September 28, 2012

  • UN extends investigation into Syria abuses as fighting, protests continue
  • US government increased surveillance of phone, email, Justice Dept documents show
  • Greg Palast on the strategies behind voter suppression and blocking access to ballots
  • Fight against child labor and slavery stalls as demand for cheap labor adds pressure
  • Elections in Georgia test democratic reform as voters highlight joblessness, health care, infrastructure as top issues

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PA judge stays death row execution

In Philadelphia, a state judge today overturned the sentence of death row inmate Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed early next week.  From Philadelphia, FSRN’s Matthew Petrillo has more.

Terrance Williams was convicted for a murder he committed during a 1984 robbery. He was 18 at the time when he killed a 56-year-old man who he says had repeatedly sexually abused him. Williams had been sentenced to die next Wednesday, but a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge today overturned that sentence. Defense attorney Shawn Nolan says the judge focused on the District Attorney’s decision to hide evidence that William’s victim sexually abused him and other teenage boys. “And they did not turn that evidence over to the defense. And what she found is that that would have changed the verdict at the penalty phase and that the jury would not have voted for death if they had known those things.” The DA could file an emergency appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or accept the decision and go to a new death-penalty hearing. The DA could alternatively allow a life sentence to be imposed as had previously been done in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal. Matthew Petrillo, FSRN, Philadelphia.

Louisiana exonerates death row inmate convicted on false confession

A court in Louisiana has exonerated a man who had been on death row for 15 years. Damon Thibodeaux walked out of prison today, after forensic and DNA evidence cleared him in the rape and murder of a young relative. The ACLU says his conviction was based almost entirely on a false confession to police.

FEMA trailer class action settlement approved

More than seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, thousands who lost their homes and were temporarily sheltered in formaldehyde-riddled FEMA trailers are finally getting some closure. FSRN’s Zoe Sullivan has the details.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA trailers were used to house displaced Gulf Coast residents.The trailers were sold to the government by private companies. In the months following the storm, residents began complaining about health issues. Testing found formaldehyde levels in the trailers that exceeded federal safety limits. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and can cause respiratory and other health problems. On Thursday, U.S. District judge Kurt Engelhardt approved a $42.6 million class-action settlement. Most of the money comes from trailer manufacturers. The settlement is reported to resolve almost all the remaining claims on the issue, and makes approximately 55,000 Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas residents eligible for payouts. Zoe Sullivan, FSRN, New Orleans.

Environmentalists push for focus on climate change in first presidential debate

Next Wednesday, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will debate for the first time. The economy and jobs are sure to be major focuses, but environmental and health groups are lobbying moderators to broach the issue of climate change. These organizations delivered 120,000 signatures to debate moderator Jim Lehrer yesterday, from people who think President Obama and Romney should clarify their positions on climate change and their ideas for dealing with it. Mike Palamuso is with the League of Conservation Voters. “Many voters are going to be tuning into this presidential race for the first time during these debates, so even if these candidates are discussing these issues on the campaign trail, it’s important for this to be front and center on this national stage during this first presidential debate.” Palamuso says the conversation should expand beyond statements of belief or disbelief in the science.  He says candidates should also address energy policy in light of changing climate conditions.

Austin becomes first city in Texas to support same-sex marriage

The Austin City Council has endorsed marriage equality, making it the first city in Texas to support same-sex marriage. The six person board passed the resolution unanimously Thursday. Although largely a symbolic gesture, the resolution criticizes the Defense of Marriage Act, and calls efforts by Texas to prohibit marriage recognition for same-sex couples discriminatory and inconsistent with Austin’s commitment to equal rights. The final resolution simply states: “We support marriage equality in the State of Texas.”

Saudi Arabia deports Nigerian women on Hajj for lack of male escorts

Saudi Arabia is sending home more than 1000 Nigerian women it detained as they tried to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Saudi officials held the women because they did not have a male escort. In protest, the Nigerian government issued a 48-hour suspension of all pilgrimage flights from its airports. FRSN’s Samuel Okocha reports from the Nigerian capital.

Before now, the rule requiring woman to be accompanied by a male guardian, known as a “Mahram,” appeared to have been relaxed for Nigerian pilgrims, who face no such requirement under Nigeria’s secular government. But current affairs analyst Yinka Salaam tells FSRN that the rule had always been enforced. He says, before now, the number of Nigerian women pilgrims equaled their male counterparts, giving the impression of supervision. This time however, more than 1000 female pilgrims arrived in Saudi Arabia alone. Earlier this week, Saudi authorities sent 171 female pilgrims back to Nigeria. More followed today. This prompted the government to suspend pilgrimage flights to Mecca, where more than 2 million Muslims from around the world are expected to gather in late October. Some save for years in order to make the Hajj, which Muslims are required to complete once in their lives. Some of the deported women have complained of poor detention conditions and humiliating treatment by Saudi officials. Samuel Okocha, FSRN, Lagos.



UN extends investigation into Syria abuses as fighting, protests continue

In Syria protests and fighting continued across the country today. Activists said more than 120 people were killed, mostly from aerial shelling in Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, Homs and elsewhere, according to the Local Coordination Committees. Raids and arrests took place in Damascus as well, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, when Syrian regime forces swept through neighborhoods in the Barza area. People also took to the streets in protest in several cities. In a video posted online today that was identified by activists as coming from Idlib, a column of people march through the street carrying signs and chanting.

One banner labeled with today’s date reads in English: “We assure the world that we who make the final sacrifice will never be beaten.” At least one child can be seen marching in the crowd. Two-thousand Syrians are fleeing across borders every day, a total that could exceed 700,000 by the end of the year, according to figures updated Thursday from the UN’s refugee agency. It said 75 percent are women and children. In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council voted today to extend a six-month term for a commission that is charged with collecting evidence of abuses. The evidence could be used in prosecution cases in the future. The conflict in Syria, and the world community’s efforts to find a peaceful solution, featured in several world leaders speaking at the UN’s General Assembly debate in New York today. Kenny Anthony, prime minister for the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, pressed for the UN to take action.

“St Lucia welcomes a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Syria republic and an immediate end to what is clearly a carnage, a human tragedy. We continue to support the efforts of the special envoy and the general secretary and this body’s efforts to focus on coming to the table for negotiations. With a view to finding a path toward a resolution of the conflict which is acceptable to the majority of the people of Syria. And takes into account the necessity to ensure the welfare and interest of minorities in that state.”

UN General Assembly debate closes next week in New York.

US government increased surveillance of phone, email, Justice Dept documents show

The US government has drastically increased its use of warrantless surveillance of phone calls, e-mails and other communications over the past few years. That’s according to Justice Department documents obtained this week by the American Civil Liberties Union. It took months of lawsuits to make the documents public, but there is still a great deal the public doesn’t know about the spying activities of law enforcement agencies. FSRN’s Alice Ollstein has more.

Greg Palast on the strategies behind voter suppression and blocking access to ballots

In this year’s election, watchdogs and civil rights groups are raising concerns about the effects of restrictive voting laws and measures in key battleground states. One of the people closely watching these developments is Greg Palast, who covered Katherine Harris’ purge of black voters from Florida’s voter rolls in the 2000 presidential election. Palast’s new book is called Billionaires and Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in Nine Easy Steps.

For more on Palast’s investigations and to access the pamphlet, “Seven Ways to Beat the Ballot Bandits,” go to:

Fight against child labor and slavery stalls as demand for cheap labor adds pressure

This week, the Department of Labor released its annual reports on child labor and slavery around the world. The studies, required by Congress, found three new countries that are using child labor: South Sudan, Suriname and Vietnam. Workers rights groups say the increasing demand for cheap labor and pressure to weaken labor protections overseas hampers efforts to eradicate child labor. FSRN’s Andrew Oxford reports.

Elections in Georgia test democratic reform as voters highlight joblessness, health care, infrastructure as top issues

The country of Georgia is holding parliamentary elections next Monday. Some have described them as a litmus test for democracy and the presidency of President Mikhail Saakashvili, who has struggled to respond recently to videos showing abuse of prisoners in the country. But as FSRN’s MJ del Valle, some people in Georgia have expectations focused on much more basic issues, such as joblessness, poor health care and a lack of pensions.

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