[JURIST] A three-judge panel of the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Friday that the Republican National Committee (RNC) [committee website] cannot raise "soft money" to use in state elections. "Soft money" refers to contributions beyond the ceilings imposed by campaign finance [JURIST news archive] laws. The case tests the limits of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission [Cornell LII backgrounder], which eased restrictions [JURIST report] on political and campaign spending by corporations based on the First Amendment grounds. Specifically, the RNC tried to challenge Section 323(a) Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) [text] of 2002, which banned raising or spending "soft money," defining it as donations greater than $30,400 during a federal campaign, and limited state and local campaigns from donations greater than $10,000 from any one donor. The RNC argued that since the money would be used for state campaign purposes, it did not fall under the restrictions of the 2002 ban. The court granted summary judgment for the Federal Election Commission (FEC) [official website], saying it was bound by the Supreme Court decision in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission [Oyez backgrounder], which was partially overturned by Citizens United. However, the panel said Citizens United and campaign finance jurisprudence mean that Congress "may impose some limits on contributions to federal candidates and political parties because of the quid pro quo corruption or appearance of quid pro quo corruption that can be associated with such contributions." The case will likely be appealed could reach the Supreme Court.
US President Barack Obama has sharply criticized the Supreme Court's holding in Citizens United, most notably [JURIST reports] in this year's State of the Union speech. Obama warned of the increased potential for powerful interest groups, both foreign and domestic, to wield excessive influence over American elections and called for bipartisan support of legislation to counteract the decision. Citizen's United overturned Section 203 of the BCRA, which prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as an "electioneering communication" or for speech expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate. Earlier this month, the US Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] held a hearing [JURIST report] on the effects of the Citizens United decision.
[JURIST] The Obama administration on Friday defended the legality of its use of unmanned predator drone strikes [JURIST news archive]. State Department Legal Adviser [official website] Harold Koh [academic profile] explained the administration's legal rationale in a speech [text] to the American Society of International Law [official website], saying the strikes "comply with all applicable law." Koh said the drone strikes fit the administration's principles governing targeting practices because the principle of distinction limits targeting for military objectives and not civilians or civilian structures, and the principle of proportionality prohibits attacks that will cause too much incidental death or injury to civilians or destruction of civilian objects in relation to the advantage of the military objective. Koh further explained that because international law allows a country to use lethal force to defend itself, the drone strikes cannot be considered "unlawful extrajudicial killings." Koh said the Obama administration is "committed" to ensuring its targeting practices are lawful but that:
recent events have shown, Al Qaeda has not abandoned its intent to attack the United States, and indeed continues to attack us. Thus, in this ongoing armed conflict, the United States has the authority under international law, and the responsibility to its citizens, to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks.
There has been growing criticism for the use of unmanned drones. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed suit [JURIST report] seeking information related to the US government's use of unmanned drones. The ACLU alleges that the drones have been used by the military and CIA for unlawful killings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The ACLU also cites troubling reports indicating that US citizens may be targeted and killed by unmanned drones. In October, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston [official website] noted that the use of unmanned drones by the US to carry out attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be illegal [JURIST report]. Alston said, "[t]he onus is really on the government of the United States to reveal more about the ways in which it makes sure that arbitrary executions, extrajudicial executions, are not in fact being carried out through the use of these weapons." Alston criticized the US policy in a report to the UN General Assembly's human rights committee that was presented as part of a larger demand that no state be free from accountability.
[JURIST] US Defense Secretary Robert Gates [official profile] on Thursday appointed [press release] retired Navy Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald [official profile] as the convening authority for military commissions [JURIST news archive]. Considered an expert in military law, MacDonald's experience as a former Navy judge advocate general played a significant role in the appointment process. MacDonald replaces Susan Crawford, a Bush administration appointee. The position was created under the Military Commissions Act of 2006 [text, PDF] to oversee military commissions themselves, such as those at Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive], and also to oversee the Office of Military Commissions. Notably, the convening authority has the power to review and approve charges against "belligerents," pursuant to the Military Commissions Act.
The appointment may indicate that the Obama administration is planning to try accused 9/11 conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [BBC Profile; JURIST news archive] in a military trial rather than in civilian criminal court, as Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] had originally announced [JURIST report]. Last week, Holder defended his decision [JURIST report] to try the suspected terrorists in civilian court. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website], a group that has been persistent in its advocacy of civilian trials for the 9/11 suspects, expressed support [press release] for Holder's decision. Earlier this month, the ACLU released a full-page advertisement in the New York Timesurging President Barack Obama [JURIST report] to uphold his pledge to try 9/11 suspects in civilian criminal court. That release came just days after reports that White House advisers are considering recommending [JURIST report] that Mohammed be tried in a military court rather than through the civilian criminal justice system.
[JURIST] US Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] said Thursday that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) would appeal a judge's order to release a Guantanamo Bay detainee suspected of involvement in the 9/11 [JURIST news archive] World Trade Center attacks. In a decision released Monday, US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] Judge James Robinson had granted [JURIST report] the habeas corpus petition of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, ordering his release. Slahi has been accused of recruiting for al Qaeda in Germany and ultimately helping alleged hijackers Mohammed Atta [JURIST news archives], Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al Sehhi find training in Afghanistan. The prosecution believes that Slahi had a "significant" role in planning the 9/11 attacks and sought the death penalty, but a key prosecutor, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, stepped down from the case after it was revealed that "enhanced interrogation techniques" had been used [Senate Armed Services Committee report, PDF] to compel his confessions. Robinson's opinion is currently classified, but is expected to be publicly released at a later date.
[JURIST] Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] and President Robert Mugabe [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] agreed at belated International Women's Day Celebrations on Friday that gay rights should not be constitutionally protected [AFP report]. While Zimbabwean "sexual deviancy" laws prohibit homosexual acts, some lawmakers have suggested that drafts of Zimbabwe's new constitution [JURIST report] decriminalize homosexual acts. Tsvangirai and Mugabe rejected [BBC report] such proposals, stating that the current law serves to promote unions between men and women. The leaders' agreement signaled a rare alignment of opinion in what has become a contentious power-sharing arrangement.
Last year, the Zimbabwean parliament formed a committee to draft a new constitution as part of the power-sharing agreement [JURIST reports] between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. It was hoped that a draft of the new constitution would be completed by this February [Mail and Guardian report] so that it could be decided upon via referendum in July and adopted by the end of the year. Zimbabwe last attempted a constitutional referendum in 2000, though it was rejected due to concerns about the extent of power that would be given to Mugabe. Once the constitution is ratified, Tsvangirai targets 2011 for a presidential election.
[JURIST] The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) [official website] on Friday adopted a resolution [A/HRC/13/L.15 materials] condemning Myanmar for rights violations [press release] and urging the ruling junta to conduct fair and free elections. The UNHRC also extended the mandate [UN News Centre report] for the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, for an additional year. Friday's resolution comes after several UN member states declared Thursday that Myanmar must release all political prisoners, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi [BBC profile; JURIST news archive]. The statement was adopted during a meeting of the "Group of Friends of Myanmar," organized by UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon. During the meeting, developments in Myanmar, including the adoption of new election laws [JURIST report] that bar Suu Kyi from running in the upcoming election, were discussed. The "Group of Friends of Myanmar" include [AFP report] Australia, Britain, China, the European Union, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the US, and Vietnam.
Earlier this week, Myanmar's Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit to repeal the election laws [JURIST report] filed by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) [party website]. In February, Myanmar's Supreme Court dismissed Suu Kyi's latest appeal [JURIST report] to the 18-month extension of her house arrest. Suu Kyi appealed to the high court in November after a lower court found her guilty [JURIST reports] of violating the terms of her house arrest when she allowed an American to stay with her after he swam across a lake to her home. Suu Kyi, who has been in prison or under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, will be released in November [JURIST report], according to a government official, likely after the upcoming elections have taken place.
[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts [official website] on Thursday sentenced [DOJ press release] a computer hacker to 20 years in prison for his role in the one of the largest identity theft cases in US history. Judge Patti Saris also ordered Albert Gonzalez to pay $25,000 and serve three years of probation. Gonzalez pleaded guilty [DOJ press release] in December to conspiring to hack into computer networks and stealing financial information relating to tens of millions of credit and debit cards. Gonzalez is reported to have worked as an informant [CNN report] for bank card thefts for the US Secret Service [official website] before he was arrested in 2008.
The US Department of Justice [DOJ] originally indicted [JURIST report] Gonzalez along with two unidentified Russian hackers for wire fraud and conspiracy. He was accused of stealing more than 130 million credit and debit card numbers by hacking into computer systems of companies including credit card payment processor Heartland Payment Systems, convenience store chain 7-Eleven, and supermarket chain Hannaford Brothers. Gonzalez was charged in May 2008 in the Eastern District of New York and in August 2008 in the District of Massachusetts in separate conspiracies. Friday's sentencing addressed both sets of charges.
[JURIST] The Indonesian Constitutional Court [official website, in Bahasa] on Thursday rejected [press release, in Bahasa] a challenge to a controversial anti-pornography law. The law [text, in Bahasa] was purportedly designed to protect younger generations from pornographic and lewd materials. Critics challenged the bill for being too broad, discriminating against women, and targeting aspects of Indonesian tradition and culture, but the court rejected those arguments. Some areas of Indonesia, such as Bali, have refused to enforce the law [AP report]. While Indonesia is officially secular, it is the world's largest Muslim country by population, and some areas are ruled by Sharia law [JURIST news archive].
The Indonesian Parliament [official website] passed the law [JURIST report] in 2008, criminalizing all "obscene" works and "bodily movements" that could violate public morality. Proponents of the law included President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono [official website; BBC profile] and his administration, who claimed that the law would protect Islam and cultural art while eradicating pornography.
[JURIST] The Russian Prosecutor General's Office [official website, in Russian] on Friday banned [press release, in Russian] Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf [Britannica backgrounder], finding it in violation of laws against extremism. The step was taken pursuant to Article I of Russia's Law to Combat Extremist Activities. According to the statement from the Prosecutor General's Office, "[t]he autobiographical book contains the ideas of Hitler's National Socialism, presenting the militaristic outlook that justifies discrimination and destruction of non-Aryan races that led to the start of World War II." Mein Kempf is readily available on Russian websites and also in bookshops throughout the country, but now people caught distributing or selling the book could be fined [RFE/RL report]. Some political commentators believe this step could contribute to a decrease of hate crimes in Russia, but others remain skeptical, saying it will be too difficult to stifle distribution [Reuters report], particularly via the Internet. Mein Kampf has also been banned in Austria, China and Germany, and its access is limited is several other countries.
Russia is currently struggling to limit hate crimes, which decreased in 2009 [JURIST report] according to the SOVA Center [advocacy website]. The Center report that 71 people were killed and 333 wounded in Russia in racially motivated attacks in 2009, down from 110 killed and 487 wounded in 2008. In December, the Russian Supreme Court [official website, in Russian] upheld [JURIST report] a lower court decision to shut down the Taganrog Jehovah's Witness congregation and ban the distribution of 34 Jehovah's Witness publications, finding both the Jehovah's Witness congregation and the publications are to be extremist. In 2007, the Russian parliament approved legislative amendments to change the prevailing definition of extremist crime [JURIST report] in Russian law to include activities taken for "political or ideological hatred."
[JURIST] The UN Human Rights Council [official website] on Thursday adopted a resolution [text, PDF] condemning religious defamation [JURIST news archive]. The non-binding resolution, proposed by Pakistan, passed with a vote of 20-17 [press release], with eight abstentions. The resolution has long been sought by Muslim countries, which claim that Muslims have faced discrimination, especially since the 9/11 attacks on the US. The resolution states that the council:
Strongly condemns all manifestations and acts of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and migrants and the stereotypes often applied to them, including on the basis of religion or belief, and urges all States to apply and, where required, reinforce existing laws when such xenophobic or intolerant acts, manifestations or expressions occur, in order to deny impunity for those who commit such acts;
In November, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) [official website] began lobbying the UN General Assembly [official website] to pass an international treaty [JURIST report] protecting religious beliefs and symbols from defamation. The efforts of the OIC are being led by Pakistan and Algeria with full support of the organization's 54 remaining members. The US government has openly condemned the idea of a bar on defamation of religion, which it claims could have the adverse affect of suppressing dissidents and reformists in Muslim countries. In October, the US State Department [official website] released [JURIST report] its annual Report on International Religious Freedom [materials], criticizing Islamic countries for limiting religious expression. The report found that countries such as North Korea and Iran have attempted to prevent religious defamation as a way to limit religious expression. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [official profile] said [transcript] that freedom of religion is essential not only in the US but in every society, and limiting an individual's right of expression reduces that freedom.
[JURIST] A Rwandan opposition politician pleaded guilty Thursday to charges connected to the 1994 genocide [HRW backgrounder] and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Joseph Ntawangundi, an aid to Hutu opposition leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, was convicted in absentia [New Times report] in 2007, and originally sentenced to 19 years in prison. Ntawangundi pleaded guilty after returning to Rwanda after many years in exile and received a two-year reduction in his sentence. The panel of judges for the Gacaca [official website], a system of local courts created to accelerate genocide trial proceedings, found Ntawangundi guilty of organizing the deaths of Tutsis while principal of a school in Gitwe. Ntawangundi originally maintained that he was not present in Rwanda at the time of the killing. The decision comes at a time when current Tutsi President Paul Kagame [official website] has received criticism [press release] from Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] for his treatment of opposition parties. Ingabire Umuhoza denied [New Times report] Ntawangundi's participation, arguing that Ntawangundi left the country in 1992 and that the Gacaca courts are being used to undermine political opposition.
Rwanda continues to try and convicted individuals who were responsible for the 1994 genocide. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) [official website; JURIST news archive], was established for the prosecution of high-level officials responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law during the Rwandan genocide. Last week, the Appeals Chamber of the ICTR affirmed the genocide conviction [JURIST report] of popular Rwandan singer-songwriter Simon Bikindi [Trial Watch profile]. The court also reversed the conviction for counts of genocide, murder, and extermination against Rwandan district attorney Simeon Nchamihigo. Earlier this month, the widow of assassinated Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, Agathe Habyarimana, was arrested [JURIST report] in France on suspicions of complicity in genocide and was later released on bail. In January, the Rwandan government released a report [JURIST report] concluding that the assassination of then-president Juvenal Habyarimana, which sparked the genocide, was the work of Hutu extremists.
[JURIST] The Spanish Supreme Court [official website, in Spanish] on Thursday denied [order, DOC; in Spanish] an appeal by National Court judge Baltasar Garzon [BBC profile; JURIST news archive], ruling that he may be formally charged for exceeding his jurisdictional authority. The five-judge panel upheld [El Pais report, in Spanish] the ability to review Garzon's actions related to his investigation [JURIST report] into war crimes allegedly committed under Francisco Franco [BBC backgrounder] during the Spanish Civil War [LOC backgrounder]. In October 2008, Garzon ordered the exhumation of 19 mass graves in Spain and ordered government agencies and the mayors of four cities to produce the names of people buried in mass graves in order to assemble a definitive national registry, despite a 1977 amnesty decree. The decision on whether to pursue charges is now returned to the same judge that issued a February ruling that Garzon may have violated [JURIST report] the amnesty law. If charged and convicted, Garzon could face disbarment. He maintains that he acted within the bounds of the law and appropriately applied the law at all times.
The Supreme Court originally allowed the investigation [JURIST report] into Garzon's actions in May as a result of a complaint filed by Manos Limpias [group website, in Spanish], a union of public servants in Spain that alleged Garzon acted in violation of Penal Code Article 446 [text, in Spanish] when he began his probe into the crimes committed by the Franco regime. Garzon is widely known for using universal jurisdiction [AI backgrounder; JURIST news archive] extensively in the past to bring several high-profile cases, including those against Osama bin Laden and former Latin American dictator Augusto Pinochet [JURIST news archives]. In January, Garzon announced he will begin an inquiry [JURIST report] into the suspected torture and ill-treatment of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive]. The Obama administration has not responded to Garzon's questions regarding the open investigation of detainee abuses at the facility. Garzon's inquiry has focused on Spanish citizen and ex-Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Abderraman Hamed [CNN report], and three others whom Garzon has said have significant connections with Spain. The domestic focus is due to recently passed laws [JURIST report] that limit the use of universal jurisdiction to offenses committed by or against Spaniards, or where the perpetrators are in Spain.
The lack of political commitment to the justice agenda is seen by the High Commissioner as an urgent concern exemplified by the Amnesty Law; it was gazetted in December 2008 but it only came to light at the end of last year. This Law relieves Afghan authorities of their obligation to investigate and prosecute, on their own initiative, those allegedly responsible for gross violations of human rights. It contravenes Afghanistan's obligations under international law and it green-lights impunity and continued human rights violations. It ignores the grievances of victims and denies them access to justice. This Law also sends the wrong message to victims who have repeatedly called for justice and the removal of human rights violators from public office.
The call for repeal comes the day after the annual report [text, PDF] of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Afghanistan was presented in Geneva to the Human Rights Council.
Earlier this month, the Afghanistan Office of the President confirmed for the first time [JURIST report] that the law had been enacted by a two-thirds passage in the Parliament, which, under the constitution, does not require the president's signature. Afghanistan's Parliament approved the controversial law in 2007, but international human rights groups only became aware of the law when it was published in Afghanistan's latest official gazette. A week before the confirmation by the Office of the President, Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] urged the repeal [JURIST report] of the law. HRW called the law an "absolute disgrace" and "a slap in the face to all the Afghans who suffered for years and years of war crimes and warlordism."
[JURIST] Bangladesh officials on Thursday announced the establishment of a special war crimes tribunal that will hear cases against individuals accused of war crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War [GlobalSecurity backgrounder]. According to Law Minister Shafique Ahmed [official profile], the tribunal will include [AP report] three high court judges and six investigators retired from civilian, law enforcement, and military careers. The trials investigating the 1971 war crimes will take place under the recently amended International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973 [text]. Officials estimate that Pakistani soldiers and local militia participated in more than three million killings and 200,000 rapes.
On Monday, the Bangladesh Cabinet [official website] ratified the Rome Statute [JURIST report] of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although the ratification will not directly affect Bangladesh's pending war crimes trials for the 1971 Liberation War because the ICC can only hear cases arising since its formation in 2002, it will require the country to update its laws to reflect provisions of the statute. Last month, the Bangladeshi government announced [JURIST report] that the prosecutors and investigators for the country's war crimes tribunal should be appointed in March. In July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] urged Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina [BBC profile] to improve war crimes laws [JURIST report] to bring justice to victims of the 1971 war. Last April, the UN agreed to advise [JURIST report] the Bangladeshi government on the organization and operation of the tribunal.
[JURIST] The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) [official website] adopted a resolution Thursday condemning North Korea [press release] for human rights violations. The resolution [A/HRC/13/L.13 materials] decries "grave, widespread and systematic human rights abuses in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, in particular the use of torture and labour camps against political prisoners and repatriated citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea." The council extended the assignment of Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn [official profile] for one year and asked that North Korea and the UN General Assembly cooperate with and assist Muntarbhorn in his mission.
Earlier this month Muntarbhorn, who has not been admitted into North Korea, presented a report [JURIST report] to the UNHRC that found the situation in North Korea was deteriorating and that sanctions had not improved human rights conditions. In October, Muntarbhorn criticized [JURIST report] North Korea for human rights violations. Muntarbhorn said that North Korea was responsible for a broad range of human rights violations [press release], including torture, public executions, and widespread hunger. In March 2009, Muntarbhorn told the UNHRC that he found egregious human rights violations [JURIST report] in North Korea. In October 2008, Muntarbhorn urged [JURIST report] North Korea to improve its treatment of prisoners and unsuccessful defectors, as well as to cooperate in locating kidnapped foreign citizens. In January 2008, Muntarbhorn made similar comments during his visit with a special UN envoy to Japan [JURIST report] to assess the impact of the North Korean rights situation on that country. North Korea has frequently been accused of human trafficking, press repression, and "actively committing crimes against humanity" [JURIST report].
[JURIST] The UK Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights [official website] recommended Thursday that the government review anti-terror laws and policies [report, PDF; press release] passed since the 9/11 [JURIST news archive] attacks to make sure they are necessary and do not violate human rights. The committee found that, despite claiming to support human rights, many government policies appeared to threaten those rights, questioning whether policies that may have been appropriate in the aftermath of the terror attacks should be maintained indefinitely. Concerns cited in the report include the appearance that the government has intentionally turned a blind eye to torture, the increased use of secret evidence in court, and the possibility of detaining suspects without bringing charges. The committee stated, "[w]e are concerned that the Government's approach means that in effect there is a permanent state of emergency, and that this inevitably has a deleterious effect on public debate about the justification for counter-terrorism measures." The report recommended establishing a commission to investigate the government's complicity in torture in light of the recent judgment [JURIST report] in the Binyam Mohammad [JURIST news archive] case. The report also recommended creating an office for a term of five years to study terrorism legislation and report to Parliament on the legislation as it relates to human rights.
Earlier this week, members of Parliament and human rights organizations signed a letter calling for an inquiry [JURIST report] into the UK's role in torture and rendition. Last week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown [official profile] failed to deliver a promised public revision of guidelines [JURIST report] given to UK intelligence officers for the treatment of detainees. Brown faces growing scrutiny of UK detainee procedures amid allegations from former Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive] detainee Binyam Mohamed that British intelligence officials were involved in his torture in Morocco. In February, rights group Reprieve initiated a lawsuit [JURIST report] against the UK government over its alleged torture of detainees, claiming that its unwillingness to disclose detainee policies suggests that they permit illegal torture.
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