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President Obama has commuted the sentences of eight prisoners serving lengthy terms for crack cocaine offenses, saying they were "sentenced under an unfair system." That system included a 100-to-1 sentencing gap for crack and powder cocaine offenses, which was eased by a reform law in 2011. All eight people who received commutations have served more than 15 years in prison; six had been sentenced to life. We’ll have more on the story after headlines and speak to one of the prisoners, Jason Hernandez.
In Central African Republic, gunfire rang out in the capital Bangui today as Christian fighters attacked Muslim neighborhoods. The country has faced a spiraling sectarian crisis since Muslim rebels ousted the Christian-led government in March. Amnesty International has warned both sides are committing war crimes.
Christian Mukosa, CAR researcher for Amnesty International: "This is a situation where you have neighbors killing each other. And you have people who knew each other for a long, long time are killing and using machetes to not make more noise when killing. So we came across a lot of issues of extrajudicial executions, mutilation of bodies. In fact, people are not only killing; they’re killing and mutilating bodies."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was in Central African Republic Thursday to meet with the country’s leaders and condemn the killings.
Samantha Power: "Obviously, the Central African Republic does not have in place right now, or has not yet pursued, the kinds of investigations and the kind of accountability that is needed, but we stressed that those responsible for atrocities must be held accountable. That is a very important element of preventing future violence and cycles of violence."
The United Nations says violence in South Sudan has forced 34,000 people to seek refuge at its bases across the country, including in the capital Juba and the flashpoint town of Bor. Violence erupted Sunday when President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president of mounting a coup. On Thursday, three U.N. peacekeepers from India were killed in an attack on a U.N. compound. Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Jan Eliasson condemned the attack.
Jan Eliasson: "I’ll tell you how deeply concerned the secretary-general and I and our colleagues are about the current situation in South Sudan. Our base in Akobo, Jonglei state, was attacked, and we have reports that lives are lost. We don’t have the details of that yet. And, of course, the secretary and I both condemn this attack in the strongest terms."
President Obama announced this week he has sent 45 U.S. troops to South Sudan to protect U.S. citizens and property.
Egypt’s military-backed government is continuing its crackdown on activists involved in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Early Thursday, six people were arrested in a raid on an activist group that supports labor rights. Hours after the raid, a court acquitted Mubarak’s two sons and his last prime minister of corruption charges.
Uganda’s parliament has passed an anti-gay bill that imposes a sentence of life in prison for repeated homosexual acts. It also makes it a crime not to report LGBT people. The bill, which was first proposed in 2009, has sparked global condemnation but received support from evangelicals in the United States.
Meanwhile, India’s government has asked the Supreme Court to review its decision reinstating a ban on homosexual sex, saying it violates "the principle of equality."
In the United States, New Mexico has become the latest state to legalize marriage equality after its highest court ruled that denying same-sex marriage licenses is unconstitutional. New Mexico is the 17th state, along with Washington, D.C., to legalize same-sex marriage. The ruling takes effect immediately.
In Pennsylvania, officials with the United Methodist Church have defrocked a pastor who officiated at his son’s marriage to another man. Frank Schaefer had told officials he could not uphold church teachings that he viewed as biased. He responded to Thursday’s decision at a news conference.
Rev. Frank Schaefer: "As you can tell, I’m visibly shaken. I guess when I went into the hearing this morning with the Board of Ordained Ministry, I was hopeful that it wouldn’t come to what it has come to: my defrockment. I am a very positive person, I’m an optimist. You could say I always look at the glass half full. And I said to myself, you know, I just can’t see them take my credentials. I mean, what I did was an act of love for my son. And they did anyhow."
The Senate has passed a sweeping Pentagon bill that keeps military sexual assault cases within the chain of command while adding some new protections for survivors. It also raises military pay by 1 percent and bars the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to the United States. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed the Senate will take up the issue of unemployment benefits in early January when it returns from break; jobless payments will expire for 1.3 million people just three days after Christmas.
A former BP engineer has been convicted of obstruction of justice for deleting text messages about the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Kurt Mix could face up to 20 years in prison. He is the first person to be tried for the incident, which killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. A new government study has linked the disaster to lung disease, hormonal problems and other illnesses among dolphins in the region, many of whom are dying.
In Belgium, protesters opposed to austerity and so-called free trade shut down traffic in parts of Brussels on the opening day of the European Union summit Thursday. Some 10,000 protesters took to the streets to oppose secretive negotiations for a massive trade deal between the United States and Europe, which they say would favor corporations and undermine protections, from food safety to workers’ rights. Pascoe Sabido of the Corporate Europe Observatory spoke at Thursday’s action.
Pascoe Sabido: "So, we’re here today to block the EU summit, where our so-called leaders are meeting, to make sure that two treaties — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the free trade deal with the U.S., as well as the TSCG, which is basically a treaty of austerity — make sure they don’t go forward and to make sure that actually our voices here in the streets, across society, are not just listened to, but make sure we’re not complicit in this. So we’re here to say, 'No, this will not happen, and enough is enough.' And we’re going to try and build a Europe from below."
The Obama administration says it deported 369,000 immigrants during the past fiscal year. That’s a 10 percent decrease over last year’s record of 410,000, marking the first time deportations have dropped during Obama’s tenure. In a statement, Marisa Franco of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said, "The biggest fear of immigrant families is becoming a number in the statistics released today. No matter what direction the numbers go in, the fear entrenched in people’s lives won’t be removed until the threat is eliminated and that can only be done by a president who recognizes the error of his ways and reverses course on the dragnet he’s built."
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