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Legal news from Thursday, December 15, 2011




US death penalty rates continuing to drop: report
Jaclyn Belczyk on December 15, 2011 4:29 PM ET

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[JURIST] There were only 78 new death sentences handed down in the US in 2011—the first time that number has dropped below 100 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976—according to a report [text, PDF; press release] published Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) [advocacy website]. There were 43 executions in 13 states in 2001, down from 46 executions in 2011. The report noted that Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011 and that Oregon's governor put a moratorium on executions [JURIST reports] in that state. The DPIC also pointed to the huge public outcry over the execution of Georgia inmate Troy Davis [JURIST report] as evidence of Americans' waning support of the death penalty. According to the report, the death penalty system in the US remains flawed:
In many ways the death penalty today resembles the system struck down in 1972, when the Court could find no justification for the small number of death sentences and executions chosen arbitrarily from so many eligible cases. The new system approved in 1976 was supposed to carefully guide prosecutors, juries, and judges in administering a more rational system. Today, the promise of a fair, sensible, and effective system of capital punishment has proven false. As distrust of the system has grown, the death penalty is again infrequently applied, and a host of arbitrary factors still strongly influences who lives and who dies.
The trends are similar to those observed in the DPIC's 2010 report [JURIST report].

The death penalty remains a controversial issue across the US. Earlier this week North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue [official website] vetoed legislation [JURIST report] that would have essentially repealed the state's Racial Justice Act [text, PDF]. The 2009 law, which allows death row inmates to appeal their sentences based on statistical evidence of racism, was designed to address concerns that racial bias plays a role in sentencing. Last month the Connecticut Supreme Court [official website] upheld [JURIST report] the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law. Also in November the Ohio Supreme Court [official website] announced that it was forming a committee to ensure that the death penalty is not administered arbitrarily [JURIST report]. In 2009, New Mexico repealed its death penalty [JURIST report] on similar grounds to Illinois, asserting that the state could not possibly administer the death penalty impartially.




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Malaysia opposition leader's sodomy trial concludes
Jaclyn Belczyk on December 15, 2011 3:57 PM ET

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[JURIST] The two-year sodomy trial of Malaysian opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim [official profile; JURIST news archive] came to a close Thursday with the prosecution delivering its closing arguments. Under Malaysian law, sodomy is punishable by 20 years in prison regardless of consent. The charges against Anwar allege that he sodomized a former male political aide. This is the second sodomy case launched against Anwar, who has consistently argued that the allegations are a politically motivated attempt to silence the opposition. He took the stand in August to deny the charges, and the defense rested its case [JURIST reports] in October. The verdict is scheduled to be delivered January 9.

A Malaysian court ruled [JURIST report] in May that prosecutors had enough evidence to continue to pursue a sodomy case against Anwar. The opposition leader was arrested in July 2008 after he filed a lawsuit against his accuser [JURIST reports] in late June. Last December, Anwar filed a complaint [JURIST report] in a Malaysian court over a WikiLeaks [website] cable published by Australian newspapers stating he had engaged in sodomy. Last year, the Federal Court of Malaysia [official website], the country's highest court, rejected Anwar's 2006 defamation suit [JURIST report] against against former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad [BBC profile] for allegedly suggesting at a human rights conference that Anwar was unfit for office because of his supposed homosexuality. Anwar was Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister under former Mahathir Mohamad until he was fired in 1998 following earlier sodomy charges of which he was initially convicted but later acquitted. He reentered Malaysian politics following the expiration of a 10-year ban [JURIST report] against him for unrelated corruption charges.




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HRW says Syria officials ordered civilian attacks, calls for ICC investigation
Brandon Gatto on December 15, 2011 2:31 PM ET

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[JURIST] Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] said Thursday that Syrian army commanders and officials have ordered troops to attack unarmed protesters in an all-out effort to stop public demonstrations. These allegations are detailed in an 88-page report [text] based on more than 60 interviews with defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies who describe, in specific detail, how numerous commanders and officials at various levels of the Syrian government ordered attacks against Syrian civilians. As a result of the alleged abuses, HRW has urged [press release] the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) [official websites], as well as impose sanctions against the 74 officials implicated in the attacks. According to Anna Neistat, associate director for emergencies at HRW and one of the authors of the report, "Defectors gave us names, ranks, and positions of those who gave the orders to shoot and kill, and each and every official named in this report, up to the very highest levels of the Syrian government, should answer for their crimes against the Syrian people." One former soldier, who was deployed to Daraa with the 35th Special Forces Regiment, told HRW that his commander verbally ordered him to open fire at protestors on April 25:
The commander of our regiment, Brigadier General Ramadan Ramadan, usually stayed behind the lines. But this time he stood in front of the whole brigade. He said, "Use heavy shooting. Nobody will ask you to explain." Normally we are supposed to save bullets, but this time he said, "Use as many bullets as you want." And when somebody asked what we were supposed to shoot at, he said, "At anything in front of you." About 40 protesters were killed that day.
While HRW has consistently characterized the ongoing abuses in Syria as crimes against humanity, the Syrian government has repeatedly defended its actions as a matter of necessity, arguing that armed terrorist groups have incited Syrian violence and are ultimately responsible for the uprising that began there last March.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] has previously urged [JURIST report] the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC [press release]. She has reported that more than 5,000 people, including 300 children, have been killed in Syria since the start of the protests in March, and that many of the killings, detentions, and acts of torture qualify, in her view [video], as crimes against humanity. Pillay has also called on the Syrian government to allow human rights monitors into the country and to cooperate fully with the investigations. Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council [official website] adopted a resolution strongly condemning the recent violence [JURIST report] in Syria. Similarly, in November, the UN General Assembly's Human Rights Committee approved [JURIST report] a draft resolution [materials] condemning Syria's human rights violations and calling for their immediate end. Pillay also called for an ICC probe [JURIST report] into the situation in Syria in August.




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North Carolina governor vetoes repeal of death penalty racial justice law
Jaclyn Belczyk on December 15, 2011 1:37 PM ET

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[JURIST] North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue [official website] on Wednesday vetoed [signature, PDF] legislation [SB 9 materials] that would have essentially repealed the state's Racial Justice Act [text, PDF]. The 2009 law, which allows death row inmates to appeal their sentences based on statistical evidence of racism, was designed to address concerns that racial bias plays a role in sentencing. In an accompanying statement [text, PDF], Perdue said that while she is a strong supporter of the death penalty, "it is essentially that it be carried out fairly and that the process not be infected with prejudice based on race, gender, poverty, or any other factor." Perdue said, "I am vetoing Senate Bill 9 for the same reason that I signed the Racial Justice Act two years ago: it is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.

The death penalty remains a controversial issue across the US. Last month Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber issued a temporary reprieve for death row inmate Gary Haugen and called for an end [JURIST report] to the state's death penalty. Earlier that month the Connecticut Supreme Court [official website] upheld [JURIST report] the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law. Also in November the Ohio Supreme Court [official website] announced that it was forming a committee to ensure that the death penalty is not administered arbitrarily [JURIST report]. In March, Illinois abolished capital punishment [JURIST report], concluding that there was no way to rid the capital punishment system of its discriminatory flaws. In 2009, New Mexico repealed its death penalty [JURIST report] on similar grounds to Illinois, asserting that the state could not possibly administer the death penalty impartially.




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Egypt court reduces sentence of jailed blogger
Jennie Ryan on December 15, 2011 10:56 AM ET

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[JURIST] An Egyptian military court on Thursday reduced the sentence of a blogger charged with criticizing the military. The court reduced the three-year sentence of blogger Maikel Nabil to two years. Nabil was convicted and sentenced [JURIST report] to prison in April for criticizing the Egyptian army and raising questions over reform in the wake of revolution. The 25-year-old blogger and activist was arrested [HRW report] at his home on March 28 and charged with "insulting the military establishment" and "spreading false information" for criticizing the army's handling of the revolution that began on January 25. He posted an article on his blog [text, in Arabic] on March 7 saying the army had beat, tortured and killed protesters, including some who were cooperating with security forces. He was sentenced without a formal hearing and without his lawyers present. Nabil has been on a hunger strike since August in protest of his conviction. His family reports that he plans to escalate his hunger strike [BBC report] despite the courts reduction of his sentence causing serious concerns for his already deteriorating health.

The blogger's conviction has raised doubts about the military's commitment to reform after Hosni Mubarak [BBC profile] stepped down. In March, the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [NYT backgrounder] unveiled an interim constitution that allows the council to retain control over the country until an elected government is installed. The document vests the military council with presidential powers [Al-Ahram report], including the abilities to introduce legislation, veto existing laws and act as Egypt's representative to the international community. Last November, Egypt released blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil [advocacy website] after four years of imprisonment on charges of insulting Islam and causing sectarian strife on his blog [website, in Arabic]. Nabil, a former law student, was convicted in 2007 [JURIST report] for posting statements critical of Islamic authorities and former president Mubarak, calling him a dictator.




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White House withdraws threat to veto defense bill
Jennie Ryan on December 15, 2011 10:21 AM ET

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[JURIST] The White House on Wednesday announced that President Barack Obama [official website] no longer intends to veto the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 [SB 1867, PDF]. The about face comes after revisions by lawmakers that address the concerns of the Obama administration related to the treatment of terror suspects. The administration had threatened to veto the legislation [JURIST report] because it would require military rather than civilian detention of terror suspects. The revised version of the bill [JURIST report], released by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees [official websites] on Monday, gives the administration more discretion over the laws implementation and grants waiver authority to the president. White House press secretary Jay Carney said that because of the changes, "we have concluded that the language does not challenge or constrain the President's ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the American people, and the President's senior advisors will not recommend a veto." The bill passed in the House of Representatives [official website] with a vote of 283 to 136 [roll call]. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate [official website] sometime Thursday.

The news marks the end of the contentious debate surrounding passage of the annual defense spending bill. The version of the bill containing the controversial terrorism provision passed in the Senate [JURIST report] early this month. Also this month, the Senate rejected an amendment to the bill [JURIST report] that would have struck a provision authorizing the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force" to detain individuals suspected of terrorism and instituted a timeline to allow further study and investigation on the issue of counterterrorism by Congress. The terrorism provision was approved [JURIST report] earlier this month by the Senate Armed Services Committee in a unanimous vote after disagreements regarding the provision had blocked their passage for months [CNN report]. The passage by the Committee came shortly after an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] report [PDF] claiming that the US is diminishing its "core values" [JURIST report] with regard to various counterterrorism measures put in place during the 10 years since the 9/11 attacks [JURIST backgrounder].




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Algeria lawmakers approve controversial media law
Jaclyn Belczyk on December 15, 2011 10:00 AM ET

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[JURIST] Algerian lawmakers on Wednesday approved a controversial new media law that critics say will impede freedom of expression. The law restricts journalists [AFP report] from undermining Algeria's sovereignty, national identity, economy and security, providing for fines up to USD $3,900 and jail time. The law has been criticized for being vague and overbroad by groups such as the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights [advocacy website, in French]. Algerian Minister of Communication Nacer Mehal [official website, in French] defended the measure [Radio Algerienne report, in Arabic], saying it would not restrict free expression.

In April, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression Frank LaRue [official website] called on Algeria [JURIST report] to "guarantee the right to freedom of opinion and expression" including decriminalizing defamation. LaRue noted that, despite significant progress since the 1990s, which saw more than 100 journalists killed, a number of challenges remain. LaRue highlighted that the television and radio sectors remain under government control and do not provide unbiased coverage. He also cautioned that the restrictive legal framework continues to impair important rights including peaceful assembly. Earlier that month, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika [official profile, in French] declared an initiative for sweeping constitutional and political reforms [JURIST report] in order to increase the role of democracy in the African nation.




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France ex-president Chirac convicted of corruption
Jaclyn Belczyk on December 15, 2011 8:59 AM ET

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[JURIST] A French court on Thursday convicted former president Jacques Chirac [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] on corruption charges, handing him a two-year suspended sentence. The charges stem from his time as mayor of the city of Paris and accused him of using public funds to support his political ambitions. In September, the prosecution asked the court to drop all charges against Chirac [JURIST report] and his nine co-defendants. Two of the nine were acquitted, but the other seven were also found guilty [BBC report]. Chirac, who was absent from much of his trial due to failing health, was not present [Le Monde report, in French] for Thursday's verdict. The first former French president to face prosecution, Chirac could have faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. It is unclear whether he plans to appeal.

While the verdict brings an end to this particular trial, Chirac still faces other legal woes. In September the prosecutor's office began an inquiry into allegations [JURIST report] against Chirac and his prime minister Dominique de Villepin over the receipt of millions of dollars from African leaders. The accusations against the two former French officials were made by a lawyer who worked as an aide to Chirac and claims to have participated in the passage of over $20 million in cash from African leaders to be used as political donations. All of the alleged donations came from leaders of former French colonies. An investigation has also been launched by the Paris Bar into the actions taken by the accuser as his involvement with the passage of these funds is unethical within the legal profession. Villepin, like Chirac, had also been the subject of another trial, which involved accusations that he participated in a smear campaign against current President Nicolas Sarkozy [official website, in French], but was recently acquitted [JURIST report].




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