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Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to deny service to LGBT people over religious beliefs. In recent days, the bill generated a nationwide chorus of condemnation, not just from LGBT activists, but also from major companies like Apple and Delta, and even from some of the same Republican lawmakers who voted for it. On the same day as Brewer’s veto, a federal judge in Texas struck down that state’s ban on same-sex marriage, although he issued a stay on the ruling while Texas appeals. We’ll have more on the victories in Arizona and Texas after headlines with the actor and activist George Takei.
In Ukraine, pro-Russia gunmen have seized control of Parliament in the Crimea region, days after the ouster of the country’s democratically elected president. Russian news reports say President Viktor Yanukoych is now in Russian territory and seeking protection there. He fled Kiev following months of protest over his decision to strengthen ties with Russia, and not Europe. Russia, meanwhile, is running a second day of military exercises near the Ukrainian border. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was in Kiev Wednesday to pledge support for the new Ukrainian government.
William Burns: “The first step, again, is the formation of a new government and an opportunity to sit down with that new government and identify the plans of the new Ukrainian government, their diagnosis of the problem, and then identify specifically what we can do to help.”
Lawmakers in Ukraine unveiled an interim government Wednesday, to be led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister. Yatsenyuk, or “Yats,” is the opposition leader who top U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland clearly favors in a leaked phone call released before Yanukovych’s ouster.
Victoria Nuland: “I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the guy — you know, what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week. You know, I just think Klitsch going in, he’s going to be at that level working for Yatsenyuk. It’s just not going to work.”
In Venezuela, five intelligence agents have been arrested for the shooting deaths of protesters amid violent anti-government protests that have killed at least 16 people. Three other agents and six police officers were arrested on Monday. On Wednesday, President Nicolás Maduro held a “national peace conference” aimed at quelling the crisis, but the opposition did not attend.
A new report by Amnesty International finds Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank are killing Palestinian civilians with impunity in what could amount to war crimes. According to U.N. data, 45 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank between 2011 and 2013, including six children. Amnesty International researcher Saleh Hijazi described the group’s findings.
Saleh Hijazi: “Unfortunately, the main problem, as I said, is the impunity that they enjoy, and the impunity is because there is a lack of proper investigations that meets international standards. What we have in Israel and the Occupied Territories is that the military investigates itself, and this is not independent or impartial investigations.”
A member of the Cuban Five is due to end his prison sentence today after more than 15 years behind bars in the United States. Fernando González is expected to be transferred to an immigration prison pending deportation back to Cuba. The Cuban Five were arrested in 1998 and later convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. They say they were not spying on the United States, but trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups. Another Cuban Five member was released in 2011; three others remain in prison.
In environmental news, a probe by the State Department’s inspector general has found a contractor who analyzed the environmental impact of the Keystone XL oil pipeline did not violate conflict-of-interest rules, even though it previously performed work for the pipeline company, TransCanada. Environmentalists say the contractor, Environmental Resources Management, failed to properly disclose industry ties before issuing a report that downplayed the pipeline’s harms. President Obama is expected to issue a decision in the next few months on the pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Hundreds of protesters plan to lock themselves to the White House gates on Sunday to urge Obama to reject the pipeline, which they say would be a disaster for the climate.
Federal regulators say rail cars being used to transport oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale pose an “unacceptable safety risk.” The cars were involved in recent explosions, including one in Quebec that killed 47 people in July. The remarks came a day after regulators issued an emergency order for stricter testing to measure how explosive oil is before it is transferred. Recent tests found more than half of oil samples bound for transfer by train from the Bakken region were misclassified. The region is fueling a boom in U.S. oil and gas, but tests indicate the oil there is more explosive than other types.
Authorities in Australia say a massive fire at an open-pit coal mine could continue to burn for months. The fire has already burned for two weeks, enveloping the town of Morwell in the state of Victoria with thick, toxic smoke. Victoria’s chief health officer, Rosemary Lester, spoke Wednesday.
Dr. Rosemary Lester: “Our priority at the moment is to concentrate on the short-term health effects that we know that the smoke can cause. We know that the fine particles in the smoke can get down into the lungs, and that can cause short-term health effects like exacerbation of asthma, worsening of heart or other lung conditions. And we know that the people who are most vulnerable to these effects are people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, children, the elderly, smokers and pregnant women.”
The use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons was under discussion on Capitol Hill this week. Witnesses at a hearing led by Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin described how solitary confinement devastates families, allows guards to isolate prisoners whom they have sexually assaulted, and drives prisoners to hopelessness. Durbin said more than half of prison suicides take place in solitary. Among the speakers was Damon Thibodeaux, a former Louisiana death-row prisoner who spent 15 years in solitary confinement, for 23 hours a day, before being exonerated in 2012.
Damon Thibodeaux: “I do not condone what those who have killed and committed other serious offenses have done, but I also don’t condone what we do to them when we put them in solitary for years on end and treat them as subhuman. We are better than that. As a civilized society, we should be better than that. I would like to believe that the vast majority of the people in the United States would be appalled if they knew what we are doing to inmates in solitary confinement and understood that we are torturing them, for reasons that have little, if anything, to do with protecting other inmates or prison guards from them.”
Last week, New York state agreed to reform its use of solitary confinement, including banning its use in disciplining prisoners under 18.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering a bill that would ban the shackling of prisoners who are giving birth. The state issued temporary regulations to limit the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners last week. Advocates say it is not unusual for women to be handcuffed to hospital beds, even while in labor. Eighteen states have passed laws to restrict the shackling of pregnant prisoners.
A new Senate investigation finds the Swiss banking firm Credit Suisse aided tax evasion by wealthy U.S. clients who have stashed billions of dollars outside the reach of U.S. tax collectors. The report accuses Credit Suisse of an array of tactics, from creating offshore shell entities to establishing a branch at Zurich airport where elite clients used secret elevators operated by remote control. CEO Brady Dougan blamed the abuses on a small group of bankers at the firm.
Brady Dougan: “Credit Suisse’s management team regrets very deeply that, despite the industry-leading compliance measures we put in place, we had some Swiss-based private bankers who appear to have violated U.S. law.”
Wednesday marked the two-year anniversary of the death of “Trayvon Martin,” the unarmed African-American 17-year-old who was shot dead by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman’s acquittal galvanized the country on the issues of race and bias in the criminal justice system. Rallies were held nationwide Wednesday to mark two years since the killing, including here in New York City, in Harlem.
Man 1: “So we are all Trayvon! We are, all of us out here — mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandfathers — all of us! So no matter who you are, what you’re doing, or where you’re going, if you believe in yourself, believe in him, too. Let this cause not go unaffected. Let it go corrected.”
Woman: “I have a 20-year-old, and so many times I’ve sat hurting just because he wants to go outside.”
Man 2: “Go ahead. No, go ahead. Tell ’em…”
Woman: “Praying that my child will make it back. I can’t speak no more.”
The anniversary of Martin’s death came less than two weeks after a jury hung on murder charges for Michael Dunn in the killing of another unarmed African-American 17-year-old in Florida, Jordan Davis. Dunn faces at least 60 years in prison after he was convicted of attempted murder for shooting 10 times at a vehicle full of teenagers after a dispute over loud rap music.
Police officers in Michigan who killed an African-American homeless man accused of stealing a cup of coffee will not face charges. On July 1, 2012, Saginaw police fired 47 shots at Milton Hall, striking him 11 times. Hall had a history of mental illness and reportedly tried to defend himself with a pocket knife, at one point even calling 911 to plead for help as officers surrounded him. On Tuesday, federal officials said there was not enough evidence of willful misconduct to prosecute the officers, who also previously avoided state charges. Milton Hall’s mother has filed suit against the city of Saginaw, calling her son’s death “execution by firing squad.”