The World Health Organization is warning the swine flu outbreak is at the imminent stages of becoming a global pandemic. On Tuesday, the WHO raised its alert level to five, the agency’s second-highest position. There are now at least ninety-one known cases in the United States, including six new states: Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Arizona, Indiana and Nevada. In Texas, where a toddler became the first US resident to die from swine flu, Governor Rick Perry has declared a statewide disaster and closed several schools, including here in Fort Worth. Testifying on Capitol Hill, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the Obama administration is handling the outbreak as if it’s a full pandemic.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: “There is a lot we don’t yet know about this outbreak, but we have been preparing as if we are facing a true pandemic, even though we don’t know the ultimate scope of what will occur. We also have been preparing with the understanding that this will be a marathon and not a sprint. We are going to be at this for a while.”
In Iraq, at least fifty-eight people died Wednesday in a series of attacks around Baghdad. The deadliest came in Sadr City, where fifty-one people were killed and more than sixty wounded in successive car bombings. A witness criticized the Iraqi government, saying it’s failed to protect Iraqis.
Baghdad resident: “Is that what we deserve, on top of the bombs, that they shoot at people? Is this Maliki’s government? Instead of helping us evacuate the wounded, they started shooting at us. This is Maliki’s government. Can you hear the shooting? They’re shooting at people. People are lying underneath cars.”
April has been Baghdad’s deadliest month in more than a year, dating back to March 2008. The McClatchy news service reports more than 200 people have been killed in Baghdad, doubling last month’s toll.
The trial of a former soldier accused in the 2006 rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager and the killing of her family has begun. Steven Green is accused of being the ringleader in raping and killing fourteen-year-old Abeer Kassem Hamza al-Janabi and killing her parents and five-year-old sister. Green is being tried in a Kentucky civilian court. Three soldiers have already been sentenced to life in prison in the case.
A Spanish judge has launched an investigation of “systematic” torture at the Guantanamo Bay prison. On Wednesday, Judge Baltasar Garzon said he would probe the “perpetrators, the instigators, the necessary collaborators and accomplices” to the torture of Guantanamo prisoners. Spanish law allows it to claim jurisdiction because five citizens or residents say they were tortured while imprisoned at Guantanamo. Garzon’s probe is unrelated to a separate investigation of six Bush administration lawyers who authorized the torture carried out at Guantanamo.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, meanwhile, has invited federal judge Jay Bybee to testify about his role in authoring two Bush administration memos that authorized the torture of foreign prisoners. As head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Bybee approved torture methods including waterboarding and slamming prisoners against a wall. The invite comes one day after Bybee spoke out on the memos for the first time since their release earlier this month. In a statement to the New York Times, Bybee said he believes the memos represent a “good-faith analysis of the law.” Bybee is one of three Bush administration lawyers currently under Justice Department investigation.
Meanwhile, at Guantanamo, lawyers for the Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr are calling on the Obama administration to drop charges ahead of a looming deadline. Khadr’s military judge says he’ll resume court proceedings on June 1st, unless the Obama White House extends its freeze on Guantanamo cases or drops the charges. Khadr’s military attorney, Eric Montalvo, called for his immediate release.
Eric Montalvo: “He’s been incarcerated since he was approximately sixteen years old. Sixteen years old, he was taken off the streets of Afghanistan and thrown into cages and held there up until now, and he’s still not adjudicated. So we want to get him out of a cage and put him back into society with his family and rehabilitate him. That’s our effort at this point.”
Last week, a Canadian court ordered Canada’s government to seek Khadr’s immediate return.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post is reporting prosecutors and defense attorneys are negotiating a guilty plea for Ali al-Marri, who has been the only so-called “enemy combatant” jailed in the United States. Marri has been held in isolation without trial at a naval brig in South Carolina for more than five years. The Obama administration charged him earlier this year to avoid a Supreme Court hearing challenging his indefinite jailing. Under the proposed deal, Marri would plead guilty to a single conspiracy charge carrying a fifteen-year sentence.
President Obama marked his 100th day in office Wednesday with a prime-time news conference from the White House. Obama said the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding is torture and that he is gravely concerned about internal unrest in Pakistan. Obama also said he has been confronted with a series of atypical challenges.
President Obama: “I didn’t anticipate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And so, you know, the typical president, I think, has two or three big problems. We’ve got seven or eight big problems.”
Former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius has been sworn in as the new secretary of Health and Human Services following her Senate confirmation. Sebelius will head the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu outbreak and guide its plans to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system. Republicans had managed to delay Sebelius’s confirmation vote over opposition to her support for abortion rights.
New figures show the US economy has suffered its largest contraction in fifty years. On Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported gross domestic product saw a first quarter drop of 6.1 percent. It was the first time GDP has fallen three straight quarters since 1975.
The Obama administration is backing calls to lower the mandatory minimum prison sentence for dealing crack cocaine to match the punishment for dealing powder cocaine. Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine triggers the same mandatory minimum sentence as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. The disparity has disproportionately punished African American drug offenders, who account for more than 80 percent of crack cocaine cases. Wednesday’s announcement marked the first time the White House has backed calls to lower minimum drug sentences.
And in media news, the Baltimore Sun has announced nearly sixty newsroom layoffs. The Sun’s owner, Tribune Corporation, is currently operating under bankruptcy protection.