U.S. Soldier Reaches Plea Deal to Avoid Death Penalty for Afghan Massacre
The U.S. soldier accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians has reached a plea deal to avoid execution. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will plead guilty to killing nine children and seven adults during a nighttime attack on two Kandahar province villages in March 2012. The plea will be formally entered next week. A sentencing hearing is set for September. Bales was drinking contraband alcohol and snorting prescription medication at the time of the attack. His attorneys say he may have suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder from four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The massacre sparked national outrage in Afghanistan and news of the plea deal could reignite protests.
U.K. Admits to Holding Dozens Without Charge in Afghanistan
The British government has admitted to holding up to 85 people without charge in Afghanistan. The prisoners have been jailed at Camp Bastion for as long as 14 months, with no charges or indication of a pending trial. Phil Shiner of Britain’s Public Interest Lawyers denounced their imprisonment.
Phil Shiner: "People are being detained indefinitely, incommunicado. No one knows that they are — where they are, until today. Their relatives have not been able to see them. They’ve had intermittent contact with them over the Internet. They’ve had no access to lawyers. They have not been charged. They’re not going to be brought before a court. And our common law system has long recognized that that is completely unlawful."
A British court will convene a hearing on the prisoners’ fate in July.
Both Sides of Syrian Conflict Entrench Positions Ahead of Global Talks
Both sides of Syria’s armed conflict are casting doubt on the likelihood of international talks planned by the United States and Russia for the coming weeks. On Wednesday, the Syrian government said President Bashar al-Assad will remain in office until next year’s elections and could seek another term. Opposition leaders, meanwhile, said it would condition talks on a process to ensure Assad’s departure. Meeting in Turkey, the Syrian Coalition has also failed to decide whether it is even willing to attend the planned global conference in Geneva and who it would send to take part.
Ban, U.N. Rights Chief Criticize Arms Shipments to Syria
The impasse comes amidst recent decisions by global actors to increase arms shipments to both sides of the conflict in Syria. At the United Nations, both Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and human rights chief Navi Pillay said more weapons will only increase Syria’s suffering.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "There is no shortage of arms in both sides. Just providing arms to either side will not help this process. There is no such military solution in this case."
U.N. High Commissioner For Human Rights Navi Pillay: "The solution must be political. It will not be military. Outside forces, including some states, are reported to be actively fueling the conflict by providing weapons and ammunition to one side or the other. This emboldens the belligerents."
In an interview today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad confirmed he has received the first shipment of an air defense system from Russia. Assad vowed to use it, should Israel launch more air strikes like those earlier this month.
Scores Dead in Iraq Bombings
In Iraq, nearly 30 people have been killed in a series of bombings in Baghdad and the northern city of Baquba. Most of the attacks struck Sunni Muslim areas. Iraq is seeing some of its worst sectarian violence since the deadly period of 2006 to 2007.
Report: Former Bush Official James Comey Tapped to Head FBI
President Obama is reportedly preparing to nominate former Justice Department official James Comey to head the FBI. The New York Times reports Obama will tap Comey, a Republican, to replace Robert Mueller when Mueller departs in September. Comey is well known for refusing to re-authorize the Bush administration’s warrantless spy program while serving as acting attorney general in the place of John Ashcroft, who was recovering from surgery. Comey alerted Ashcroft after top White House aides rushed to Ashcroft’s hospital bed in a failed bid to win his approval for the spying. In 2003, Comey came under criticism from the civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart. Stewart accused Comey of "pure vindictiveness" in pursuing her and two co-defendants after the judge in the case threw out terrorism charges.
Chechen Shot Dead by FBI in Florida Was Unarmed
Law enforcement officials have admitted a Chechen man questioned for his ties to the Boston Marathon bombers was unarmed when FBI agents shot him dead in Florida last week. Agents were questioning Ibragim Todashev at his Orlando apartment when he allegedly tried to attack them. But The Washington Post is now reporting that while he lunged at an agent and overturned a table, Todashev had neither a knife or a gun. The Council on American-Islamic Relations is asking the Justice Department to review the killing.
Congressional Delegation in Russia to Probe Boston Lead-Up
The news in Florida comes as a bipartisan congressional delegation is in Russia to conduct what it calls a "fact-finding investigation" into the circumstances that led up to the Boston attacks. The FBI has come under scrutiny following news Russia had warned U.S. law enforcement about Boston Marathon suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. Tsarnaev was questioned before going on to spend six months in Chechnya and Dagestan in 2012. Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California said the delegation will meet with a number of Russian officials to seek answers.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher: "One of the things we want to find out is whether or not the FBI followed through on all of the information that was given to them. And maybe they have — we’re going to find that out. We’re asking the various leaders here in Russia to give us their assessment. We’re going to be talking to their intelligence people, find out if there was information that wasn’t followed up on. Or was there a level of cooperation, we just couldn’t have stopped it? We’re going to find that out. That’s one of the things we’re looking into."
Report: Richest 20% Yield Bulk of Tax Breaks
New figures show the richest 20 percent of U.S. taxpayers will reap the benefits of more than half the nation’s tax breaks. A report by the Congressional Budget Office says the richest 1 percent, those making more than $327,000 a year, will also collect around 17 percent of total savings. The CBO concludes: "Higher-income households benefit significantly more from tax expenditures in dollar terms than do lower income households."
Undocumented Youths Arrested Protesting Deportations at Obama Event in Chicago
Twelve undocumented youth activists have been arrested in Chicago protesting record deportations under President Obama. The activists locked arms to form a human chain that blocked traffic outside the site of an Obama fundraiser held Wednesday night. They were surrounded by a banner reading "400,000," the number of immigrants set for deportation this year under a federal quota.
NSA Hacking Unit Targets Computers Worldwide
New details have emerged about a secretive unit inside the National Security Agency called Tailored Access Operations that hacks into foreign computers to conduct cyber-espionage. According to a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article titled "How the U.S. Government Hacks the World," the Pentagon hackers harvest nearly 2.1 million gigabytes every hour. That is the equivalent of hundreds of millions of pages of text. For years, the NSA did not acknowledge the unit’s existence, but a Pentagon official confirmed the unit conducts what it calls "computer network exploitation." The U.S. cyberspies have also developed methods to obscure their tracks or disguise themselves as something else, such as hackers from China.
Monsanto GMO Wheat Discovered at Oregon Farm
U.S. agriculture officials say they are investigating how genetically modified wheat created by Monsanto turned up on an Oregon farm, even though it was not approved for use. The plants were discovered after a farmer attempted to kill the wheat with a Monsanto herbicide, but found some of the plants had survived. Testing determined the wheat was from an herbicide-resistant strain that was field-tested several years ago before protests helped force Monsanto to withdraw it from the regulatory process.
Grounded Shell Rig Left Alaskan Waters to Avoid Taxes
The oil giant Shell has admitted that an oil drilling rig that ran aground late last year left Alaskan waters in a bid to avoid paying millions in taxes. The Kulluk was trying to pass through the Gulf of Alaska when it was pushed aground by a severe winter storm. The Coast Guard had to rescue the ship’s crew, and the incident helped spark a federal review of offshore drilling in the Arctic. Testifying to the Coast Guard over the weekend, Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Royal Dutch Shell in Alaska, said the decision to leave Alaska’s Dutch Harbor before the storm hit was "driven by the economic factors." Shell would reportedly have had to pay more than $6 million in taxes had it stayed through January 1.
Police: Letters to NYC Mayor Bloomberg May Contain Ricin
New York City police say they have intercepted two letters sent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg potentially containing the deadly poison ricin. The letters reportedly referred to Bloomberg’s extensive efforts to back stricter gun control nationwide. The news comes one month after ricin was found in letters addressed to President Obama and other government officials.
Workers Continue Protests at Cambodian Garment Factory for Better Wages
Protests are continuing at a Cambodian garment factory where workers make clothes for the apparel giant Nike. The workers are seeking an additional $14 a month on top of their $74-per-month minimum wage. Thousands of workers are rallying at the site today over a week after going on strike. A crowd of around 3,500 turned out for a protest on Wednesday. The latest protests follow a demonstration on Monday where police injured 23 workers, including a pregnant woman who lost her fetus after being stunned with a cattle prod and pushed to the ground.
El Salvador's Highest Court Rejects Bid for Life-Saving Abortion
El Salvador’s top court has denied an ailing woman’s request for what could be a life-saving abortion. The woman, who uses the pseudonym "Beatriz," suffers from lupus and kidney problems that her doctors say could kill her if she cannot end her pregnancy. The fetus is missing major parts of the brain and would almost certainly die after birth. In a 4-to-1 ruling, the El Salvador Supreme Court rejected Beatriz’s appeal, saying the country’s abortion ban is "absolute." Supporters have raised the possibility of Beatriz obtaining an abortion abroad, but doctors say that even travel could harm her health.
Canadian Abortion Pioneer Henry Morgentaler Dies at 90
The Canadian abortion provider and pro-choice pioneer Dr. Henry Morgentaler has died at the age of 90. Seen as one of the founders of the reproductive rights movement in Canada, Morgentaler endured death threats, physical assaults and the firebombing of a clinic. He was arrested multiple times for performing abortions under Canada’s restrictive laws before winning the 1988 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.