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In Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf has released 3,400 people who had been jailed under emergency rule, but he has given no indication as to when martial law will be lifted. Protests continue over Musharraf’s decision to shut down two of the nation’s largest TV channels — GEO TV and ARY One World. GEO TV executive editor Hamid Mir said Musharraf is trying to silence his critics.
Hamid Mir: “The government is sending us messages that we must sign the undertaking that we will be loyal to General Pervez Musharraf. This is a compromise on the freedom of media, and we will not compromise. We will continue our struggle.”
Meanwhile, European foreign ministers expressed deep concern over the situation in Pakistan during a meeting in Belgium. EU Commissioner for External Affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner urged General Musharraf to lift martial law.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner: “We are very deeply concerned with the declaration of the state of emergency, which has not been lifted yet, and also the suspension of Pakistan’s constitution and the fundamental liberties as they have been announced by President Musharraf. We believe that the state of emergency should be lifted as soon as possible, and we also urge all the parties to use restraint and refrain from any dramatic measures.’’
On Monday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court, packed with government-friendly judges, dismissed the main challenges to Musharraf’s reelection last month.
Federal prosecutors have reportedly opened a grand jury investigation into the private military company Blackwater following the September 16 shooting in Baghdad that killed seventeen Iraqi civilians. Several Blackwater operatives are said to have been subpoenaed before the grand jury. Law experts say the opening of the grand jury inquiry indicates that prosecutors believe that there is enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrant a formal criminal investigation. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has detained thirty-two foreigners after an Iraqi woman was shot and injured by private security forces. The name of the private security company involved in the incident has not been made public.
A new report from the Center for Public Integrity has found US government contracts for work in Iraq and Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2004. Last year the US government awarded $25 billion in contracts. Almost half of the money went to KBR, the global engineering and construction firm. Up until April, KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company. The total dollar value of KBR’s contracts was nearly nine times greater than those awarded to DynCorp, the second-largest contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. Twenty billion dollars in contracts also went to unidentified foreign companies whose identities have been impossible to determine.
In campaign news, Senator Hillary Clinton is no longer the frontrunner in Iowa, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The poll shows Senator Barack Obama has support of 30 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa. Clinton has 26 percent, and former Senator John Edwards has 22 percent. The Iowa caucus takes place on January 3.
A new study by the watchdog group Media Matters has found that Democratic and Republican candidates have been asked few questions about their views on executive power, the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, or other civil liberties concerns during the first seventeen presidential debates. According to Media Matters, there has been only one question about wiretapping, not a single question about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or renditions. The words “habeas corpus” have not once been spoken by a debate moderator. Candidates have also not been asked about whether telecoms should be granted immunity over their role in domestic spying. Last week’s debate ended with Senator Hillary Clinton being asked whether she preferred diamonds or pearls. The question was asked by a UNLV student who has since said that she was forced by CNN to ask that question instead of a pre-approved query about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
In other election news, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has sued the electronic voting machine company Election Systems & Software for selling unauthorized machines to San Francisco and four counties. The lawsuit seeks nearly $15 million in penalties and reimbursements.
The US military has decided to turn over an Associated Press photographer to an Iraqi court for criminal prosecution. The US has held the journalist, Bilal Hussein, without charge for nineteen months. Military officials accuse him of having links to terrorist groups operating inside Iraq. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said, “This case does not hinge on a single piece of evidence but rather a range of evidence that makes it clearer than before that Bilal Hussein is a terrorist media operative who infiltrated the AP.” AP officials have vigorously protested Hussein’s detention. The news agency conducted its own investigation and determined that Hussein had no ties to militants. Attorneys for the Associated Press say they have been denied access to Hussein and the evidence against him, making it impossible to build a defense. In 2005, the Iraqi-born journalist was part of a team of AP photographers that won the Pulitzer Prize. Bilal Hussein is not the only journalist being held by the US military. Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj has been imprisoned at Guantanamo for over five years.
Mother Jones magazine is reporting a hawkish advocacy group connected to the White House has hired a Virginia company to begin test-marketing language that could be used to sell a war with Iran. The group Freedom’s Watch first made headlines this summer when it launched a $15 million ad campaign in support of the surge of American troops in Iraq. The group’s leadership includes former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and Bradley Blakeman, a former deputy assistant to President Bush. Freedom Group recently hired the company Martin Focus Groups in Alexandria, Virginia. One participant who was paid to be part of a focus group told Mother Jones, “The whole basis of the whole thing was, we’re going to go into Iran and what do we have to do to get you guys to go along with it.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez traveled to Iran on Monday for the fourth time in two years. Chavez warned that the price of a barrel of oil could double and top $200 if the US invades Iran. He said the US dollar is in free-fall.
Hugo Chavez: “Soon we will not talk about dollars, because the dollar is falling in value and the empire of the dollar is crashing. Naturally, by the crash of the dollar, America’s empire will crash.”
Hugo Chavez also suggested OPEC should begin trading oil in a basket of currencies excluding the dollar.
President Bush’s Homeland Security Adviser Frances Fragos Townsend has announced she will soon resign. In a handwritten letter announcing her resignation, Townsend compared President Bush to the country’s first president. Townsend wrote, “In 1937, the playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote of President George Washington: There are some men who lift the age they inhabit, til all men walk on higher ground in their lifetime. Mr. President, you are such a man.”
In health news, the United Nations has announced it has been overestimating the number of people infected by the AIDS virus and that the number of new infections peaked in 1998. Last year the UN said 40 million people had been infected. But now UN officials say the total is actually 33 million.
Former Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has called on his followers to protest against moves to privatize the country’s oil industry. Over the weekend he spoke before tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in Mexico City.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador: “We need to prepare ourselves for demonstrations of peaceful resistance across the country following three basic principles: no violence, not affecting third parties, and putting in practice efficient measures to keep oil under the country’s domain.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post is reporting the Bush administration’s plan to send $1.4 billion to Mexico to fight the so-called drug war would set in motion a vast reengineering of the Mexico’s justice system, revamping the legal education process, and lead to a rewriting of Mexico’s laws. Under Plan Mexico, the US Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons would conduct training sessions for Mexican officials, and military officers would provide instruction related to aircraft.
A new report on the US prison system has found the number of Americans in prison has risen eight-fold since 1970, with little impact on crime but at great cost to taxpayers and society. The report issued by the JFA Institute recommends shorter sentences and parole terms, alternative punishments, more help for released inmates, and decriminalizing recreational drugs as steps that would cut the prison population in half. The report concluded that putting more people in prison is financially wasteful, disproportionately burdens the poor and minorities, and has limited impact on recidivism and crime rates. Approximately 2.2 million people are now in American jails or prisons.
A new study shows young people in this country are now spending an average of less than ten minutes a day voluntarily reading. Meanwhile, they spend an average of between two and two-and-a-half hours watching TV. In a new report, the National Endowment for the Arts suggests that a decline in reading proficiency will have a profound negative effect on the nation’s economic and civic future. NEA chairman Dana Gioia said, “This is a massive social problem. We are losing the majority of the new generation. They will not achieve anything close to their potential because of poor reading.”
And in New York, the founding principal of the city’s first public Arabic-language school has filed a federal lawsuit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city’s Education Department and the Schools Chancellor. Debbie Almontaser was forced to resign shortly before the school opened after she was quoted explaining that the word “intifada” literally means “shaking off” in Arabic. On Monday, City Council member Charles Barron and other supporters of Almontaser gathered to protest the city’s handling of the case.
Charles Barron: “There’s no reason why this sister shouldn’t be the head of a school that she started, she founded, she gave life to. This is absurd. This is xenophobia. This is racism. This is disrespectful. And we are standing here today solidly behind her to say that not only should she be considered, she is the most qualified, the best qualified, and should be put in that position immediately. Immediately.”
In her lawsuit, Debbie Almontaser charges that the city officials violated her right to free speech and “conspired to deny her the opportunity to regain her position as principal” of the school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy.