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Russia, U.S. Trade Sanctions over Ukraine; EU Leaders Sign Deal with Ukraine Gov’t

Russia and the United States have each imposed new sanctions on the other over the crisis in Ukraine. President Obama made the announcement on Thursday.

President Obama: "Based on the executive order that I signed in response to Russia’s initial intervention in Ukraine, we’re imposing sanctions on more senior officials of the Russian government. In addition, we are today sanctioning a number of other individuals with substantial resources and influence who provide material support to the Russian leadership, as well as a bank that provides material support to these individuals. Now we’re taking these steps as part of our response to what Russia has already done in Crimea."

Obama also said the United States could impose sanctions on key sections of the Russian economy. Russia in turn barred nine U.S. officials from entering the country, including House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Earlier today, President Putin signed bills completing Russia’s annexation of Crimea after the region voted to secede from Ukraine. European leaders meanwhile signed a deal to strengthen ties with Ukraine’s new pro-EU government. The deal’s abandonment by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych sparked the protests that led to his ouster.

Afghanistan: AFP Reporter Among Dead in Wave of New Year’s Attacks

Afghanistan has seen a wave of attacks surrounding the new year’s holiday of Nowruz. Today, at least three people were killed when attackers threw an explosives-filled bottle at a Nowruz ceremony in Kandahar. On Thursday night, four gunmen attacked the luxury Serena Hotel in Kabul, killing nine people before they were shot dead by security forces. Among the dead was Sardar Ahmad, an Afghan journalist who was the senior reporter in Kabul for Agence France-Presse. He was killed along with his wife and two of his three children. Earlier in the day, an attack targeting a police compound in the city of Jalalabad killed at least 10 police officers, including the district chief.

Reid Orders Probe of Senate Computers After Reports of CIA Spying

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has ordered a forensic examination of Senate Intelligence Committee computers following reports the CIA spied on committee staff to thwart a probe of the CIA’s torture and rendition program. In a letter to CIA Director John Brennan, Senator Reid bolstered last week’s claims by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who openly accused the CIA of spying on Senate staffers and seizing material from their computers. Reid also dismissed Brennan’s claim Senate staffers penetrated classified CIA networks, calling the allegation "patently absurd."

Report: U.S. Boycotts Talks on Drone Strikes in Geneva

The Obama administration is boycotting international talks about its drone strikes. According to Foreign Policy, Pakistan is trying to pass a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for greater scrutiny of whether drone strikes violate human rights. A round of talks on the proposal was held in Geneva this week, but the United States refused to attend.

Turkey Attempts to Block Twitter, Causing Twitter to Erupt

Turkey has blocked the social media site Twitter amid a corruption scandal facing the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan vowed to "eradicate Twitter." But Turkish users could still reportedly send tweets by text, and the hashtag #TwitterIsBlockedInTurkey has exploded worldwide.

Report: Groups Descended from Right-Wing Death Squads Slaughtering Residents of Colombian City

In news from Colombia, Human Rights Watch has released a report on killings by right-wing paramilitary successor groups in the largely Afro-Colombian port city of Buenaventura. The groups reportedly use so-called "chop-up houses" to slaughter victims, sometimes dismembering them while they are still alive, then dumping them in the ocean. Scores and potentially hundreds of residents have been abducted and disappeared. Last year, more than 19,000 people fled Buenaventura, more than in any other municipality in Colombia, a country with the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world. HRW’s Daniel Wilkinson described the groups’ origins.

Daniel Wilkinson: "There are basically two groups who are operating in these neighborhoods. One is called the Urabeños. The other is called the Empresa. And these are groups that basically descended from right-wing paramilitary death squads that existed throughout the country. Those paramilitaries demobilized in the government program 10 years ago. But these groups today operate in a very similar fashion."

Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Removed by President

In other news from Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos has removed the mayor of the capital Bogotá. Gustavo Petro is a former guerrilla leader who played a key role in uncovering ties between politicians and right-wing militias in 2006 while he was a senator. Petro’s removal as mayor was originally ordered in December by Colombia’s inspector general in what his supporters called a right-wing coup.

Texas: Hunger-Striking Immigrants in Private Prison Report Retaliation

Immigrants on hunger strike at a detention prison in Conroe, Texas, say they are facing retaliation. The strike is in its fifth day after it began with a reported 120 participants calling for better treatment and an end to record deportations. The hunger strikers say they have been placed in solitary confinement and pressured to sign voluntary deportation papers. The prison is run by the for-profit GEO Group. At another GEO-run prison in Tacoma, Washington, prisoners who launched a hunger strike two weeks ago say they have also faced punishment, including threats of force-feeding.

Top U.S. Army General Avoids Prison Time in Sexual Assault Case

Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, a former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will avoid any prison time after a subordinate accused him of sexual assault. Sinclair was docked $20,000 in pay after pleading guilty to lesser offenses, including mistreating the junior officer during a three-year affair. The officer said Sinclair twice forced her to perform oral sex and threatened to kill her and her family if she spoke out. Speaking Thursday, Sinclair praised the military justice system.

Jeffrey Sinclair: "This has been a very difficult time for me and my family. It really has. The system worked. I’ve always been proud of my Army. All I want to do now is go up north and hug my kids and see my wife. And thank you very much for treating me with dignity and respect and taking care of my family. I appreciate it. Thank you."

Former Navy Football Player Acquitted of Sexual Assault

In another case, a former Naval Academy football player was acquitted Thursday of sexually assaulting a classmate. Prosecutors said Joshua Tate assaulted the victim after she got drunk and passed out at a party, but a military judge ruled the case was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt. At a preliminary hearing in September, the alleged victim was grilled on topics including whether she wore a bra and underwear to the party, how she performs oral sex, and whether she "felt like a ho" after the alleged assault.

Florida Executes 5th Prisoner Using Controversial Drug Method

Florida has executed a fifth prisoner using an experimental drug process involving the sedative midazolam. The first prisoner executed under Florida’s new protocol, back in October, appeared to stay conscious longer and move more while unconscious than prisoners in previous executions. On Thursday, Robert Henry was executed using the same process for the murders of two co-workers. He was pronounced dead 11 minutes after the injection began.

North Carolina: Duke Energy Cited for Dumping 61 Million Gallons of Toxic Waste

Environmental regulators in North Carolina have cited Duke Energy for intentionally dumping 61 million gallons of toxic coal ash waste into a canal that feeds a river which supplies drinking water. Duke is already under federal investigation for a coal ash spill in February that coated the bottom of another river with 70 miles of toxic sludge. North Carolina regulators have faced accusations of guarding Duke from litigation over coal ash. Governor Pat McCrory worked at Duke for 28 years.

New York: 59 Arrested Protesting for Economic Justice at State Capitol in Albany

In New York, 59 people were arrested in the State Capitol in Albany at a protest calling for economic and social justice. As lawmakers debated the state budget, the protesters staged a sit-in and blocked the entrance to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. Their demands include closing the gulf between rich and poor.

Rev. Frances Rosenau: "Because a budget is a moral document, it has implications for people across the state, young and old, rich and poor. And because these decisions about the budget are so crucial, they have moral implications. And so we join with people of faith and people of no faith who call for morality in our leadership as a state."

Julia Boyd: "So far, our 1 percent governor has done absolutely nothing, and we’re sick and tired. So we’re here today, and I’m oldest one here, to let him know we ain’t gonna take it no more."

That was Julia Boyd, age 77, and, before that, Reverend Frances Rosenau. Special thanks to Democracy Now! fellow Messiah Rhodes for that report.

NYC Mayor de Blasio Signs Paid Sick Leave Bill

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed a paid sick leave bill – the first bill he has signed as mayor. Starting April 1, more than half a million New Yorkers will be able to take up to five paid sick days without fear of being fired.

Lawrence Walsh, Prosecutor in Iran-Contra Scandal, Dies at 102

Lawrence Walsh, who prosecuted top Reagan administration officials for the Iran-Contra scandal, has died at the age of 102. Walsh conducted a six-year investigation of the Reagan administration’s covert sale of weapons to Iran and its use of the proceeds to secretly supply weapons to contra rebels in Nicaragua despite a congressional ban. Walsh won key convictions, but President George H.W. Bush later pardoned several officials involved, including Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger.

Anti-Gay Extemist Fred Phelps Dead at 84

And the anti-gay extremist Fred Phelps has died at the age of 84. Phelps was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based group known for holding anti-gay protests at the funerals of military veterans and AIDS victims. His daughter told a local news station there would be no funeral for Fred Phelps. In a statement, the Kansas Equality Coalition urged people not to publicly protest Phelps, saying, "The best vengeance is knowing that we will prevail, his views will fail, and his life will be rendered meaningless."

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