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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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Negotiations over an Iran nuclear deal continue in Lausanne, Switzerland, in the extended period of talks following Tuesday’s deadline. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said “significant progress” has been made, but urged his counterparts to find the political will to reach an agreement.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: “We hope that the political will by all parties exists in order to move forward. There are obviously problems that have prevented us from reaching the first stage, finding the solutions. And I certainly hope that our colleagues will recognize the fact that this is a unique opportunity that will not be repeated, and they need to take advantage of this opportunity.”
If a general accord can be reached, the Iran nuclear talks would continue for a final agreement by the end of June. Speaking in Washington, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the United States is prepared to walk away if the talks stumble. And renewing longstanding U.S. threats, Earnest said military action remains an option against Iran.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest: “If in the unfortunate event that diplomacy is not successful, we’ll continue to have a wide range of options on the table. That option would — those options include coordinating with the international community to put in place even tougher sanctions that would compel Iran to come back to the negotiating table or to be more serious about the discussions. There is of course a military option that’s sitting on the table. And this is, you know, again, in the unfortunate circumstance that we could find ourselves in, which is that we’re not able to reach an agreement, then the president will have to consider that range of options.”
Houthi rebels and rival forces are in a fierce battle for the southern Yemeni city of Aden. Houthi fighters backed by tanks have pushed deeper into Aden in a bid to seize it from soldiers loyal to deposed and internationally backed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. There are reports of massive civilian casualties and bodies lying in the street. The Houthis’ advance comes despite a Saudi Arabian-led military campaign seeking to restore Hadi’s rule. On Wednesday, thousands of Houthis rallied in Sana’a to protest the Saudi-led bombings.
Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen have reportedly attacked a prison in the coastal city of Al Mukalla, freeing about 300 prisoners. Officials told CNN a third of the released prisoners have links to al-Qaeda, including senior figures.
In Syria, Islamic State fighters have taken over most of a massive camp for Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Damascus. Yarmouk is home to some 18,000 people and has repeatedly been stuck in the crossfire of Syria’s civil war. Some 800,000 people lived there before the Syrian uprising began. In a statement, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said it is “extremely concerned” about the residents’ safety. Islamic State fighters were seen in control of several streets, leaving them just a few miles from the center of the Assad regime’s Damascus stronghold.
International donors have promised some $3.8 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria, less than half of what the United Nations had requested for the country’s massive crisis.
The Iraqi government has declared victory in its month-long battle to retake the city of Tikrit from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Iraqi state television showed footage of Iraqi officials and Iran-backed Shiite militia leaders parading through the streets of Tikrit raising the Iraqi flag. Despite the victory claim, small pockets of ISIS fighters remain.
The militant group al-Shabab has carried out of a shooting rampage at a college in northeast Kenya, killing at least 15 people, wounding at least 65, and taking dozens hostage. The gunmen say they have divided the students between Muslims and non-Muslims, and let the Muslims walk free. Kenyan police are on the scene in a standoff. Al-Shabab says it carried out the attack in response to Kenya’s military operations inside Somalia, the group’s home base.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas has rejected a so-called religious freedom law that could sanction anti-LGBT discrimination. Hutchinson had said he would sign the measure following its passage in the state Legislature. But a public outcry that included several protests, corporate leaders, and a backlash over a similar law in Indiana led Hutchinson to back down. The governor said he has asked lawmakers to revise the measure.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson: “I asked that changes be made in the legislation. And I’ve asked that the leaders of the General Assembly to recall the bill so that it can be amended to reflect the terms of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. This is both about substance, which is getting this legislation right, and it’s also about communicating to the world and to our neighboring states that we’re a state that recognizes the diversity of the workforce, the need for nondiscrimination, and that we want to accomplish that.”
Hutchinson said his own son had signed a petition asking him to veto the law. The governor called it a generational divide. Also, Wal-Mart, the largest company in the world, has come out against the law. In a rally at the State Capitol, Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign said activists’ work is not finished.
Chad Griffin: “Our work is not finished, and we are not at the end of this road, until all Arkansans, all citizens of this state are treated equally under the law and are provided the protections that should be guaranteed, that LGBT folks are protected from discrimination in public accommodations and workplace and all the other places, that we should be protected as citizens of this state and of this country.”
Hutchinson’s reversal comes as Indiana lawmakers have drafted new legislation to “correct” their own version of the anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law. According to The Indianapolis Star, the measure would make clear it “cannot be used as a legal defense to discriminate against residents based on their sexual orientation.” But it still would exempt churches and nonprofits, and would also not include language making LGBT people a protected class.
Dozens of immigrant women detained at the Karnes Family Detention Camp in Texas have launched a hunger strike, saying their children’s health is suffering behind bars. Activists say 80 women launched the strike on Monday, demanding their release and refusing to take part in any services inside. The women are asylum seekers who say they have been denied bond despite having established a credible fear of violence if they return to Central America. Meanwhile, advocates for the women, including a legal assistant for the group RAICES, who was recently interviewed by Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz, say they have been barred from visiting Karnes.
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey has been indicted on 14 counts of corruption charges. Menendez is accused of using his position to advance the business interests of a top supporter in exchange for gifts, vacations and more than $750,000 in donations. The indictment follows a multi-year investigation. At a news conference, Menendez denounced prosecutors and said he will be vindicated.
Sen. Bob Menendez: “For nearly three years, I have lived under a Justice Department cloud, and today I’m outraged that this cloud has not been lifted. I’m outraged that prosecutors at the Justice Department were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me. But I will not be silenced. I am confident — I am confident, at the end of the day, I will be vindicated, and they will be exposed.”
The fast-food giant McDonald’s has announced it will raise the hourly pay for workers it directly employs. The wage will increase by at least $1 per hour, and workers will get up to five days of paid time off each year. The move only applies to the 10 percent of workers who are not employed by franchises, some 90,000 people. And it comes ahead of a national strike by fast-food workers in hundreds of cities on April 15 as part of the “Fight for 15” — a campaign for a $15 hourly wage.
Eleven former educators in Atlanta, Georgia, have been convicted of racketeering and other charges for their roles in a massive cheating scandal at public schools. Prosecutors say teachers were forced to modify incorrect answers, and students were even allowed to fix their responses during exams. Judge Jerry Baxter ordered most of the educators immediately behind bars, with sentencing to follow next week.
Judge Jerry Baxter: “I made myself plain from early on, and they have made this decision. And they have — they have not fared well. And I don’t like to send anybody to jail. It’s not one of the things I get a kick out of. But they have made their bed, and they’re going to have to lie in it. And it starts today.”
Twenty-one other defendants avoided trial with plea deals. It is said to be one of the largest school cheating scandals in U.S. history. The case has fueled criticism of the education system’s reliance on standardized testing. According to The New York Times, “cheating has grown at school districts around the country as standardized testing has become a primary means of evaluating teachers, principals and schools.”
Activists have carried out a rare protest inside the U.S. Supreme Court chamber to oppose the ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case critics call the “next Citizens United.” In a 5-to-4 vote one year ago, the court’s conservative justices eliminated a longstanding limit on how much donors can give in total to federal candidates, party committees, political action committees in a two-year election cycle. Without any aggregate limit, a donor can now give millions directly to candidates and parties. On Wednesday, the five activists with the group 99 Rise stood up inside the court to call on justices to reverse their decision.