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Legal news from Friday, August 19, 2005




Jury finds Merck liable for $253 million in Vioxx wrongful death suit
Kate Heneroty on August 19, 2005 4:25 PM ET

[JURIST] A Texas jury on Friday awarded a $253.4 million verdict in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the widow of a man who suffered cardiac arrest after using the prescription osteoarthritis drug Vioxx [JURIST news archive]. Merck [corporate website], the maker of Vioxx, has issued a statement [press release] that they were "disappointed" and planned to appeal the decision. Vioxx was recalled last fall after clinical tests showed that patients who use the drug for more than 18 months faced increased risk of stroke and heart attack [FDA public health advisory]. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Vioxx for sale, but Merck has not put it back on the market. Merck faces at least 4,200 other suits relating to the drug and it is speculated that their liability could reach $18 billion. Reuters has more.






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DC sniper Muhammad moved to Maryland to face second trial
Kate Heneroty on August 19, 2005 4:11 PM ET

[JURIST] John Allen Muhammad [Wikipedia profile], who has been convicted of murder in Virginia [JURIST report] for one of the ten Washington DC area sniper killings, was moved Friday from Virginia's death row to Maryland in order to face trial for six other deaths in the 2002 killing spree. Muhammad also faces the death penalty in Maryland. His accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo [Wikipedia profile], was transferred to Maryland in May for trial. Malvo has also already been sentenced to life in Virginia [JURIST report]. AP has more.






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New Yorkers favor random bag searches on subways, poll says
Kate Heneroty on August 19, 2005 3:54 PM ET

[JURIST] A survey conducted by Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute [official website] found that 72% of 1,601 New York residents polled supported the random bag searches [JURIST report] being conducted on city subways and buses following the terrorist attacks in London [JURIST news archive]. While 55% said government security measures should not violate basic civil rights, 60% of Republicans said that the government should take "all steps necessary to prevent additional acts of terrorism in the United States even if it means your basic civil liberties would be violated." 62% of Democrats disagreed with the statement. Quinnipiac polling director Maurice Carroll said, "Even in a city touchy about civil rights, New Yorkers pick a bag search over the threat of being blown up. But most voters don't want to give government too much power." Earlier this month, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit [PDF complaint; JURIST report] alleging that the subway bag searches violate constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures. AP has more.






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Iranian exiles describe plutonium project; Khamenei denies nuclear ambitions
Kate Heneroty on August 19, 2005 3:06 PM ET

[JURIST] The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) [official website], the political wing of the outlawed Mujahideen-e-Khalq guerrilla movement [Wikipedia backgrounder], said Friday that Iran is developing a plan to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. While the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency [official website; JURIST news archive] are diverted with the country's uranium enrichment activities, NCRI reports that Iranian officials are pleased with the progress of the heavy water program at Arak [Global Security backgrounder], which could produce plutonium. The NCRI is considered a terrorist organization by the US State Department; however, they have conveyed accurate information regarding Iran's nuclear activities in the past. Reuters has more.

Meanwhile, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei [official website in English; BBC profile] told worshippers Friday that Iran had no interest in atomic weapons, but would not stop its nuclear development program. Khamenei accused Western leaders of propaganda to mislead public opinion about Iran's nuclear intentions and of dissuading nuclear power development to keep Iran dependent on foreign nations. Reuters has more.






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Guatemalan prison riots continue; rights groups call for reform
Kate Heneroty on August 19, 2005 2:34 PM ET

[JURIST] Three days after gang related riots [JURIST report] in seven Guatemalan prisons killed 35 inmates, three more inmate gang members were injured in riots Thursday. A later search of the prison uncovered 3 grenades, 6 guns and many homemade weapons. Blanca de Stalling, the director of an association of public defense lawyers, the Institute of Criminal Public Defense, says she warned the Guatemalan Interior Ministry [official website, in Spanish] of danger in early August after inmates had urged her not to visit because other prisoners had grenades. Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann issued a statement saying the weapons used earlier this week "were brought in that day or one day earlier and can't be the same ones over which Ms. Stalling filed a complaint."

In a related development, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [official website] and the Organization of American States [official website] have condemned Guatemala [press release] and demanded attention be paid to the prison problems. Pro Justice Movement issued a statement that prisoners "are indisputably human beings who, independent of the crimes they have committed, have a right to live and the state is obligated to protect" that right. AP has more.






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Cigarette makers sue Kentucky for violation of tobacco settlement agreement
Kate Heneroty on August 19, 2005 2:11 PM ET

[JURIST] Four tobacco companies have filed suit against the state of Kentucky for violating the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) [PDF text] made between 46 states and more than 40 tobacco companies, regulating payments to states and restrictions on tobacco promotion. The four companies, Vector Group [corporate website], Commonwealth Brands [corporate website], King Maker Marketing [corporate website], and Sherman's 1400 Broadway NYC Ltd., allege that Kentucky granted special treatment to General Tobacco [corporate website], a competitor which does not participate in the MSA, by allowing General Tobacco to finance the payments it makes to the state, an option not available under the MSA. The lawsuit asks the court to void Kentucky's agreement with General Tobacco or provide other companies with similar financing agreements. AP has more.






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Danish supplier admits role in UN oil-for-food fraud
Kate Heneroty on August 19, 2005 1:38 PM ET

[JURIST] Grundfos [corporate website], a Danish company that produces industrial pumps, admitted Friday that two employees paid kickbacks to authorities in Saddam Hussein's government under the UN oil-for-food program [JURIST news archive]. An internal Grundfos investigation uncovered the bribes, which were made between 2001 and 2002 to secure two contracts, but the company declined to reveal the amount of the kickbacks. Grundfos' sales to the program between 1996 and 2003 totaled 100 million Danish crowns. Chief Executive Jens Joergen Madsen issued a statement apologizing for the fraud and stating "We have done everything to openly cooperate with the United Nations in New York to end the case in a satisfactory way." Reuters has more. The Copenhagen Post has local coverage.






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Lawyer says former Iraq deputy PM Aziz will be released without trial
Kate Heneroty on August 19, 2005 1:03 PM ET

[JURIST] The lawyer for former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz [Wikipedia profile] announced Thursday that he expects his client to be released from US custody shortly without being put on trial. Badia Aref told Reuters that due to legal developments that could not be disclosed, he expected his client to be freed soon. Aref also denied rumors that Aziz would become a witness in the Saddam Hussein trial [JURIST news archive]. Aziz, who is said to be in ill health, is expected to meet with his family during the next few days, after speaking with them on the phone [JURIST report] last week for the first time in two years. Reuters has more.

Previously on JURIST’s Paper Chase...






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US soldier convicted in Afghan abuse case gets no jail time, loses rank
Krista-Ann Staley on August 19, 2005 11:50 AM ET

[JURIST] A US military jury reduced the rank of Pfc. Willie Brand to private, the lowest pay grade in the army, at his sentencing hearing Thursday. In doing so, the jury disregarded the prosecutor's recommendation that Brand be sentenced to 10 years in a military prison for his conviction [JURIST report] on assault, maltreatment, false official swearing and maiming charges for beating an Afghan detainee, who later died. The jury acquitted him of charges for beating a second detainee. Brand could have received a total of 16 years in military prison for his crime. Aljazeera has more.






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Abramoff will plead not guilty to fraud charges, lawyer says
Krista-Ann Staley on August 19, 2005 11:19 AM ET

[JURIST] Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff [Wikipedia profile], indicted by a federal grand jury [JURIST report] on bank fraud charges last week, will plead not guilty, according to a statement made by his lawyer Neal Sonnett Thursday. The charges allege he defrauded two lenders of $60 million to buy San Cruz Casino from Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, who was murdered in 2001. Sonnett also stated Abramoff will participate in the investigation [JURIST report] of the murder, and that Abramoff "looks forward to defending himself" on the current charges. Abramoff is also involved in the investigations [JURIST report] of US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay [official website] and is currently under investigation for lobbying work done for an Indian tribe. The lobbyist appeared before US Magistrate Stephen Brown Thursday but was asked not to enter a plea. His arraignment on the fraud charges has been postponed until August 29 because he does not yet have a full-time attorney. Reuters has more.






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FEC allows unlimited funds to fight Schwarzenegger redistricting plan
Krista-Ann Staley on August 19, 2005 10:27 AM ET

[JURIST] The Federal Election Commission [official website] voted 6-0 in favor of Reps. Howard Berman (D-CA) [official website] and John Doolittle (R-CA) [official website] Thursday to allow members of Congress to raise unlimited funds from unions, corporations and other donors to fight Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Proposition 77 [proposition text; University of California summary]. The redistricting initiative would place the power to draw congressional and state legislative in the hands of three retired judges. While the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 [PDF text] limits individual donations to federal officeholders to $5,000 for non-election issues, the Commissioners decided the limit was not intended to apply to special elections. The Commissioners based their decision partially on the fact that no federal candidates would be on the ballot, but Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) [official website], who partially authored the bill, criticized the ruling stating "The FEC's decision to reopen the soft money loophole, which overruled the advice of its general counsel, has no basis in law or common sense." A California judge removed the proposition from a referendum ballot [JURIST report] in July due to inconsistent versions of the referendum petition but that ruling was overturned [JURIST report] last week by the California Supreme Court. AP has more.






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Sunnis oppose federalism, proposed Iraqi constitution
Krista-Ann Staley on August 19, 2005 9:33 AM ET

[JURIST] Sunni Arab negotiators working on Iraq's draft constitution [JURIST news archive] continue to refuse to compromise their demands for a strong central government in Iraq [JURIST report], fearing that federalism will divide the country. While the Supreme Council for the Islam Revolution in Iraq [party website], the largest Shiite political party, supports the creation of a federal region in Shiite-dominated areas of the country, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's Dawa party [party website in Arabic] and the movement of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr [Wikipedia profile], both Shiite groups, do not support that plan. Sunni Arab members of the drafting committee presented their concerns to al-Jaafari in a meeting Thursday, then participated in a late-night conference with Shiites and Kurds at the home of Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi. According to Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, all three sides are determined to reach an agreement by the extended deadline [JURIST report] of August 22, but if Shiites and Kurds, who have 221 of 275 seats in parliament, could reach an agreement they would submit the constitution for approval in spite of Sunni protests. However, if an agreement is not reached by the deadline, the US State Department has said that another extension would be politically unfeasible [JURIST report]. AP has more.






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Disney investigates Hong Kong labor abuse allegations
Krista-Ann Staley on August 19, 2005 9:10 AM ET

[JURIST] The Walt Disney Company [official website] asked the nonprofit firm Verite [official website] to investigate allegations of labor abuse in factories run by its Chinese contractors, according to a statement Friday. Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) [advocacy website], a non-governmental, Hong Kong-based organization created by students to protect workers' rights, made the initial allegations in a report titled "Recovering Mickey's Conscience" [PDF text]. The report claimed the factories paid workers below minimum wage, did not pay them for all hours worked, allowed them to work more than the legal limit of 204 hours per month, and did not pay triple hour pay as required on holidays. Furthermore, it accused the factories of coaching workers to answer auditors' questions and allowing unsafe working conditions. SACOM and its partner, the National Labor Committee [advocacy website], provide summaries of factory conditions. SACOM asked Disney to use nonprofit auditors, provide a public list of contractors and their addresses and publicly announce the findings of the investigation. In its statement Friday, Disney stated it "and its licensees will work closely with Verite to ensure a thorough investigation of these claims and take the appropriate actions to remediate violations found." AP has more.






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9/11 suspect convicted on retrial in Germany
Krista-Ann Staley on August 19, 2005 8:26 AM ET

[JURIST] The Hamburg Supreme Court convicted Mounir el Motassadeq [BBC profile] Friday of belonging to a terrorist organization and sentenced him to seven years in prison, but acquitted him of being an accessory to the murder of the over 3,000 people killed in the World Trade Center attacks. The German Supreme Court [official website in German] threw out [JURIST report] his conviction on both counts last year, citing insufficient evidence as justification for retrial. In announcing Friday's opinion, presiding Judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt criticized the US authorities for the limited evidence [JURIST report] provided at the retrial, where the Department of Justice supplied summaries of interrogations of three detained 9/11 suspects, but refused to provide full copies of the reports or allow those witnesses to testify. The interrogations showed Motassadeq provided funding for one of the 9/11 plotters, but that he did not know how the money would be used [JURIST report]. "This material on its own had no value as evidence," according to Schudt, referring to concerns that the US obtained the statements by torturing the detainees [JURIST report], rendering them unusable by a German court. In a statement [text] Thursday, Amnesty International [advocacy website] said the Hamburg court violated international law by accepting the evidence without investigating complaints of torture. AP has more.






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