Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the town of Jena, Louisiana, Thursday to demand justice for the Jena Six. It was one of the largest civil rights rallies the South has seen since the 1960s. State police estimated as many as 60,000 people took part. Buses from across the country made the trip to Louisiana. They were filled with protesters demanding justice for the six African-American teenagers who are facing a total of more than 100 years in prison for a schoolyard fight.
Protester: "Quite honestly, it seems to me that this is the beginning of a movement that started 10 years ago with the Million Man March. It’s the beginning or re-beginning of a movement to make sure that the powers that be recognized that it comes to a point where you just say enough is enough."
In Iraq, the private security firm Blackwater USA is reportedly back on the streets of Baghdad despite an announced ban on its activities. The Iraqi government said it had revoked Blackwater’s license this week after its guards killed up to 28 Iraqis in an unprovoked mass shooting. But a Pentagon spokesperson said today Blackwater is guarding diplomatic convoys following talks with the Iraqi government.
The news comes as Iraq’s Interior Ministry is calling for radical changes in the role of private security in Iraq. In a new report, the ministry says Iraqis companies should replace firms like Blackwater, and that the Iraqi government should scrap a law that has granted those firms immunity. Blackwater’s activities are expected to come under further scrutiny today at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill.
In other Iraq news, the Pentagon is claiming violence there has fallen to its lowest level since before the pivotal 2006 attack on the al-Askari Mosque in Sammara.
Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno: "Attacks in Baghdad have reached the lowest levels this year and continue to trend downward from pre-Fardh al-Qanoon levels. Civilian casualties have also dropped dramatically, from a high of about 32 per day to 12 per day."
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill the Senate has overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would cut off funding for combat operations in Iraq by next June. The final vote was 70 to 28. Meanwhile, senators on both sides of the aisle widely supported a measure to condemn an antiwar newspaper ad by the advocacy group MoveOn.org. The ad in question referred to General David Petraeus as "General Betray Us." The final vote was 72 to 25. Twenty-three Democrats joined Republicans to support the resolution.
Meanwhile, in the Occupied Territories a 16-year-old Palestinian boy died Thursday after being run over by an Israeli military bulldozer in the Gaza Strip. Mahmud Kayed was crushed to death when the bulldozer sped towards a group of Palestinian youths throwing rocks at invading Israeli troops.
Meanwhile, new figures show Israel has added dozens of new roadblocks restricting Palestinian movement in the West Bank, despite repeated promises to scale them down. According to the U.N., the number of West Bank roadblocks has increased by 50 percent over two years ago.
President Bush has renewed a threat to veto a bill expanding health insurance for millions of American children. The State Child Health Insurance Program, known as S-CHIP, expires later this month. Lawmakers have proposed to spend $35 billion to cover an additional four million children over the 6.6 million already enrolled. The money would come mostly through a tax increase on cigarettes. The White House wants to limit the increase to just $5 billion. On Thursday, President Bush called the proposed expansion "a step toward federalization of health care" and promised a veto.
The International Criminal Court is renewing calls for Sudan to hand over a government minister accused of war crimes in Darfur. Sudanese humanitarian minister Ahmad Harun is charged with organizing and arming militias implicated in attacks on whole villages. On Thursday, prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo called for his arrest.
Luis Moreno Ocampo: "The government of the Sudan has a duty and the ability to arrest Harun and transfer him to the court in The Hague. However, they are denying. They are denying Ahmad Harun’s crimes. The world cannot share in this denial."
An estimated 200,000 people have died and more than two million displaced in the four-year-old conflict between government-backed militias and rebel groups. On Thursday, Sudan’s ambassador to the U.N. said no Sudanese officials would be handed over.
Sudanese U.N. Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad : "We said it to him, and we said it to the secretary-general, and we said it to whoever asked us about this. In no way we are going to surrender any of our citizens to be prosecuted abroad. If there are any crimes, the place is Sudan, and the people to do that is the Sudanese judicial system."
A new Human Rights Watch report says violence in Darfur has worsened over the past year.
Human Rights Watch Africa director Peter Takirambudde: "The massive, large-scale suffering of the people of Darfur continues in 2007, because the government, which is primarily responsible for having initiated this massive suffering, is still playing its game, though the situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that you have a wide range of other actors who are also adding to the massive suffering. The rebels have splintered into a myriad of groupings which are fighting among themselves."
And back in the United States, Newsweek magazine is reporting the nation’s largest telecom companies have teamed with the White House for a secretive lobbying campaign asking Congress to dismiss all private lawsuits over the companies’ involvement in warrantless spying. The campaign is said to be intensifying amidst industry fears a San Francisco appeals court will allow the lawsuits to proceed. Two former top officials under former President George H.W. Bush are playing leading roles. Former Attorney General William Barr is Verizon’s general counsel, while former Deputy Chief of Staff James Cicconi is a senior executive at AT&T. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell recently warned that the private suits have the potential to bankrupt the companies involved.
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