has enforced a moratorium on fracking since 2008, but it is currently up for review. The ban now goes to the state Senate.

Mother Jones Wins Izzy Award for Special Achievement in Independent Media

The nonprofit news magazine Mother Jones has been named the recipient of the fifth annual Izzy Award for Special Achievement in Independent Media. The Izzy Award is named after legendary maverick journalist I.F. Stone, who launched I.F. Stone’s Weekly in 1953 and exposed government deception, McCarthyism and racial bigotry. The Park Center for Independent Media said it chose Mother Jones for publishing "major, timely stories and investigations throughout 2012 that had significant public impact." The magazine shook up last year’s presidential campaign when Washington Bureau Chief David Corn released the infamous video showing Republican hopeful Mitt Romney dismissing 47 percent of the U.S. electorate as people "dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims." In a recent interview, Romney said the video’s release was partially to blame for his loss.


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