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Legal news from Thursday, February 01, 2007

  • White House tapes played in Libby trial
  • US defendants cleared of Hamas racketeering charges
  • Rights panel says Russian anti-terror laws leading to abuses
  • Morocco confirms it will end death penalty
  • China calls for international treaty barring weapons from outer space
  • Trial of ex-Liberian president only funded through opening statements: prosecutor
  • France parliament puts off class actions legislation debate
  • UK Muslim convicted of inciting racial hatred in London cartoon protests
  • Guantanamo guards taunted detainees with Saddam hanging photos: Hicks lawyer
  • Federal judge cuts punitive damage award in Katrina insurance case
  • Spanish judge probing CIA renditions orders intelligence documents declassified
  • Sudan justice minister again rejects ICC jurisdiction in Darfur
  • Federal judge vacates ex-Enron CFO broadband conviction
  • Gratz settles affirmative action admissions lawsuit with University of Michigan
  • Federal judge halts Guantanamo habeas cases pending appeals ruling


  • Thursday, February 01, 2007

    White House tapes played in Libby trial
    Robert DeVries at 7:55 PM ET

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    [JURIST] US Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald [official profile] played portions of White House briefing room videos Thursday as the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby [defense website; JURIST news archive] continued. Fitzgerald said the tapes show Libby's eagerness to publicly conceal conversations he had with reporters about CIA official Valerie Plame. US District Judge Reggie B. Walton [official profile] allowed Fitzgerald to play portions of the videos that show former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan publicly clearing Libby's name and announcing that individuals responsible for the leak would be fired. Judge Walton did not allow Fitzgerald to show a heated question and answer session between McClellan and reporters.

    Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice [indictment, PDF; JURIST report] in connection with the investigation into the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity [JURIST news archive]. Libby's defense team has indicated that they plan to call [JURIST report] Libby's former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney [official website], to testify and that Libby also plans to take the witness stand himself. Walton has denied a request [JURIST report] from several news organizations seeking the daily release of audio recordings of arguments and testimony. AP has more.



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    US defendants cleared of Hamas racketeering charges
    Gabriel Haboubi at 7:47 PM ET

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    [JURIST] Muhammad Salah and Abdelhaleem Ashqar, two of three men indicted in 2004 [press release] by a US federal grand jury on charges of engaging in a 15-year conspiracy of providing funds to Hamas [JURIST news archive], were found not guilty of racketeering Thursday. While the men were exonerated of the most serious crime alleged, they were convicted of lesser charges. Salah, who spent 5 years in an Israeli prison in 1993 after confessing to transporting funds for Hamas, was convicted of obstruction of justice for providing false answers in a civil case involving an American student killed by the terrorist group while in Israel. Ashqar was convicted of obstruction of justice and criminal contempt for his refusal to testify before a federal grand jury after receiving immunity. The third man indicted, Abu Mousa Marzook, is currently living in Syria, and is considered to be a fugitive.

    Controversy in the case arose when US District Judge Amy St. Eve [official profile] closed the courtroom [AP report] during the testimony of two Israeli security agents who were called to counter Salah’s claims that his 1993 admission to being in Hamas was false, and the product of Israeli torture during his interrogation [AP report]. In a statement [text] made after Thursday’s ruling, Amnesty International USA [advocacy website], while pleased with the “generally favorable verdict,” remains concerned that “evidence likely obtained by the use of torture even entered the courtroom.” AP has more. AP also offers additional coverage.



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    Rights panel says Russian anti-terror laws leading to abuses
    Gabriel Haboubi at 7:38 PM ET

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    [JURIST] The Eminent Jurist’s Panel (EJP) [advocacy website], an arm of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) [advocacy website], announced the results [press release] of an inquiry into Russian anti-terrorism efforts Thursday, concluding after two days of public hearings that many recently adopted anti-terrorism laws [JURIST report] are curtailing civil rights and leading to state abuses. Of the eight panel members, three were in Moscow this week [press release] conducting the hearings, including Mary Robinson [official profile], former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    While the panel members met with representatives of the Russian Justice Ministry [official website, in Russian], officials from numerous other offices declined their invitation. The panel also met with lawyers, civil rights advocates and alleged victims of Russian abuses. The Moscow hearings were the tenth set of hearings held worldwide since the EJP was assembled in October 2005. The results from all the hearings will be incorporated on a global report on terrorism, counter-terrorism, and human rights this fall. AP has more.



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    Morocco confirms it will end death penalty
    Robert DeVries at 6:25 PM ET

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    [JURIST] Morocco will become the first Arab country to eliminate the death penalty [JURIST news archive], a state representative confirmed on Thursday. President of the Consultative Committee on Human Rights, Ben Dhikri, made the comments in the run-up to this week's 3rd World Congress Against the Death Penalty [official website] in Paris. Dhikri confirmed that Moroccan MPs and Morocco's King Mohammed VI [official website] share a desire to revise the country's constitution to remove capital punishment as early as April.

    Morocco has not carried out the death penalty since 1993. Currently, it is one of 29 countries that has a de facto ban on the practice but has not changed its actual legality. Last month, two Moroccans were sentenced to death for terrorism offenses. AKI has more.



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    China calls for international treaty barring weapons from outer space
    Leslie Schulman at 6:10 PM ET

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    [JURIST] China is prepared to work with other countries to create an agreement that would prevent an arms race in space [BBC report], Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said on Thursday. The statement comes amid international outcry [BBC report] after confirmations that China had successfully launched a missile that destroyed a weather satellite earlier this month. Many countries expressed concern that the destruction of the satellite would create large amounts of debris in space, interfering with or threatening other satellites. Other countries said that China's actions could induce future arms movements into space [CNS backgrounder]. AP has more.

    In October, US President George W. Bush authorized the first changes to the US space policy in nearly 10 years by asserting authority to deny access to space [JURIST report] to any adversary hostile to US interests. In 2002, China and Russia jointly proposed an explicit ban on weapons in space [text, PDF; China Daily report], but the US opposed the measure, arguing that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty [text] already provided enough protection against the practice.



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    Trial of ex-Liberian president only funded through opening statements: prosecutor
    Leslie Schulman at 5:45 PM ET

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    [JURIST] The UN Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) [official website] has raised only half of the $33 million needed [UN press conference transcript] for the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor [BBC profile; JURIST news archive], according to prosecutor Steven Rapp. Rapp, who spoke in New York Tuesday while seeking additional funding for the trial, said that unlike other international criminal tribunals, the Special Court for Sierra Leone relies solely on voluntary contributions. Taylor's trial is set to begin on June 4 in the facilities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) [official website] in The Hague, and current funds will last through the trial's opening statements, according to Rapp. AP has more.

    Last week, the Court announced the delay of the trial [JURIST report] until June in order to give Taylor's defense lawyers more time to prepare. The court's order [text, PDF] cited the extensive amount of time that Taylor has currently been in pre-trial confinement in establishing the new start date. Taylor was originally indicted [amended indictment text, PDF; SCSL materials] in 2003 on charges of crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law, including murder, rape and the recruitment and use of child soldiers during the war in Sierra Leone. After being captured last year trying to flee Nigeria, where he had been in exile, he was taken to The Hague [JURIST report].



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    France parliament puts off class actions legislation debate
    Leslie Schulman at 4:33 PM ET

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    [JURIST] The French Parliament [official website] has put off debate on whether to allow class action lawsuits [JURIST news archive] in the country's legal system after the French National Assembly [official website] struck proposed legislation from its February schedule in a push to get out other bills before the close of parliamentary sessions. The class action legislation was introduced at a cabinet meeting in November [JURIST report] by French Minister of Economy, Finance, and Industry Thierry Breton [official profile, in French], and would have been heard by the National Assembly on February 6. It will now await possible reconsideration by the incoming government after French presidential and legislative elections later this year.

    Currently, an association can collectively represent French consumers, but each claimant must be named individually in a lawsuit. Class actions would still only have been brought by national consumer associations and could not have concerned goods or services valued over 2000 euros ($2,550) or health-related issues. French President Jacques Chirac [BBC profile; official profile, in French] advocated for class actions last January, urging his government to fill the gap in consumer rights while avoiding the alleged class action abuses of the American legal system. In September, France's Competition Council [official website, in French] recommended the establishment of class action lawsuits [AFX report] to counterbalance abuses by powerful companies. AP has more.



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    UK Muslim convicted of inciting racial hatred in London cartoon protests
    Joshua Pantesco at 3:29 PM ET

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    [JURIST] A UK jury Thursday convicted Abdul Saleem of inciting racial hatred for his role in leading protests outside the Danish embassy in London in February 2006 against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad [JURIST news archive] that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September 2005. Saleem was charged with using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior with intent to stir up racial hatred [CRE backgrounder, PDF]. Prosecutors called Saleem the "cheerleader" of the protests, alleging that he shouted phrases such as "Europe you will pay with your blood" to the crowd. The UK Press Association has more.

    Saleem, a British citizen, was one of five Muslims arrested [JURIST report] for leading the protests. Two others, Umran Javed and Mizanur Rahman [JURIST reports], have already been convicted of similar crimes, and another was fined [BBC report] for not notifying authorities of the protests in advance. The men are associated with al-Muhajiroun [Wikipedia backgrounder], a controversial Islamist group banned from Britain in 2005.



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    Guantanamo guards taunted detainees with Saddam hanging photos: Hicks lawyer
    Joshua Pantesco at 2:44 PM ET

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    [JURIST] US soldiers taunted detainees at Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive] with pictures of Saddam Hussein's hanging [JURIST report] in "an attempt to intimidate and compel submission under a threat of death and mentally torture," according to comments made Thursday by a defense lawyer for Australian Guantanamo detainee David Hicks [JURIST news archive]. After visiting Hicks at at the detention facility, US defense lawyer Joshua Dratel said that the taunting violated the guarantees of the Geneva Conventions [ICRC materials] and said that Guantanamo was plagued by a "coercive and dehumanizing environment." According to a statement released by Hicks' lawyers, the photos of the Hussein execution were accompanied by a caption reading "Because Saddam chose not to co-operate and not tell the truth, because he thought by lying he would get released, for that reason he was executed." RTT News has more.

    Hicks' lawyers called for an abuse investigation [JURIST report] in 2005, alleging they had videotape evidence [JURIST report] of abusive practices by US soldiers at Guantanamo Bay. In July 2005, the US reported no evidence of abuse [JURIST report] at the conclusion of an investigation launched at the request of the Australian government [JURIST report], though a military investigator testified [JURIST report] to witnessing a detainee suffer degradation and abuse falling short of torture. In October 2006, a second investigation was launched [JURIST report] after several guards allegedly bragged about beating prisoners [JURIST report]. Earlier this month a report by a UK parliamentary committee, some of whose members had been permitted to visit Guantanamo, concluded [JURIST report] that "abuse of detainees at Guantánamo Bay has almost certainly taken place in the past, but we believe it is unlikely to be taking place now."

    2/2/07 - A US military spokesman said Thursday that a news report and images of Hussein's execution have been removed from a recreation area at Guantanamo where information about current events is posted. The military acknowledged that the materials "appeared insensitive" but said that they were meant to show detainees that Iraqis "are making progress and have delivered justice." AP has more.



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    Federal judge cuts punitive damage award in Katrina insurance case
    Joshua Pantesco at 2:13 PM ET

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    [JURIST] A federal judge Wednesday reduced a $2.5 million punitive damage award to $1 million [order, PDF] in a Hurricane Katrina [JURIST news archive] insurance case, finding the award excessive at twelve times the amount of economic damages awarded. US District Judge L.T. Senter issued a direct verdict against State Farm [JURIST report; opinion text, PDF] in January holding the insurance company liable for the policy limits on a Mississippi home that was damaged during the storm, finding the insurance company had not met the burden of proof required by Mississippi law to challenge the policyholders' claim that their home was damaged by wind preceding the hurricane, not water from the storm surge. The jury returned with a $2.5 million punitive damage award for gross negligence in denying the claim. In reducing the award, Judge Senter wrote:
    The philosophy or attitude or position adopted by the Defendant that lasted throughout the consideration of Plaintiffs' claim is reprehensible enough to warrant deterrence. What effect it may have remains to be seen, but substantial harm resulted from Defendant's conduct, which was neither isolated nor mere accident.

    The amount of punitive damages assessed by the jury in the instant case is almost 12 times the amount of compensatory damages. Fortunately, Plaintiffs only suffered an economic injury.
    The Insurance Journal has more.

    In another Katrina case, Judge Senter last Friday rejected [JURIST report; opinion, PDF] a proposed settlement [JURIST report] reached between State Farm and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood on behalf of hundreds of Mississippi policy holders whose Katrina-related claims were denied. The US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi has a collection of Hurricane Katrina insurance orders and opinions.



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    Spanish judge probing CIA renditions orders intelligence documents declassified
    Katerina Ossenova at 11:48 AM ET

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    [JURIST] A Spanish judge on Wednesday ordered the National Intelligence Center [official website], Spain's state intelligence agency to declassify any documents it has about secret CIA extraordinary rendition flights [JURIST news archive]. The order comes in Judge Ismael Moreno's investigation of whether CIA rendition flights stopped at Spanish airports [JURIST report] before transferring terrorism suspects to countries where they could be tortured. In September 2006, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos [official profile, in Spanish; Euroresidentes profile] acknowledged that CIA planes transporting detainees to secret prisons in Europe may have stopped over [JURIST report] in Spain and Khaled el-Masri [JURIST news archive] became the first witness [JURIST report] to testify in the investigation in October. El Masri, a German national, has alleged that CIA agents kidnapped him in 2003 in Macedonia and transferred him to Afghanistan, where he was held in a secret prison for five months and subjected to inhumane conditions and coercive interrogation before eventually being released in Albania in 2004 without charge.

    A European Parliament [official website] special committee adopted a report [DOC text] last week alleging that some EU nations knew about CIA activity [JURIST report] in Europe including the existence of secret flights and CIA-operated secret prisons [JURIST news archive]. The European Parliament committee on CIA activities in Europe [official website] concluded that "over one thousand CIA-operated flights used European airspace from 2001 to 2005 and temporary secret detention facilities 'may have been located at US military bases' in Europe" and criticized "the passivity of some Member States in the face of illegal CIA operations." Reuters has more.



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    Sudan justice minister again rejects ICC jurisdiction in Darfur
    Katerina Ossenova at 11:15 AM ET

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    [JURIST] Sudanese Justice Minister Mohammed Ali al-Mardi said Wednesday that the Sudanese government can do a better job prosecuting war crimes in Darfur than the International Criminal Court (ICC) [official website]. In an interview with AP, al-Mardi reiterated Sudan's position that they country is "willing and able to try all perpetrators of offenses in Darfur" and that the ICC "has absolutely no right to assume any jurisdiction." Al-Mardi explained that three special courts have been set up by the Sudanese government to prosecute crimes and war crimes and said the courts have tried both civilians and military personnel for Darfur crimes. According to al-Mardi, only local courts can conduct trials that will be deemed legitimate in the eyes of the Sudanese people.

    While al-Mardi indicated in December 2006 that Sudan will cooperate [JURIST report] with a UN Human Rights Council [official website] mission investigating human rights abuses in Darfur, Human Rights Watch and other international organizations have accused Sudan of doing little to prosecute those responsible for atrocities in Darfur. In a briefing paper [text] released in June 2006, Human Rights Watch accused Sudan's Special Criminal Court on the Events in Darfur of failing to accomplish its mission [JURIST report] of prosecuting war crimes.

    In December 2006, Luis Moreno-Ocampo [official profile], chief prosecutor for the ICC, told the UN Security Council [official website] that his investigation [ICC materials] into crimes committed in Darfur [JURIST news archive] is almost complete [JURIST report], noting that he is "preparing to submit evidence to the ICC judges no later than February 2007." New UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [official website] said in early January 2007 that resolving the crisis in Darfur was "very high" on his agenda [remarks] and would be one of his top priorities [JURIST report]. AP has more.



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    Federal judge vacates ex-Enron CFO broadband conviction
    Joshua Pantesco at 8:27 AM ET

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    [JURIST] A federal district judge on Wednesday vacated the conviction of former Enron [JURIST news archive] CFO Kevin Howard [Houston Chronicle profile] in light of an August 2006 opinion [JURIST report] by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that overturned separate Enron convictions "on the legal ground that the government's theory of fraud relating to the deprivation of honest services ... is flawed." Prosecutors in the Howard case relied on the "honest services" theory in four of the five counts on which Howard was convicted [JURIST report], despite the fact that Howard did not take money or property in negotiating a deal to sell future Enron profits in an alleged mark-to-market accounting fraud scandal, a required element of an "honest services" crime. In November, prosecutors conceded that those four counts should be tossed, but argued that a fifth - falsifying books and records - was not tainted by the honest services theory propounded by prosecutors. In Wednesday's opinion, District Judge Vanessa Gilmore disagreed, finding that the record falsification charge would likely also be overturned on appeal because she linked it to a tainted conspiracy charge in jury instructions requested by prosecutors. The Houston Chronicle has more.

    Last October, former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling [Houston Chronicle profile] also requested [JURIST report] that the judge presiding over his trial dismiss his conviction [JURIST report] on 19 counts of insider trading, securities fraud, and conspiracy in light of the Fifth Circuit decision.



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    Gratz settles affirmative action admissions lawsuit with University of Michigan
    Joshua Pantesco at 7:57 AM ET

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    [JURIST] Class action representatives Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher have settled their suit challenging the former affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan after a district judge on Wednesday issued an order [PDF text] approved the settlement terms, decertified the class, and dismissed the case. The university will pay $10,000 to Gratz and Hamacher to settle all claims. The suit, filed in 1997, alleged that the affirmative action policy of the university, which awarded extra points in the admissions calculus to minority students, was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment [LII Wex backgrounder]. The case was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 2003 rejected the system as discriminatory [Gratz opinion text]. In a separate 2003 opinion, the Supreme Court upheld the University's law school admissions policy [Grutter opinion text], which was not as rigid as the system used at the undergraduate level. AP has more.

    On November 7, 2006, Michigan voters approved [JURIST report] Proposal 2 [text], an amendment to the Michigan Constitution [PDF text] banning affirmative action [JURIST news archive] in public employment, public education and state contracting. In December, a district judge ruled [PDF text; JURIST report] that the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University can delay implementing the amendment until July 1, 2007, when the current admissions cycle will have ended.



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    Federal judge halts Guantanamo habeas cases pending appeals ruling
    Joshua Pantesco at 7:46 AM ET

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    [JURIST] US District Judge Reggie Walton on Wednesday denied several motions challenging the ongoing detentions of 16 Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive] detainees, ruling that until the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit decides whether civilian judges may hear cases under the 2006 Military Commissions Act (MCA) [PDF text; JURIST news archive], he is without jurisdiction to consider the motions. Walton noted that the cases would be immediately reopened if the appeals court rules that civilian judges may hear habeas corpus petitions under the MCA. AP has more.

    President George W. Bush signed the MCA [CRS summary] in October after the US Congress approved the bill [JURIST report] in late September. The law became necessary after the US Supreme Court ruled last June that the commissions, as initially constituted by the president, lacked proper legal authorization [JURIST report]. The law provides statutory authorization for military commission trials for Guantanamo Bay, which will be governed by procedures laid out in the DOD's Manual for Military Commissions [PDF text], circulated [JURIST report] earlier this month.



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