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You turn to Democracy Now! for ad-free news you can trust. Maybe you come for our daily headlines, or for in-depth stories that expose government and corporate abuses of power. We produce our daily news hour at a fraction of the budget of a commercial news operation, all without ads, government funding or corporate underwriting? This is only possible with your support. Right now every donation to Democracy Now! will be doubled by a generous supporter. This means if you give $25 today, Democracy Now! will get $50 to support our daily news hour. Please do your part. It takes just a couple of minutes to make sure that Democracy Now! is there for you and everybody else in the coming year. Thanks so much. -Amy Goodman
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Pro-Russian rebels are now fully in control of the town of Debaltseve following a pullout by Ukrainian troops. Heavy clashes continued there over the past several days despite the ceasefire agreement that went into effect on Sunday. The Ukrainian military finally withdrew after suffering heavy casualties. The rebels claimed the ceasefire never applied to the town. In Washington, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that with the exception of the Debaltseve clashes, the ceasefire appears to have held in most other areas.
Jen Psaki: “Reports indicate that separatists publicly declared that they refused to observe the ceasefire in Debaltseve and had a, quote, 'right' to shell Debaltseve because it was, quote, 'their territory.' The OSCE reports that the Russia-backed separatists continue to deny monitors access to Debaltseve, and warns of grave consequences of those in the city if the ceasefire is not implemented there. The OSCE also confirms that ceasefire violations in Ukraine’s east continue, as was the case yesterday, but the quantity and intensity of attacks has decreased, with the dramatic exception of course being Debaltseve, which I just outlined. We’ve also seen reports of the withdrawal of certain types of heavy weapons in various parts of Donetsk and Luhansk by both separatists and Ukrainian government forces.”
Greece has formally asked the eurozone for a six-month extension of a loan agreement as it seeks to revise the terms of an international bailout. Talks between Greece and its European creditors collapsed this week amid disagreement over the future of German-backed austerity. Greece had been given a Friday deadline to request a new extension of its bailout and loans. Germany has rejected Greece’s demands, saying its extension request “is not a substantial proposal for a solution.” On Wednesday, the European Central Bank reportedly agreed to free up billions of dollars in emergency credit to Greek banks.
Members of the Taliban in Afghanistan are reportedly set to hold a new round of peace talks with U.S. officials in Qatar. There is no firm timetable, but a Pakistani official said the negotiations could begin in March. The news comes as United Nations officials reported a 22 percent spike in Afghan civilian casualties last year.
Nicholas Haysom, U.N. envoy in Afghanistan: “Civilian causalities increased once again by 22 percent in comparison to those of 2013. UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] documented more than 10,000 civilian causalities in 2014, the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries recorded in a single year since 2009.”
Georgette Gagnon, U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: “We saw a 40 percent increase in children causalities, with some 2,700 children killed and injured, compared to 2013 and an increase in women causalities by 21 percent, with some 300 women killed and 611 injured.”
The White House is holding a summit on countering the threat of violent extremism worldwide. In a speech on Wednesday, President Obama called the Islamic State a perversion of Islam.
President Obama: “Al-Qaeda and ISIL, and groups like it, are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam. That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the Islamic State. And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam. That’s how they recruit, that’s how they try to radicalize young people. We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders. They’re terrorists.”
An explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery south of Los Angeles has rocked the surrounding area with the equivalent of a 1.4-magnitute earthquake. The blast in California happened as oil tank cars from a derailed train remained on fire Wednesday in West Virginia, two days after the accident. The derailment forced the evacuation of two towns and destroyed a house. More on this story later in the broadcast.
As many as 400,000 people have marched through the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires demanding an independent judiciary. The protest came one month after the mysterious death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who had accused Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, of helping to cover up Iran’s role in the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people and injured hundreds.
A military appeals court judge has overturned the 2007 conviction of former Guantánamo Bay prisoner David Hicks. Captured in Afghanistan, Hicks was held at Guantánamo for five years before reaching a plea deal to return to his native Australia. Hicks admitted to material support for terrorism and agreed to renounce his claim of suffering abuse in U.S. custody. Hicks had said he was sodomized, beaten and subjected to forced injections, allegations the military denied. He was the first Guantánamo prisoner convicted under the Military Commissions Act. Hicks appealed his case in 2013, saying his plea was made under duress. On Wednesday, Hicks’ conviction was struck down on the grounds his lone charge wasn’t recognized as a crime until years after his capture. On Wednesday, Hicks called on the United States to pay him compensation for medical damages resulting from his imprisonment and torture.
David Hicks: “I’m sure no one is surprised by today’s long-awaited acknowledgment by the government of the United States of America of my innocence. Even the Australian government has admitted that I had committed no crime. It’s just unfortunate that because of politics, I was subjected to five-and-a-half years of physical and psychological torture that I will now live with always. … But I do think, however, that someone should be responsible for my medical expenses. I’m in a lot of trouble at the moment physically. It’s even affecting my ability to do my day job, which is my only income. So, I’m in need of an operation on my left knee, my right elbow, my back. My teeth keep getting pulled because I couldn’t brush them for five-and-a-half years. So, it’s becoming a very expensive exercise to fix myself from the years of torture.”
Hicks had previously said he would have died in Guantánamo had he not pleaded guilty. Also Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to apologize to Hicks on behalf of the Australian government.
A former Guantánamo Bay interrogator involved in torture was also a longtime Chicago police officer known for abusing people of color. According to The Guardian, Richard Zuley spent three decades as a notoriously brutal detective on the Chicago police force. From 1977 to 2007, Zuley used tactics including torture, threats and abuse to elicit confessions from suspects, the majority of whom were not white. One of those confessions was later ruled to be false, and the sentence was vacated. Zuley’s methods included shackling suspects to walls through eyebolts for several hours, allegedly planting evidence, and issuing threats of harm to family members and sentences of the death penalty unless a suspect confessed. Zuley was also accused of brutal methods at Guantánamo Bay, where he was a reserve officer in charge of interrogating a prisoner who said he made a false confession due to torture.
The White House says around 11.4 million people have signed up for health insurance during the second enrollment period of Obamacare. In a video posted by the White House, President Obama said his signature healthcare program is doing better than expected.
President Obama: “It gives you some sense of how hungry people were out there for affordable, accessible health insurance. And that’s really the top-line message. The Affordable Care Act is working. It’s working a little better than we anticipated—certainly, I think, working a lot better than many of the critics talked about early on.”
The Justice Department is reportedly prepared to sue the Ferguson, Missouri, police department if it does not address racial bias in its practices. According to CNN, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder will announce the findings of a federal probe in the coming weeks, before he steps down. The Justice Department is expected to accuse the Ferguson police force of a history of systemic bias, backing the claims of a recent lawsuit that said local officials have targeted people of color with arrests, tickets and fines.
Attorney General Eric Holder has announced he would support a national moratorium on the death penalty. Holder made the comments in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to stay executions in Oklahoma pending a review of its lethal injections.
Attorney General Eric Holder: “Now I’m speaking personally, not as a member of the administration, so somehow separate yourself here. You know, I think there are fundamental questions that we need to ask about the death penalty. I have not been shy in saying that I am a person who is opposed to the use of the death penalty. … The Supreme Court’s determination as to whether or not lethal injection is consistent with our Constitution is one that ought to occur. From my perspective, I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court made that determination would be appropriate.”
Subzero temperatures have engulfed the eastern third of the United States today as a blast of Arctic air rolls in from Siberia. The cold is expected to shatter records in more than 100 places.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has held a private meeting with the senator many progressives hope will challenge her for the Democratic nomination, Elizabeth Warren. The New York Times reports Clinton invited Warren to her Washington, D.C., home in December to consult on building a populist economic agenda. Warren has been one of the Senate’s leading voices challenging corporate power and financial deregulation, including policies advanced under Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton, in the 1990s. Warren has said she is not running for president, but progressive activists have launched a campaign urging her to reconsider. During their meeting, Clinton reportedly did not ask Warren to endorse her likely presidential campaign.
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has backed down on a plan to bar Iranian students from science and engineering programs following a wave of protests. Last week, the university said it would ban Iranian nationals from graduate programs in chemical, computer and mechanical engineering, as well as natural sciences, in what it said was a move to comply with U.S. sanctions dating back to 2012. But after a chorus of outrage from both students and faculty, the university said Wednesday it would lift the ban and implement a less restrictive policy.