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Legal news from Thursday, January 10, 2008




Former Blackwater employees sentenced in gun-running case
Nick Fiske on January 10, 2008 7:00 PM ET

[JURIST] US District Court Judge Louise Wood Flanagan of the Eastern District of North Carolina Thursday sentenced two former Blackwater USA [corporate website; JURIST news archive] employees to three years probation for possession of stolen firearms in exchange for their continued cooperation with a Justice Department investigation into whether the private security firm was smuggling weapons into Iraq. In addition to probation, Kenneth Wayne Cashwell and William Ellsworth "Max" Grumiaux were each fined $1,000 and expected to testify in other Blackwater cases. Information regarding the two men's involvement in the investigation was introduced in private during sentencing. Both men had faced up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine as a result of the weapons charges. Cashwell also pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting in the sale of the firearms and was sentenced to three months house arrest. AP has more. The New Bern Sun Journal has local coverage.

Blackwater faced intense scrutiny following a September 16, 2007 incident in West Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. In November, a US grand jury opened an investigation [JURIST reports] into Blackwater employees involved in the incident after an FBI investigation labeled the shootings unjustified [JURIST report]. In October 2007, the New York-based Center for Constitutional rights filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] against Blackwater on behalf of an injured survivor and the families of three men killed during the incident. The complaint alleged that Blackwater violated US law and should be liable for assault and battery, wrongful death, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence.






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US judge blocks deportation of Egyptian detainee despite 'no torture' pledge
Mike Rosen-Molina on January 10, 2008 6:42 PM ET

[JURIST] A US district judge ruled [opinion, PDF; ACLU press release] Thursday that the US cannot deport an Egyptian Christian who fled to the United States in 1998 to reportedly escape religious persecution because of the risk that he may face torture in Egypt [JURIST news archive]. US District Judge Thomas Vanaskie of the Middle District of Pennsylvania rejected government arguments that it had received diplomatic assurances from Egypt that it would not torture Sameh Khouzam [ACLU materials; advocacy website], finding that the government had ignored any outside review of the reliability of Egypt's assurances. The government immediately appealed and was granted a five-day stay; a federal appeals court will now hear the case. Reuters has more.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers representing Khouzam had argued [press release; JURIST report] that the US government was not honoring its obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture [text] by relying on assurances from the Egyptian government that Khouzam will not be tortured if he is returned to authorities in Egypt [JURIST news archive]. Khouzam originally came to the United States seeking asylum, but was detained by US authorities based on claims by Egyptian authorities that he is a murder suspect in his home country. Khouzam's case marks the first time a US court has addressed whether the government can lawfully rely on assurances from foreign governments to deport detainees to countries with a record of engaging in torture.






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Bosnia authorities seize passports from relatives of war crimes fugitive Karadzic
Benjamin Klein on January 10, 2008 6:28 PM ET

[JURIST] Bosnian authorities Thursday confiscated the travel documents of the wife, son, daughter and son-in-law of at-large war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] after High Representative and European Union Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina Miroslav Lajcak [official profile] ordered their seizure [official order] Wednesday at the instance of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) [official website]. The Office of the High Representative said [press release] that the family members are the subject of "ongoing criminal investigations for their role in the support network of Radovan Karadzic.” Also on Thursday, the central cabinet in Bosnia froze the assets of four remaining fugitives from the ICTY: Karadzic, his military chief Ratko Mladic [BBC profile], Stojan Zupljanin [PBS profile], and Goran Hadzic [PBS profile].

Former ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte [BBC profile] repeatedly called on [JURIST report] Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro to renew their efforts to capture Karadzic and other war crimes fugitives before stepping down late last year. Karadzic is suspected of helping orchestrate the genocide of nearly 8,000 people in Srebrenica [JURIST news archive] in the 1990s. BBC News has more.






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Italy seeks extradition of 139 in South America 'Dirty War' probe
Nick Fiske on January 10, 2008 6:04 PM ET

[JURIST] Italy Thursday requested the extradition of 139 South Americans accused of kidnapping and murdering 25 Italian dissidents during Argentina's Dirty War [GlobalSecurity backgrounder; JURIST news archive] in the 1970s and 80s. The suspects, including former Argentinian dictator Jorge Videla [TrialWatch profile], former Uruguayan dictator Juan Bordaberry [Wikipedia profile] and others involved in military dictatorships in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, were identified by an Italian investigation into the incidents that began in 1998 and was spearheaded by prosecutor Giancarlo Capaldo. The charges stem from a campaign known as Operation Condor [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] in which several South American military dictatorships worked together to eliminate rebels and left-wing dissidents, resulting in the deaths and disappearances of thousands. Capaldo said that trials against the suspects could move forward even without the extraditions as Italian law permits prosecutions in absentia [JURIST news archive].

In March, a court in Rome convicted five former officers of the Argentinian military in absentia on charges of torturing, kidnapping and murdering three Italian citizens during Dirty War operations, sentencing them to life imprisonment [JURIST report]. The investigation has resulted in only one arrest, however, that of Uruguayan naval intelligence officer Nestor Jorge Fernandez Troccoli [JURIST report] last month. Troccoli is likely to be charged in the disappearance of six Italian dissidents. AP has more.






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Former Bangladesh minister sentenced to 7 years for corruption
Katerina Ossenova on January 10, 2008 4:29 PM ET

[JURIST] A court in Bangladesh Thursday sentenced former state minister for communications Salahuddin Ahmed to seven years in prison on corruption charges. Ahbed was arrested in February 2007 and found guilty of accepting a bribe for a business contract. The arrest comes one day after Tarique Rahman [party profile, in Bengali], the elder son of former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia [UN profile] who also faces corruption charges [JURIST report], said that he was tortured during questioning in police custody.

The current interim government in Bangladesh has arrested over 150 high-profile citizens since the military-backed government declared a state of emergency [JURIST report; AHRC backgrounder] in January 2007 over concerns that fraud would mar scheduled national elections. Zia has been charged with corruption [JURIST report], and her rival, former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed [party profile] has been charged by Bangladesh's anti-corruption commission [governing statute, PDF] with six counts of murder, corruption, and most recently, bribery [JURIST reports]. Hasina went on trial [JURIST report] in December 2007 on one of two charges [Reuters report] that she extorted around $1.16 million from two businessmen. BBC News has more.






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Media tycoon charged with coup plot against Georgian Republic
Katerina Ossenova on January 10, 2008 3:48 PM ET

[JURIST] Prosecutors in the Georgian Republic [JURIST news archive] charged media and financial tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili [Reuters backgrounder] Thursday with conspiracy to overthrow the Georgian government. Patarkatsishvili allegedly offered a $100 million bribe to a senior police official if he would help him overthrow the government and kidnap the Georgian interior minister. Patarkatsishvili denied the charges and remains in self-imposed exile in Britain and Israel. In November 2007, police shut down the independent television station Imedi [media website, in English], which was co-owned by Patarkatsishvili and had aired opposition statements and showed footage of police violence during anti-government protests [JURIST report].

Patarkatsishvili was a political rival [VOA report] of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili [official website] in the January 5 elections in which Saakashvili won re-election with a landslide victory. In November 2007, Saakashvili ended a national state of emergency [JURIST report] which banned demonstrations and public calls for violence or government overthrow. Saakashvili has blamed [speech] Russian spy agencies for instigating protests in the capital city of Tbilisi, though the Russian Foreign Ministry has dismissed those claims [statement]. In August 2007, a Georgian court sentenced 12 opposition activists [JURIST report] to prison terms of up to eight-and-a-half years for participating in a coup plot that Saakashvili alleged was backed by Russia. Saakashvili has allied himself closely with the US and NATO since taking office in 2004, and Georgian authorities alleged that the convicted opposition activists had been supported by the Russian security services. BBC News has more.






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Conviction of Abu Ghraib officer thrown out
Katerina Ossenova on January 10, 2008 3:19 PM ET

[JURIST] The conviction of US Army Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan [CBS profile; JURIST news archive], the only commissioned officer charged in connection to the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal [JURIST news archive], has been annulled, his lawyer said Thursday. As convening authority in the case, Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe on Tuesday "disapproved" Jordan's August 2007 conviction [JURIST report] by a military jury on charges that he disobeyed an order not to discuss the investigation into abuse allegations at Abu Ghraib; the same jury acquitted Jordan of charges that he failed to control soldiers under his command who abused detainees. The military jury followed the prosecution's recommendation of a reprimand [JURIST report] and found that Jordan should not be sentenced to prison. Under the military courts-martial system [CRS backgrounder, PDF] the convening authority reviews the jury's actions and has the option of modifying the jury's findings. AP has more.

Prosecutors initially charged [JURIST report] Jordan with seven violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice [text] but dropped two charges [JURIST report] after new evidence came to light that Jordan provided statements to an official investigating the Iraqi prison abuse allegations without being properly read his rights, making his statements inadmissible. In his 2004 report [PDF text; JURIST report], Maj. Gen. George R. Fay recommended that Jordan and his superior Col. Thomas Pappas be punished for their roles in the abuse scandal. Pappas was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony against Jordan. Pappas testified during Jordan's Article 32 hearing [JURIST report] that Jordan was concerned that he did not have the proper training or experience to assume his role running the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center [GlobalSecurity backgrounder] at Abu Ghraib.






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New York opens investigation into possible Intel antitrust violations
Brett Murphy on January 10, 2008 11:57 AM ET

[JURIST] The state of New York Thursday began a probe into alleged antitrust violations by computer chip giant Intel [corporate website] for possible anticompetitive practices directed at rival chip maker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) [corporate website]. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced the investigation [press release] into possible breaches of both state and federal law, saying that his office has requested documents and information regarding an improper use of Intel's monopoly power to push AMD out of the market.

In October 2007, the US Federal Trade Commission said it would not open a formal investigation [JURIST report] into allegations that Intel offered unfair discounts to eliminate competition from AMD. In August 2007, American Antitrust Institute [advocacy website] President Albert Foer wrote a letter [PDF text] to the FTC urging such an investigation. The letter came after the European Commission [official website] filed formal charges [Business Wire report] against Intel in July for violating European Union competition laws. Similar probes have been conducted by the Korean Fair Trade Commission and the Japan Fair Trade Commission [official websites]. Intel has insisted that it merely engaged in "pro-competition" which was "ultimately beneficial to consumers." Intel could face fines in both Europe and Korea for engaging in anti-competitive behavior. Reuters has more.






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Chicago council approves $20M settlement in police torture lawsuits
Brett Murphy on January 10, 2008 10:50 AM ET

[JURIST] The Chicago City Council signed off Wednesday on a $19.8 million agreement to settle torture allegations by four former death row inmates against the Chicago police [official website]. Labeling the allegations a "black eye," city officials said that they hoped a settlement will help to mend relations between the community and the police, who allegedly committed acts of torture under the tenure of Lt. Jon Burge in the 1970s and 80s.

The city's Law Department said in December that it planned to settle the cases [JURIST report]. The four death row inmates were pardoned in 2003 by then-Illinois Governor George Ryan [JURIST news archive]. An investigation into Chicago police torture began in 2002, when the chief criminal judge of Cook County appointed the two special prosecutors to investigate 64 reports of torture and cover-ups. In May 2006, the same judge ordered the public release of the report [JURIST report ], holding that the privacy rights of the accused officers were outweighed by the public's need to know. In 2005, several human rights groups, including the MacArthur Justice Center, asked [JURIST report] the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [official website] to investigate the allegations. AP has more. The Chicago Tribune has local coverage.






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Federal judge rules Bible distribution in school unconstitutional
Brett Murphy on January 10, 2008 9:54 AM ET

[JURIST] A federal judge in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri held Tuesday that the distribution of Bibles at elementary schools by religious organizations is unconstitutional [opinion, PDF] in violation of the First Amendment [text], ruling that a permanent injunction against the practice will be ordered on final judgment after related counts are resolved. A preliminary injunction [opinion, PDF] against the South Iron R-1 School District [official website] practice of allowing Gideons International [advocacy website] to hand out Bibles in fifth-grade classrooms was upheld [opinion, PDF] by the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in August, after which the school district changed its policy to only allow Gideons to hand out religious materials during lunch or before or after the school day. Judge Catherine Perry held that both Bible distribution schemes amounted to an endorsement of religion, writing:

The undisputed evidence shows that both the old practice and the new policy were undertaken for the purpose of promoting Christianity and they have the effect of endorsing religion to impressionable elementary school students. The school policies violate the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment].
A lawyer for the school district said he plans to file an appeal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit [complaint, PDF; press release; ACLU backgrounder] in February 2006 on behalf of parents of students in the district. In 2005, the school district superintendent changed the policy for Bible distribution so that Gideons would not be permitted to enter classrooms, but was overruled by the district school board. AP has more.





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DHS readying lawsuits over properties blocking path of US-Mexico border fence
Jaime Jansen on January 10, 2008 9:25 AM ET

[JURIST] The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) [official website] is preparing over 100 court cases against landowners along the US-Mexico border who have refused to allow construction of a 670-mile border fence on their properties, DHS officials said Wednesday. DHS sent 135 letters to hold-out property owners [AP report] last month threatening court action if they did not comply, but only 33 landowners complied within the 30-day time period set forth in the letter. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said [remarks] last month that the government would not wait much longer for property owners to comply with the government requests to use their land. The government may not need to use all of the properties in question for the construction of the border fence and will consider alternative security protections such as lighting and more Border Patrol agents along the border, but is in the process of determining which properties it will need to purchase or seize through the power of eminent domain [JURIST news archive]. AP has more.

President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 [PDF text; JURIST report] in October 2006. The legislation authorizes the construction of approximately 700 miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile US-Mexican border. Critics of the fence include locals in border communities, who feel that the the federal government has not addressed their concerns that a border fence would interfere with irrigation, harm wildlife, as well as disrupt Mexican consumers and investors that positively contribute to the local economy. In May, the International Boundary and Water Commission [official website] said that construction of the fence could violate a boundary treaty [JURIST report] between the United States and Mexico.






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South Korea constitutional court approves fraud probe of president-elect
Jaime Jansen on January 10, 2008 8:42 AM ET

[JURIST] The Constitutional Court of Korea [official website, in Korean] on Thursday approved a special investigation of South Korean President-elect Lee Myung-bak [official website] over fraud allegations [AFP report] relating to stock price-rigging by a former business partner. Lee, who takes office on February 25, is now subject to a 40-day investigation set to begin next week. The conservative former Seoul mayor has denied the allegations, but promised to resign from the presidency if the investigation reveals any wrongdoing. The court, ruling on a petition filed last month by Lee's relatives and former business partners to halt the investigation, found that only one clause in the law authorizing the probe violated the South Korean Constitution [text]. The court explained that if investigators did not invoke that particular clause, which allowed investigators to arrest witnesses without a warrant, then the investigation could continue.

South Korea [JURIST news archive] grants immunity to sitting presidents for all criminal lawsuits outside of very serious crimes. It is unlikely that Lee would be convicted and exhaust all appeals before he takes office next month and receives a grant of immunity for the fraud allegations. Lee won a landslide victory [BBC report] in South Korea's presidential election last month, despite the fraud claims. AP has more. The Korea Times has local coverage.






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Ex-CIA official who ordered destruction of interrogation videos wants immunity for testimony
Jaime Jansen on January 10, 2008 8:01 AM ET

[JURIST] Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the US CIA's clandestine branch who ordered the destruction of videotapes showing the interrogation of terror suspects [JURIST news archive], has told Congress that he will not testify about the videotapes without a grant of immunity, a lawyer for Rodriguez said Wednesday. The US House Select Committee on Intelligence last month subpoenaed Rodriguez [JURIST report] to testify at a closed hearing scheduled for next week. The US Justice Department said last week that it has opened a criminal investigation [JURIST report] into the destruction of the tapes, prompting Rodriguez's request for immunity.

Existence of the videotapes was verified in November after the CIA admitted it had mistakenly denied [JURIST report] that it had recorded interrogations in a court declaration during the trial of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. CIA Director Michael Hayden acknowledged [statement text] last month that the CIA had videotaped the interrogation of two al Qaeda suspects in 2002, but said that the tapes had been destroyed in 2005 amid concerns that they could be leaked to the public and compromise the identities of the interrogators. In addition to the DOJ investigation, multiple congressional inquiries have been launched into the tapes' destruction, including the House intelligence panel's investigation. Earlier this week, a federal judge refused to order a judicial inquiry into the videotapes [JURIST report], concluding that there was no evidence that the Bush administration violated a June 2005 order that the administration preserve all evidence relating to alleged torture at Guantanamo Bay. The New York Times has more.






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