Memorials were held across South Asia Monday to mark last year’s tsunami that killed over 200,000 people and left nearly 2 million homeless. It was one of the world’s worst-ever natural disasters. Indonesia alone lost nearly 170,000 people.
On Monday in Aceh, sirens from the region’s new early warning system were sounded at 8:16 in the morning to mark the exact time the tsunami hit the coast. A minute of silence was then observed. Hundreds of white-clad Acehnese held a morning memorial at the Grand Mosque which was one of the area’s only structures to remain standing after the tsunami. Memorials were also held in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.
International aid groups are warning that much still needs to be done in the region. A new survey from Oxfam found that 80% of the 1.8 million people left homeless by the disaster were still without satisfactory permanent housing. On the Indonesia island of Sumatra, all of its residents are still living in tents or shelters. Overall Oxfam estimates some 300,000 new houses still need to be built in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
The United Nations is also warning that the international community can not forget the devastated region.
US News and World Report has revealed that the federal government has been secretly monitoring radiation levels at over 100 Muslim sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including mosques, private homes, businesses, and warehouses. Similar efforts have taken place in at least five other cities — Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York, and Seattle. The monitoring reportedly required investigators to go on to private property, although no search warrants or court orders were ever obtained.
Meanwhile new questions are being raised about the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program inside the United States. Both the New York Times and Boston Globe have run a series of articles suggesting the extent of unchecked domestic surveillance is far greater than previously reported. The White House has admitted the NSA has monitored the calls of individuals with suspected ties to Al Qaeda but the Globe is reporting that in fact the NSA has been using computers to monitor and datamine all international phone and Internet communications by Americans. The Times also revealed that the U.S. telecom companies agreed to give the NSA “backdoor access” to all of their networks.
President Bush has summoned editors from the Washington Post and New York Times to the White House at least twice in recent months to request the paper’s hold stories. According to the Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, Bush first asked the Post’s executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. not to publish an article exposing the existence of secret CIA prisons in Europe. CIA Director Porter Goss and John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, also reportedly attended meetings with editors from the Post to discuss the story’s publication. The Post went ahead and published the story but did not reveal the locations of the prisons at the Bush administration’s request. President Bush also met with top officials at the Times on Dec. 5 to ask them not to reveal that the Bush administration had authorized eavesdropping on Americans within the United States without court orders. The Times had originally uncovered the story before the 2004 election but held it until two weeks ago.
The latest call for the possible impeachment of President Bush is coming from an unexpected quarter–the prominent business publication Barrons. The editors of Barrons have criticized Bush for authorizing the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without court warrants. The editors wrote “Putting the president above the Congress is an invitation to tyranny. The president has no powers except those specified in the Constitution and those enacted by law. … Willful disregard of a law is potentially an impeachable offense. It is at least as impeachable as having a sexual escapade under the Oval Office desk and lying about it later.”
In news on Iraq — the Washington Post is reporting the number of airstrikes carried out each month by U.S. has increased almost fivefold this year, from roughly 25 in January to 120 last month. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in the airstrikes is unknown. Medical workers recorded 97 civilians died from U.S. airstrikes around the city of Qaim in early November.
Meanwhile a month has now passed since four peace activists with the Christian Peacemaker Team were kidnapped in Iraq. Over the weekend the families of the men took out radio and newspaper ads in the Iraqi press calling for their release. The appeal said the four men “are all working as activists for the sake of peace and to aid the Iraqi people.”
In other Iraq news, the U.S. is refusing to hand over control of its jails to the Iraqi government. The U.S. military commander in charge of those prisons told the New York Times that Iraqi jailers must “meet the standards we define and that we are using today.”
In Baghdad more than 5,000 people demonstrated today denouncing last week’s elections as fraudulent. Protesters were mostly backers of Sunni and secular parties. On Friday, some 20,000 Sunnis protested in Baghdad, Mosul, Tikrit and Samarra, among other cities against the election.
Meanwhile early voting tallies show that Ahmed Chalabi failed to secure a seat in the new Iraqi Parliament. Prior to the war, some officials inside the Bush administration wanted to put him in charge of the country even though he lacked any popular support.
In Egypt, leading opposition politician Ayman Nour has been sentenced to five years in jail. Nour formed a political opposition group last year to challenge President Hosni Mubarak. Last week Nour was rushed to a prison hospital in serious condition after taking part in a hunger strike to protest his detention.
An Italian court has issued a European arrest warrant for 22 CIA agents suspected of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003. The CIA agents are accused of grabbing Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr off the streets and then flying him to Egypt where he was reportedly tortured. Meanwhile the U.S. government has admitted it may have flown detainees to Syria even though the country has one of the worst human rights records in the Middle East. The U.S. embassy in Britain was forced to make the admission after the U.S. Ambassador to Britain, Robert Tuttle, told the BBC “I don’t think there is any evidence that there have been any renditions carried out in the country of Syria. There is no evidence of that.” But the U.S. Embassy has since issued a clarification to Tuttle’s comments acknowledging the reports in the media that the U.S. had in fact sent detainees to Syria. The embassy spokeswoman said the ambassador “recognized that there had been a media report of a rendition to Syria but reiterated that the United States is not in a position to comment on specific allegations of intelligence activities that appear in the press”.
In New Orleans, police have shot and killed a 38-year-old man who was carrying a knife. Police said they shot him after he refused to drop the knife and threatened an officer. One witness — who saw the victim with the knife shortly before the shooting–said that it didn’t appear he was going to hurt anyone. The New Orleans Indymedia site reported the man was known in the neighborhood as a harmless but friendly mentally-disabled individual.
And in Massachusetts a college student has admitted he fabricated a story about being questioned by federal agents for seeking to borrow a book by written by Mao. The report first appeared in the Standard-Times in New Bedford Massachusetts and was picked up around the world. The student initially told his professors about the visit and claimed Mao’s Little Red Book was on a watch list of books.