8 Killed in Bangladesh Factory Fire; Toll from Building Collapse Nears 900

A fire at a garment factory in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka has left eight people dead. The blaze erupted at a site owned by the Tung Hai Group, a garment exporter servicing Western firms. All of the victims died of suffocation. More deaths were likely avoided because most of the factory’s workers had already gone home. The fire occurred as the death toll from last month’s collapse of a garment factory climbed to 892. Many are still missing. The collapse was the world’s worst industrial accident since India’s Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984.

Ariel Castro Charged in Cleveland Kidnapping, Abuse Case

Cleveland prosecutors have charged Ariel Castro with kidnapping three women and holding them captive for the past decade. Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight were freed on Monday after Berry managed to alert a neighbor. Berry’s six-year-old daughter, who was born in captivity, was also rescued. Authorities had also detained two of Castro’s brothers but now say they will not face charges.

Victor Perez, Cleveland prosecutor: "I just signed criminal complaints charging Ariel Castro with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. These seven criminal complaints are first-degree felonies."

Edward Tomba, Cleveland police deputy chief: "There is nothing that leads us to believe that [the brothers] were involved or they had any knowledge of this. And that comes from statements of our victims and their statements and their brother’s statements. So as far as what their relationship was, Ariel kept everybody at a distance."

Investigators say the three women were at times bound in chains or rope, and endured brutal physical and sexual abuse. Knight has reportedly told police that Castro forced her to miscarry five times through beatings and starvation. Castro is due to appear in court today.

State Dept. Official Claims Demotion for Criticism of Benghazi Response

A State Department official appeared before Congress Wednesday as part of the ongoing hearings into last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Gregory Hicks, the former deputy head of the U.S. mission in Libya, gave the first public testimony of an official who was in Libya when U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and two others were killed. Hicks described his last conversation with Stevens from his post in Tripoli and said he was disappointed by the White House’s initial description of the attack.

Rep. Trey Gowdy: "When Ambassador Stevens talked to you, perhaps minutes before he died, as a dying declaration, what precisely did he say to you?"

Gregory Hicks: "He said, 'Greg, we're under attack.’"

Rep. Trey Gowdy: "So fast-forward, Mr. Hicks, to the Sunday talk shows and Ambassador Susan Rice. She blamed this attack on a video. In fact, she did it five different times. What was your reaction to that?"

Gregory Hicks: "I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed."

Hicks told lawmakers he believes he has been demoted for criticizing the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi incident. Republicans have seized on his testimony as part of their effort to accuse the administration of a cover-up. At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said Republicans are politicizing the issue.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney: "This is a subject that has, from its beginning, been subject to attempts to politicize it by Republicans. ... That review board issued a report that was unsparing and highly critical in some areas, and was led by two highly respected nonpartisan experts in the field of national security, Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering. And that report issued contained within in it a series of recommendations, every single one of which has been acted on or is being acted on by the State Department."

Israel OKs More Settlement Expansion; Kerry Announces Visit

The Israeli government has announced plans to build nearly 300 new settlement homes in the occupied West Bank. Israel says the construction near the Palestinian city of Ramallah would serve as compensation for settlers removed from an unauthorized outpost last year. Palestinians say all settlements are illegal and have refused to return to peace talks so long as they are expanded. Speaking Wednesday in Italy, Secretary of State John Kerry said he plans to return to the region later this month in a bid to revive negotiations.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "They have asked for ongoing meetings, and we will have those ongoing meetings, but with a purpose. We don’t want to have a meeting for the sake of a meeting. So over the course of the next weeks, we’re going to continue our work. I will be traveling back to Israel to meet with both Prime Minister Netanyahu as well as President Abbas around the 21st or 22nd of this month."

Stephen Hawking Backs Academic Boycott of Israel

The prize-winning physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has become one of the most high-profile figures so far to join the academic boycott of Israel. Hawking has dropped out of an international conference scheduled in Israel next month. In a statement, Hawking said he made the decision after consulting with Palestinian academics who asked him to respect the global campaign to boycott Israeli institutions in protest of violations of Palestinian human rights. Hawking said: "Had I attended I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster."

Closing Arguments Held in Genocide Trial of Former Guatemalan Dictator Efraín Ríos Montt

Closing arguments are underway in Guatemala’s historic trial of former U.S.-backed dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. The first head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide, Ríos Montt is charged with overseeing the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Ixil region after he seized power in 1982. On Wednesday, prosecutors asked for Ríos Montt to be sentenced to 75 years in prison. Defense lawyers are expected to give closing arguments today. We’ll have more from Guatemala with journalist Allan Nairn later in the broadcast.

Activist: Biden Avowed Opposition to Keystone XL Pipeline

An environmental activist is claiming that Vice President Joe Biden personally told her he is "in the minority" inside the White House in opposing approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Elaine Cooper says she spoke to Biden at a public event in South Carolina last week. Writing for the Sierra Club, Cooper said: "I asked him about the administration’s commitment to making progress on climate and whether the president would reject the pipeline. He looked at the Sierra Club hat on my head, and he said, 'Yes, I do — I share your views — but I am in the minority.'" The news led a coalition of environmental groups to take out an ad reading: "Tell President Obama and Secretary Kerry: Joe Biden is Right." An anonymous official in Biden’s office refused to comment directly on the reported exchange but said Biden’s official position on the pipeline remains to await the final results of a State Department review.

EPA: No Plans for Curbing Greenhouse Gases from Existing Power Plants

The Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed it has no plans to issue new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. President Obama has faced calls from environmentalists for across-the-board cuts to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But in a letter to Senate Republicans this week, the nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, said the agency "is not currently developing any existing source green house gas regulations." The EPA delayed proposed emissions limits for new power plants just last month.

House Panel Backs Weakening of Derivatives Rules

The House Financial Services Committee has overwhelmingly approved three measures that would undo key provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill for Wall Street reform. The bills would weaken oversight of derivatives trades by adding a series of exemptions and allowing large banks to conduct risky trades through international subsidiaries. Just six of the committee’s 61 members voted against all three provisions. According to Mother Jones, House Financial Services Committee members received some $14.8 million from the financial and banking industry during the last election cycle.

Peace Activists Convicted for Protest at Tennessee Nuclear Site

Three peace activists have been convicted for infiltrating the U.S. government’s lone site for handling and processing weapons-grade uranium last July. Calling themselves the "Transform Now Plowshares," the three cut through fences to paint slogans and throw blood on the wall of the Y12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Y12 facility processes uranium for new hydrogen bombs and makes nuclear warheads. On Wednesday, a jury found the three activists — 83-year-old nun Sister Megan Rice, Vietnam War veteran Michael Walli, and Greg Boertje-Obed — guilty of damaging a so-called "national defense" site. The charges carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

Docs: FBI, Justice Dept. Assert Right to Warrantless Internet Spying

The Justice Department appears to be continuing a policy of disregarding search warrants when seeking to monitor activity on the Internet. The American Civil Liberties Union says internal documents show federal prosecutors and the FBI believe they are not compelled to obtain court-approved warrants to review emails and instant messages. The U.S. attorney’s office in New York circulated a memo saying a subpoena signed by a prosecutor, not a judge, is sufficient. By contrast, the IRS has publicly vowed to abandon warrantless spying of Internet use.

Ex-Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling Reaches Deal for Early Release

The jailed former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling has reached a plea deal that could see him serve around half of his original 24-year sentence. Skilling was convicted on 19 counts of conspiracy, fraud and insider trading in one of the nation’s largest-ever corporate scandals. On Wednesday, prosecutors said Skilling had agreed to give up claims on the $40 million he has already forfeited as well as the right to appeal 19 counts. In return, Skilling could be released 10 years early, in 2017.

Colorado Legislature Approves Drivers Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants, 1st Ever Marijuana Tax

Colorado lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that would grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. It was the third major legislative victory for immigrant rights advocates in Colorado following the passage of measures granting undocumented students in-state tuition and overturning a law ordering police to notify the federal government of people suspected of being in the U.S. without legal status. Colorado has also approved a bill that would establish the nation’s first tax on commercial sales of recreational marijuana. Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana use last year.

Blacks Voted at Higher Rate Than Whites in 2012 Elections

New figures show the turnout of black voters has surpassed that of whites for the first time. A census report shows over 66 percent of eligible blacks cast ballots in the 2012 elections, compared with 64 percent for whites. Overall turnout was at nearly 62 percent, down slightly from 2008.

Cooper Union Students Stage Sit-In to Preserve Free Tuition

Around 50 students held a sit-in at New York City’s Cooper Union on Wednesday to protest an end to the school’s longstanding tradition of free tuition for undergraduates. The school recently announced it will begin charging up to $20,000 after more than 100 years of being tuition-free. Student activist Victoria Sobel spoke inside the office of Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha.

Victoria Sobel: "The action began as a sit-in in Jamshed Bharucha’s office this morning at 11 a.m. The plan was to intercept the president and read this statement to him. Right now we have more than half of the signatures of the School of Art for students, so that is a majority of the students voicing no confidence in Jamshed Bharucha. So, for us, it began as a sit-in. And his absence has marked it as an occupation. He is no longer welcome in this office space. It is one that’s been reclaimed by the students, for the students, for this school. It’s not about tuition. It’s about repealing tuition. It’s about reclaiming administrative spaces and re-examining the roles of administration within a school context."

The sit-in marked the latest action in nearly two years of protests from students and faculty to preserve Cooper Union’s tuition-free policy. Watch Democracy Now! video coverage from the protest.


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