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Legal news from Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bahrain court hears appeals of 20 convicted medics
Maureen Cosgrove on October 23, 2011 2:14 PM ET

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[JURIST] A Bahrain court on Sunday began hearing the appeals of 20 medical staff members convicted last month of participating in the country's pro-democracy protests against the ruling regime. The 13 doctors, one dentist, nurses and paramedics who were jailed for providing treatment to injured protesters all worked at the Salmaniya Medical Complex [official website] in Manama, which was stormed by security forces in March after they drove protesters out of the nearby Pearl Square—the focal point of protests inspired by uprisings that have swept the Arab world. Among other terrorism charges, the 20 were accused of having possession of an AK-47, Molotov cocktails and other weapons for the purposes of ousting the ruling regime, confiscating medical equipment, spreading lies, inciting hatred against the regime and violating various other laws and regulations with an aim to disturb public security. Earlier this month, Bahrain [JURIST news archive] granted retrials for the medics who were convicted and sentenced [JURIST reports] by the National Safety Court of Appeal to terms ranging from five to ten years imprisonment. Human rights groups are concerned that the trials will proceed as appeals [Al Jazeera report], though they have been reassured by Bahraini foreign minister Khalid Al-Khalifa that the evidence and testimony against the medics would be examined de novo.

Shortly after the convictions were handed down, the medics urged the UN to investigate claims of abuse [JURIST report] and due process violations. Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa [official profile] announced in August that he will dismiss charges against some of the protesters [JURIST report] detained for their participation in pro-democracy demonstrations in the country. In June, Khalifa announced that an independent commission will investigate human rights violations [JURIST report] related to the country's pro-democracy protests. Earlier that month, the OHCHR announced that Bahrain agreed to permit a UN commission [JURIST report] to investigate human rights violations related to protests. The National Safety Courts were instituted in mid-March under Khalifa's three-month state of emergency [JURIST report] and have been internationally criticized, most recently [JURIST report] by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The court sentenced nine citizens [JURIST report] to 20 years in prison for kidnapping a police officer in May. In April, the court handed the death sentence to four protesters, a rarity in Bahrain, and upheld the sentences [JURIST reports] for two of the men who were accused of murdering police officers. All of the charges levied in the National Safety Court have been disputed by Bahraini citizens and international rights organizations.

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Nigeria village files $1 billion water pollution suit against Shell
Maureen Cosgrove on October 23, 2011 1:08 PM ET

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[JURIST] A Nigerian village on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in US federal court against Royal Dutch Shell PLC [corporate website] alleging the oil company polluted a drinking water well with benzene at levels 900 times the limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO) [official website]. The lawsuit is based on a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) [official website] report [materials] assessing the impact of oil contamination on the environment and public health in Ogoniland, a village in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The report, which was published in August, found high levels of the carcinogen benzene as well as several inches of refined oil floating in groundwater that the village uses for drinking water. The UN investigators suggested that both Royal Dutch Shell and the Nigerian state-run oil company were responsible for the pollution, though Royal Dutch Shell abandoned the area in 1993. The complaint, which was filed in the US District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan [official website], contends that Royal Dutch Shell's actions were willfully negligent [AFP report] in contaminating groundwater. The plaintiffs filed suit on Alien Tort Statute (ATS) [text] grounds and are asking for $1 billion in damages, an injunction and immediate cleanup.

The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari in two cases last week to determine whether political organizations and oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, are immune from US lawsuits [JURIST report] under the ATS. The plaintiffs in both cases allege human rights violations against an entity other than an individual person and the circuit courts have reached conflicting decisions with respect to interpretations of the ATS. The Supreme Court's decision will likely have an impact on the outcome of the Nigerian villagers' lawsuit. This case in not the first time Shell has faced legal action in Nigeria, however. A $15.5 million settlement [JURIST report] was reached in June 2009 between Royal Dutch Shell and the families of nine Nigerian activists who were killed in 1995. In 2006, a Nigerian court ordered Shell to pay [JURIST report] $1.5 billion for its role in environmental damages that took place within the country. In January, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] reversed [JURIST report] a district court opinion, reviving two lawsuits brought by Nigerian families against Pfizer under the ATS.

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Libya PM declares official liberation from Gaddafi regime
Andrea Bottorff on October 23, 2011 11:53 AM ET

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[JURIST] Libyan transitional Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril [official profile] on Sunday declared the country's official liberation from the regime of former leader Muammar Gaddafi [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] and set a schedule for establishing a new government. Jibril made the announcement in front of thousands of supporters celebrating in the city of Benghazi, the location of the National Transitional Council (NTC) [website] and where the first uprisings sparked the Libya conflict [JURIST feature] eight months ago. Jibril and other NTC officials thanked the opposition fighters, as well as international organizations like the United Nations [official website], for their support during the conflict and pledged to create an interim government within a month and to hold elections [Al Jazeera report] in eight months. Jibril also said Islamic sharia law would form the basis of law under the new government [AP report] and that any law in contradiction would be nullified. The declaration of liberation comes three days after Gaddafi's capture and death [JURIST report] at the hands of opposition forces in his hometown of Sirte. Gaddafi's body has been on display [Reuters report: graphic content] since Friday in the city of Misrata, drawing large crowds of visitors wanting to see the body and take photos. Jibril also announced on Sunday that they would release Gaddafi's body [TOI report] to his extended relatives for burial in a location to be determined by the NTC and Gaddafi's family.

Libyan civilians and NTC officials continue to celebrate the news of Gaddafi's death, and several world leaders have expressed relief and support for Libya. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon [official profile] said this week that Gaddafi's death marked "an historic transition" for the country and urged Libyans to stop fighting and promote peace [UN News Centre report]. On Friday, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) [official website] called for a full investigation [JURIST report] into Gaddafi's death, a request that came amid contradictory accounts and uncertainty [Reuters report] about how exactly the killing took place. UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions [official website] said that states need to respect international standards [press release] on the use of lethal force during an arrest [UN News Centre report]. Gaddafi's death marks the latest milestone in the Libya conflict, which began in February [JURIST report] as part of a wider protest movement, commonly referred to as the "Arab Spring," that had spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

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Federal judge dismisses Arizona counterclaim over immigration law
Andrea Bottorff on October 23, 2011 10:21 AM ET

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[JURIST] A federal judge for the US District Court for the District of Arizona [official website] on Friday dismissed a counterclaim [order, PDF] filed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) [official website] and state Attorney General Tom Horne [official profile] against the US government in the lawsuit challenging the controversial Arizona immigration law [SB 1070 materials; JURIST news archive]. While the court ruled that Arizona had standing to bring the counterclaim, the court barred several counts in the claim because they had already been litigated before the court in a 1995 case. The court also held that Arizona failed to state valid claims and the claims would be dismissed, even if they had not already been precluded from litigation, because they offered political instead of legal questions. Brewer issued a statement Friday criticizing the decision [text, PDF] and expressing hope that the case will appear before the US Supreme Court [official website]. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] filed suit [JURIST report] last year against Brewer seeking to permanently enjoin the state's immigration law. The complaint states that the law is preempted by federal law and therefore violates the Supremacy Clause [text] of the US Constitution.

The controversial Arizona immigration law has influenced other anti-immigration laws in states such as Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia [JURIST reports]. Some critics have argued that the stricter state immigration laws do not comply with federal law [JURIST op-ed] and only serve to complicate the system. Earlier this month, the DOJ filed a motion in the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] to halt enforcement [JURIST report] of a controversial Alabama immigration law [HB 56 text] that expands restrictions on undocumented immigrants. The law requires school officials to verify the immigration status of children and parents, authorizes police to detain an individual and ask for papers if the officer has "reasonable suspicion" that the driver is in the country illegally, and requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify system [official website] to determine whether potential employees are legal residents. Since the legislation passed, 16 countries have filed briefs [JURIST report] in the Alabama district court against the controversial law, arguing that it provides unfair treatment to citizens of those countries currently residing in Alabama and sanctions discriminatory treatment based on ethnicity.

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Unprecedented Notice of Warrantless Wiretapping in a Closed Case
Ramzi Kassem
CUNY School of Law

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