July 18, 2007

News You Might Have Missed * Vol. 6, No. 29

Important but overlooked news from around the world.

QUOTED:

“What is ironic is that at the same time lawmakers were crowing about no earmarks this year, they were surreptitiously drowning agency heads in funding requests.”

— Government watchdog Steve Ellis says Democrats in Congress didn’t go easy on the pork after all (see “Top Stories,” below).

CONTENTS:

*Top Stories*
A Mexican drug sting bites back
Abu Ghraib: the tip of the iceberg?
Democratic Congress a pork-barrel pool party

*War & Terrorism*
Iraqi fatalities on the rise amid checkpoints, eye scans

*Law & Justice*
Joseph Koney: Wanted for war crimes, betting on settlement

*Environment & Health*
Bottled water revolt gathers steam


TOP STORIES

Mexican Drug Sting Bites Back

A drug bust that netted $205 million gave Mexican President Felipe Calderon bragging rights back in March, but has since turned into a PR nightmare. The man accused of importing a precursor to methamphetamine, Chinese immigrant and Mexican national named Zhenli Ye Gon, turned the tables this month by accusing Calderon’s administration of threatening to kill him unless he hid $5 million increments of illegal campaign cash during the presidential election.

Noticias de Oaxaca reports that his alleged ties to Calderon’s ruling party, the PAN, and the Mexican military, have put all concerned on the defensive, and that the $205 million is now considered emblematic of government collusion with drug barons.

While Mexico’s opposition parties have called for an investigation, Ye Gon is a free man in New York City, having fled the country after being tipped off about an impending raid on his home.

The DEA, meanwhile, won’t arrest or extradite him, saying they don’t have the proper “paperwork.”

Abu Ghraib: The Tip of the Iceberg?

An exhaustive series of interviews with 50 Iraq war veterans by two reporters with the liberal weekly The Nation reveals that attacks on innocent civilians are much more common than the U.S. media suggests.

According to the accounts of these soldiers, who served all over Iraq between 2003 and 2005, Abu Ghraib was the tip of the iceberg. They tell stories of living in constant fear of IEDs, and devolving view of Iraqi civilians who are increasingly treated as “less human than us.”

The result has been indiscriminate killings that are never investigated — and justified by planting weapons on unarmed corpses — torture, debasement, and worse.

Veterans described opening fire on Iraqi civilians every time an IED goes off, running over Iraqi children who didn’t get out of the way of their convoys fast enough.

Raids on homes are often based on faulty intelligence, usually a tip from an Iraqi who wants to get back at his neighbors. The searches yield evidence of potential wrongdoing only 10 percent of the time, but result in traumatized Iraqi families and the destruction of their homes.

“I just remember thinking to myself, I just brought terror to someone else under the American flag, and that’s just not what I joined the Army to do,” said one U.S. Sergeant.

Democratic Congress a Pork-Barrel Pool Party

A report from the Center for Investigative Reporting exposes the hypocrisy of Democratic claims that the $463.5-billion spending bill they passed in February was “earmark-free,” or free of any specific pork-barrel project money for their home states.

But within days of the bill passing, Democrats deluged federal agencies to fund their pet projects directly, according to the report.

In fact, documents show that agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce received 122 spending requests from 52 senators and 205 representatives in January through April — exactly when Democrats were reaping the publicity benefits of their “earmark-free” appropriations policy.

Congressmen say these requests differ from earmarks because agencies can “just say no,” but experts say the agencies, already dependent on Congress to fund their budgets, are likely to feel pressure to accede to them.

Sources:

“Drug case could backfire in Mexico”
Noticias de Oaxaca (Mexico), July 13, 2007

“The other war”
The Nation, July 13, 2007

“Lawmakers try to save their earmarks”
Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2007


WAR & TERRORISM

Iraqi Fatalities on the Rise Amid Checkpoints, Eye Scans

American checkpoints and database ID programs seek to stem the tide of insurgent attacks ripping through Iraqi society.

But the bolstered security programs come at a human cost.

U.S. soldiers have killed or wounded 429 Iraqi civilians at checkpoints since June 2006, according to statistics obtained exclusively by McClatchy News Service.

The number has risen each month even as more U.S. troops pour into Iraq. They continue on average to rise each month as well, in spite of claims that the numbers are actually in decline.

Of the 3,200 checkpoint incidents in which soldiers fired warning shots at Iraqi civilians, 36 such shootings a month resulted in the wounding or death of an Iraqi.

It is still unclear how, or whether, the U.S. military tracks Iraqi civilians killed in raids or in the streets; McClatchy got the statistics, which were part of a report given to Army Gen. David Petraeus, from “a person familiar with the briefing.”

Checkpoints have become much more common as the U.S. expands a program to track thousands of Iraqi men in a database using their fingerprints and eye scans.

Soldiers have gone door to door collecting data to ascertain who lives where, and are giving Iraqis IDs to permit them entry to local neighborhoods and markets.

The program, which “has raised privacy concerns at the Pentagon,” according to USA Today, is meant to keep suspects out of vulnerable Iraqi neighborhoods. Those who refuse to be ID’ed are denied access, although few raise objections.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is also taking secret fingerprints from “terrorist safe houses, training camps, bomb factories” and other sites in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They share the database with British intelligence and other allies in an effort to keep dangerous foreigners from entering their countries.

The U.S. database, which currently holds more than 60 million fingerprints, has another purpose — it also tracks fugitives and undocumented workers immigration officials seek to deport.

Sources:

“U.S. troops have shot 429 Iraqi civilians in past year”
McClatchy News Service, July 12, 2007

“U.S. is building database on Iraqis”
USA Today, July 12, 2007

“Fingerprints to help single out terrorists”
ABC News, July 5, 2007


LAW & JUSTICE

Joseph Kony: Wanted for War Crimes, Betting on a Settlement

It was Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni who triggered the indictment of Joseph Kony and other former leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army by the International Criminal Court in 2003.

Now Museveni wants the court to drop the charges, to the consternation of the international community.

Rather than jeopardize the ongoing peace talks with Kony and his officers, who face 33 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Museveni offered the men a blanket amnesty, which may or may not be legal.

The LRA has said it will not sign a comprehensive peace agreement until the charges are dropped.

Accountability is the question, although the people of the Acholi tribe in northern Uganda, who were most affected by the violence, have a different answer.

They would be satisfied to see the LRA engage in “mato oput,” a form of traditional justice that sees the accused drink a bitter potion from the oput tree.

Many Acholi feel arrest warrants are unnecessary.

They want to resolve the issue and go home — about 1.6 million Ugandans still live in refugee camps.

The prospect of return — and forgiveness — is complicated for Okeny Edigio, who as a child soldier with the LRA was rewarded by his superiors for burning more civilian huts than anyone else in his group.

Okeny eventually escaped and now runs a nonprofit brick-making business in his hometown.

“The atrocities we were doing were beyond humanity,” he says.

Sources:

“Kampala may demand annulment of LRA warrants”
Institute for War and Peace Reporting, July 12, 2007

“What northern Ugandans really want”
Reuters, July 13, 2007

“Tales from a child soldier”
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 8, 2007


ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH

Bottled Water Revolt Gathers Steam

Green-minded cities are working to encourage residents to trade in their bottled water for tap water, which is often the same thing (most bottled water is purified tap water).

The City Council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, passed a resolution banning the use of bottled water at any city-affiliated event, noting that local tap water has received awards for quality.

Ann Arbor officials say that in general, few plastic bottles are ever recycled, and they take 450 years to break down in a landfill.

Michigan House Democrats, worried that water bottlers are staging a run on already-depleted Great Lakes aquifers, also recently passed a series of new environmental regulations.

In Britain, the Green Party wants people to think twice before ordering bottled water at a restaurant, even if it makes them look cheap.

They note that bottled water, which is more popular than Coca-Cola in some places, is 500 times more expensive than tap water and that 25 percent of all bottled water is imported, creating pollution from fossil-fuel transport emissions.

In New York City, city officials are promoting their own “delicious,” “fat-free,” and “refreshing” tap water.

Bottled water still has the edge there in terms of convenience, but over time they hope people will learn to carry a reusable water bottle with them instead.

The bottled water industry responds to critics by saying that it only takes a tiny percentage of all groundwater in the U.S. every year, compared to municipal and agricultural uses.

And they say bottled water must meet EPA standards for public health, although neither the EPA nor the FDA inspects them that often.

An FDA spokesman told the Ann Arbor News that the industry’s safety record prevented the need for frequent inspections.

Sources:

“Lawmakers put bottlers in hot water”
Ann Arbor News, July 13, 2007

“Brits ‘should go green by drinking tap water'”
Life Style Extra (U.K.), July 13, 2007

“City seeks to pull plug on bottled water”
Newsday (NY), July 13, 2007


Editors: Julia Scott, Josh Wilson

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