More accounts have emerged of torture and abuse at the US military’s Bagram prison in Afghanistan. BBC News says it’s collected testimony from nine witnesses describing human rights violations at a secret Bagram jail in the period since President Obama took office. One prisoner said the secret facility is known as the “Black Hole.” Prisoners reported being subjected to sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures and other abuses. One prisoner said he lost half a row of teeth after a US soldier struck him with the butt of a gun. The same prisoner also recounted being forced to dance to music every time he wanted to use the toilet.
President Obama has signed a jobless benefit bill into law after congressional Democrats overcame a Republican filibuster to approve it. The measure restores unemployment insurance and COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed through next month. More than 200,000 unemployed workers have been denied the benefits because Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma was able to delay the bill before the two-week Easter recess. On Thursday, three Republicans joined Senate Democrats to break the deadlock and approve the bill by a vote of 59 to 38. The House quickly followed with a 289-to-112 vote for the bill’s passage.
President Obama has ordered hospitals to end discrimination in visitation and decision rights for gay patients and their partners. Under the new rules, gay patients will receive the same rights as straight patients in terms of who can visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf. Many hospitals have long barred visitors not related by blood or marriage and ignored efforts to grant same-sex partners a role in making medical decisions. The order covers any hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding.
A National Security Agency whistleblower who helped expose details of the Bush administration’s domestic spy program has been indicted on charges of disclosing classified government information and obstructing justice in an ensuing investigation. The whistleblower, Thomas Drake, is said to have been the source for a Baltimore Sun series on the overspending and failings of the NSA’s efforts to maintain its large trove of domestic spy data. Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press criticized the charges, saying, “The whole point of the prosecution is to have a chilling effect on reporters and sources, and it will.”
President Obama has ordered inspections at all US mines with bad safety records following the disaster that killed twenty-nine miners in West Virginia last week. On Thursday, Obama said poor government oversight and irresponsible management had led to the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
President Obama: “Starting today, we’ll go back and take another look at mines across this country with troubling safety records and get inspectors into those mines immediately to ensure they aren’t facing the same unsafe working conditions that led to this disaster. We do know that this tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch Mine — a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allowed unsafe conditions to continue.”
The Upper Big Branch explosion was the worst mining disaster in forty years. The owner and operator of the mine, Massey Energy, has been cited for thousands of safety violations in recent years, with fifty-seven citations just last month.
Later in the day, President Obama traveled to Florida, where he defended his new space exploration policy in a speech Thursday to NASA employees at the Kennedy Space Center. Obama emphasized his commitment to the human exploration of space, announcing he will add $6 billion to NASA’s annual budget over the next five years.
President Obama: “We will actually reach space faster and more often, under this new plan, in ways that will help us improve our technological capacity and lower our costs, which are both essential for the long-term sustainability of space flight. In fact, through our plan we’ll be sending many more astronauts to space over the next decade.”
Obama also says he expects NASA to send humans to orbit and then land on Mars by the mid-2030s.
A Senate panel says some of the nation’s largest insurance companies have begun manipulating their accounting practices to avoid following the new healthcare reform laws. In a new report, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation says insurers are counting administrative costs as medical costs to avoid requirements on how every premium dollar is spent. The report cites the insurance giant WellPoint as having “'reclassified' more than half a billion dollars of administrative expenses as medical expenses.” The news comes as the insurance giant UnitedHealth Group has announced chief executive Stephen Hemsley took home almost $100 million in compensation from exercising stock options last year.
Newly disclosed documents show CIA officials expressed concern over a 2005 decision to destroy interrogation videos showing the waterboarding of foreign prisoners. The ninety-two tapes were destroyed amidst worries they would do political damage if ever publicly revealed. One agency staffer reported the official who ordered the destruction, Jose Rodriguez, worried the tapes’ disclosure would be “devastating” and “felt it was extremely important to destroy the tapes.” But one day after the destruction, the deputy to then-CIA executive director Kyle “Dusty” Foggo warned the move may have been “improper.” In response, Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “These documents provide further evidence that senior CIA officials were willing to risk being prosecuted for obstruction of justice in order to avoid being prosecuted for torture. If the Department of Justice fails to hold these officials accountable, they will have succeeded in their cover-up.”
Thousands of activists with the right-wing Tea Party group gathered in Washington, DC Thursday for an anti-tax rally on Capitol Hill. The Tax Day protest capped a nationwide bus tour that began three weeks earlier in Nevada. Progressive critics have warned the Tea Party is tapping into widespread anger against corporate dominance of the US political system. One protester said he was drawn to the rally to oppose government bailouts of Wall Street.
Protester: “What I care about is seeing what Obama’s done with the bailout, and he’s going to continue to bail out these banks. And I want to see the banks stop getting bailed out and start bailing out the people, start investing in small business, start investing in the middle class, not Wall Street, not GE, not GM, not these big companies.”
In China, the death toll from this week’s earthquake in western Qinghai province is now close to 800 and expected to rise. Frigid temperatures and limited transportation are hampering efforts to find survivors trapped beneath the rubble. The earthquake left over 11,000 people wounded and some 100,000 homeless.
A United Nations inquiry has found the Pakistani government failed to protect former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before her 2007 assassination and then failed to properly investigate her death. On Thursday, the inquiry chair, Chilean diplomat Heraldo Muñoz, presented the findings of a nine-month probe at the United Nations.
Heraldo Muñoz: “A range of government officials failed profoundly in their efforts, first, to protect Ms. Bhutto and, second, to investigate with vigor all those responsible for her murder, not only in the execution of the attack, but also in its conception, planning and financing.”
Muñoz went on to say the Pakistani government failed to protect Bhutto at both the federal and local level.
Heraldo Muñoz: “The federal government failed in its primary responsibility to provide effective protection to Ms. Bhutto on her return to Pakistan. Ms. Bhutto’s assassination could have been prevented if the Rawalpindi District Police had taken adequate security measures. The security arrangements for Ms. Bhutto by the Rawalpindi District Police were ineffective and insufficient.”
The UN inquiry is also calling on Pakistan to conduct its own probe of Bhutto’s death.
Hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing flight delays across the world because of a volcanic eruption emitting a cloud of ash from Iceland. Much of Europe’s airspace has been closed with some 17,000 flights expected to be canceled today. More cancellations are expected through the weekend.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates continued a visit to Latin American military allies on Thursday with a visit to Colombia. Speaking in Bogotá, Gates voiced support for pushing ahead with the US-Colombian free trade agreement.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “I would hope that we would be in a position to make a renewed effort to get ratification of the free trade agreement. I think it is, as we wrote in 2008, it’s a good deal for Colombia. It’s also a very good deal for the United States.”
The trade pact has been held up amidst concerns over human rights violations in Colombia, including the killings of union leaders. President Obama voiced opposition to the pact during his run for office but has since reversed his stance.
The international jurist Richard Goldstone has confirmed he’s skipping his grandson’s bar mitzvah in South Africa due to protests from local Jewish groups. Goldstone was the head of a UN inquiry that accused Israel of committing war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity during its three-week assault on Gaza beginning in December 2008. His grandson’s bar mitzvah is scheduled to take place next month at a Johannesburg synagogue. Right-wing Jewish groups had reportedly planned to hold a protest outside the ceremony were Goldstone to attend.