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Legal news from Thursday, December 29, 2011




China activist on trial for inciting disturbance, fraud
John Paul Putney on December 29, 2011 9:48 PM ET

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[JURIST] Chinese housing activist and lawyer, Ni Yulan, and her husband, Dong Jiqin, went on trial Thursday on charges of fraud and "inciting a disturbance" in Beijing. Lying on a stretcher and relying on an oxygen machine [AP report], Ni pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud for falsifying facts to steal property and inciting a disturbance when they were detained by police in April. Although a court spokesperson indicated the trial was open to the public, foreign journalists and diplomats were barred from the proceedings [International Business Times report]. Ni, a trained lawyer, and her husband have assisted victims of government land seizures [Guardian report] including those displaced by the Beijing Olympics project. Ni's lawyer, Cheng Hai, indicated the hearing was interrupted for unclear reasons [Telegraph report] after only four hours and without producing a verdict as expected. It is unclear when a verdict will be announced.

Ni Yulan is the third high-profile dissident to be put on trial in recent weeks as part of a larger crackdown timed around Christmas in order to avoid international scrutiny [Guardian report]. Earlier this week, a Chinese court sentenced political activist Chen Xi [JURIST report] to 10 years in prison for inciting subversion.The charges against Chen, 57, stemmed from more than 30 political essays that he had published online. Last week, a Chinese court sentenced human rights advocate Chen Wei [JURIST report], who is unrelated to Chen Xi, to nine years in prison. Chen Wei, 42, was sentenced after a two-hour hearing in which he pleaded not guilty to inciting subversion of state power. He was charged for having written essays critical of the Communist Party, which he published on overseas Chinese websites, avoiding the national Internet censorship firewalls. Chen was one of more than 130 activists detained after the US-based news site Boxun [website, in Chinese] reported an anonymous appeal for people to stage protests across China last February.




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Puerto Rico governor approves political status referendum
Jerry Votava on December 29, 2011 5:59 PM ET

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[JURIST] Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuno (R) [official website, in Spanish], a supporter of statehood, signed legislation establishing a two-part referendum [press release, in Spanish] on Wednesday that would allow Puerto Ricans to voice their opinions regarding Puerto Rico's political status and connection to the US. The referendum would be held on November 6, 2012. The first part of the referendum asks whether Puerto Rico [BBC backgrounder] should change its status at all. The second part of the referendum asks which type of status change is preferred, including statehood, independence or "sovereign commonwealth" outside the Territorial Clause of the US Constitution. Fortuno praised the two-part referendum:
[I]n a single event, we know with clarity, first, if our people want to maintain the current territorial political status and second, we know which of the alternatives of Puerto Rico's territorial status has more support from Puerto Ricans to provide the people.
The results of the referendum would not be binding to the US because congressional action would be required to enact any status change.

The Puerto Rican House of Representatives voted to pass the legislation [JURIST report] to permit the referendum earlier this month. The US House of Representatives approved a bill to establish the referendum [JURIST report] in April 2010, but it was never approved by the Senate. In 2007, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization [official website] called on the US [press release] to quickly resolve the island's political status and release political prisoners. Puerto Ricans last voted on the status of the island in 1998 [results], with the "None of the Above" option winning 50.3 percent, statehood garnering 46.5 percent of the vote and independence only 2.5 percent. The island was established as a US commonwealth in 1952 after Congress adopted the Puerto Rican Constitution. Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, and the island has been under US control since 1898. JURIST Managing Editor Dwyer Arce recently argued that, as US citizens, Puerto Ricans should be entitled to vote [JURIST op-ed] in US presidential elections.




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Russia criticizes US human rights record
Jerry Votava on December 29, 2011 5:07 PM ET

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[JURIST] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) [official website] issued a report on Wednesday strongly criticizing the human rights record of a number of countries including the United States. Twenty pages of the 90-page report focus on the United States [AP report], and list a number of practices and conditions that the MFA views as violations of basic human rights. Among the concerns raised were alleged invasions of personal privacy, purported mistreatment of Muslim Americans since the 9/11 terror attacks [JURIST Feature] and judicial errors which have permitted innocent people to be convicted of capital crimes. The MFA report also highlights the "notorious" military prison at Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive] and rebukes US President Barack Obama [official profile] for "legalizing indefinite and extrajudicial custody" of those prisoners. The report also criticizes Canada, European Union nations, and some former Soviet states. It excludes the Middle East and Asia. Some of the MFA report's concerns surrounding capital punishment and the Guantanamo Bay prison [JURIST op-eds] have been voiced by JURIST contributors.

This report marks the first time that the MFA has issued a statement regarding the state of affairs of human rights in other countries, although Russia has been criticized internationally and by its own citizens for its human rights record. Earlier this month, the Russia Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights called for the annulment [JURIST report] of the conviction of ex-oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky [defense website; JURIST news archive]. Also this month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev [official website, in Russian; JURIST news archive] ordered an investigation into allegations of fraud [JURIST report] in recent parliamentary elections. Earlier, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) [official website] issued preliminary findings [JURIST report] that the Russian election was "characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation." The US State Department [official website] and other world leaders have also called for an investigation into the allegations of election fraud and expressed concern over "harassment" of election monitoring groups.




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Philippines ex-president faces new charges
Sung Un Kim on December 29, 2011 2:26 PM ET

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[JURIST] Philippine authorities filed a second criminal complaint against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo [BBC backgrounder, JURIST news archive], the former Philippine president who has been under hospital arrest [JURIST report] for previous charges of corruption and electoral fraud. The second complaint alleges that Arroyo approved a $329-million national broadband network deal with the Chinese company ZTE Corporation [corporate website] in return for millions of dollars in kickbacks in 2008. Arroyo abandoned the deal in 2008 as a result of public pressure. Prosecutors also charged Arroyo's husband Jose Miguel Arroyo, the former Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza and former Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr. on related charges. The former president is accused of violating sections 3 (g) and (i) of the Republic Act 3019 [text], as well as the Republic Act 6713 [text], also known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. Arroyo and her husband reject the accusations.

Arroyo was formally charged last month with corruption and election fraud during her presidency and was arrested the next day on a warrant issued for the charges. Earlier that same week, Arroyo and her husband tried to leave the country after the Philippine Supreme Court allowed them to travel [JURIST report] despite the pending charges, but were denied transit until they received an official copy of the court order. The arrest warrant effectively overrides the court's travel permit. In July 2010, current Philippine president Benigno Aquino [BBC profile] signed an executive order [JURIST report] to set up a "truth commission" to investigate allegations that the outgoing administration engaged in corruption and rights violations.




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Obama administration urges Supreme Court to reject Texas legislature redistricting maps
John Paul Putney on December 29, 2011 11:07 AM ET

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[JURIST] The Obama administration, arguing as amicus curiae in Perry, et al. v. Perez, et al., pressed [brief, PDF] the US Supreme Court [official website] on Wednesday to reject a redistricting map drawn by the Texas legislature which was not cleared pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) [Cornell LII backgrounder]. In its stead, the administration argued, the interim map drawn up by a three-judge panel from the US District Court for the Western District of Texas [official website] should be used:
[Texas] argues that there is no time for a remand and this Court therefore should designate the unprecleared maps as the interim maps [for the 2012 election]. Insofar as this Court is required to choose between either the State's unprecleared plans or the interim plans drawn below, it should select the latter. Even if the court-drawn plans may—pending further explanation—insufficiently adhere to state redistricting principles in certain respects, those plans are preferable to ones whose very use would contravene Section 5's preclearance regime and whose content violates Section 5 in purpose and effect.
The Obama administration opposes the state's map for the state house and for the state's congressional delegation in the US House of Representatives, but not the state senate map, even though minority groups are opposing all three maps. Oral argument for all three redistricting plans is set for January 9.

Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court agreed to rule [JURIST report] on the three Texas redistricting plans as part of an emergency appeal by Texas. According to the 2010 census, Texas' population grew by 4.3 million, which gave it four more seats in the US House of Representatives. The Republican-controlled state legislature redrew the congressional districts in a way that challengers claim would make it more likely for Republicans to win those new seats. The plan must be approved by either the Justice Department or a federal court under the VRA, and the Obama administration has objected to the plan. In the meantime, the federal court in Texas drew an "interim map" for use in the 2012 election. The interim map is the map currently being challenged before the Supreme Court.




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