[JURIST] Russian President Dmitry Medvedev [official profile; JURIST news archive] expressed the need for Russia to improve its legal system and make a better commitment to the rule of law, during a speech [text] at a legal forum in St. Petersburg. Medvedev is trying to separate himself [Reuters report] from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin [official website] who is running against him in the March 2012 presidential election. Medvedev said that during his time in office he has tried to root out the corruption that has plagued Russian politics. But he said that in order for real legal reform there must be a strong judicial system. He said:
Even the best possible laws on paper can prove ineffective in practice and remain no more than declarations if we do not have courts that work, or if we have excessive or overly lax administrative procedures. Sadly, we know this all too well from our own experience. Problems with enforcing laws, lack of respect for the courts, and corruption are not just issues affecting our public life, but are macroeconomic factors holding back our national wealth growth and putting a brake on our efforts to carry out economic decisions and social initiatives. The quality and competitiveness of legal institutions therefore play a vital part for assuring all countries' future, the Russian Federation's too.
Russia media and banking tycoon Alexander Lebedev on Thursday threw his support [BBC report] behind Putin joining Putin's an anti-corruption coalition.
In December 2008, Medvedev's first year in office, he proposed that Russian courts become more transparent in order to restore faith in the justice system and prevent people from turning to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website]. Speaking at the seventh All-Russian Congress of Judges, Medvedev said that the ECHR cannot and should not replace Russian courts. Russia is the source of more applications to the ECHR than any other country. Medvedev proposed measures to improve the quality of judges and provide broader access to court documents. He encouraged the congress to discuss his concerns and make concrete proposals. In June 2008, Medvedev said he was committed to improving Russia's human rights record and enforcing the rule of law, reiterating pledges he made at his May inauguration [JURIST reports]. Medvedev, himself a lawyer by training, promised top legal officials he would tackle corruption and intimidation in the Russian judicial system [JURIST report], calling for reforms to better train and support judges.
[JURIST] A Somali man pleaded guilty [FBI press release] to charges of piracy and hostage taking on Friday in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia [official website] for overtaking a yacht containing four American citizens. The Americans, taken as hostages, were later killed by the pirates, the first US citizens to die in the recent wave of international maritime piracy [JURIST news archive]. Mohamud Hirs Issa Ali pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, and is the first to plead out of the 14 men indicted [JURIST report]. Ten others are expected to plead soon [AFP report]. Although sentences will not be delivered until September [AP/PilotOnline report], as a condition of the plea agreement, Issa Ali and the others have agreed to extradition after their sentences are up. All are expected to receive life sentences
Earlier this month, Spain's National Court sentenced [JURIST report] two Somali pirates to 439 years in prison each for their involvement in the 2009 hijacking of a Spanish fishing boat off the coast of Somalia. Last month, a US district court sentenced a Somali pirate to 25 years in prison [JURIST report] for his role in attacking a Danish ship, as well as the US Navy's USS Ashland. In November, a federal jury in Virginia convicted [JURIST report] five Somali men on charges of piracy for their roles in an April attack on the USS Nichols. In August, piracy charges against six defendants were dismissed [JURIST report] when federal Judge Raymond Jackson ruled that piracy, as defined by the law of nations, does not include violence or aggression committed on the high seas, and rejected the government's argument for an expanded reading of the statute. Piracy remains an issue of international concern, as few countries have been willing to prosecute suspected pirates. The few that have attempted to do so include Germany, Seychelles, the Netherlands, Mauritius, Yemen, Somalia and Spain [JURIST reports].
[JURIST] A lawsuit by relatives of 9/11 [JURIST news archive] victims has alleged that Iran knowingly aided [press release] al Qaeda [JURIST news archive] in carrying out the attacks, according to affidavits [memo of law, PDF] filed Thursday. Included in the affidavits, but under seal from the judge, are the testimonies of Iranian defectors who worked for Iran's intelligence service, declaring that Iran helped plan the attacks through Hezbollah [BBC Backgrounder], as well as facilitated the escapes of al Qaeda operatives after the attack. The affidavits also include depositions of 9/11 Commission workers who believe Iran helped to orchestrate the account:
Havlish experts specifically conclude that the evidence is clear and convincing that Iran materially supported al Qaeda. Although each of the Havlish experts' affidavits speaks for itself, two passages fairly summarize their views: It is our expert opinion to a reasonable degree of professional certainty that the Iranian Regime's use of terror and, specifically, its material support of al Qaeda in multiple terrorist attacks, including 9/11, is beyond question.
The initial suit [text, PDF], Havlish v. Bin Laden [materials] was filed in 2002. Plaintiffs seek a default judgment since Iran has not mounted a defense, and $100 billion in damages, but have stated that their principal focus is the US admitting Iran's involvement and mounting further investigations to that effect.
Previous attempts to indict other nations in the 9/11 attacks through litigation have failed. Two years ago, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit dismissed a lawsuit [JURIST report] brought by survivors of the 9/11 attacks against the nation of Saudi Arabia and four of its princes, ruling that the defendants were protected from prosecution under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 [text]. The appeals court upheld a 2005 ruling [JURIST report] by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiffs in that case were suing more than 200 defendants who allegedly helped fund and support Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda. Casey allowed a claim to proceed against the Saudi Binladen Group [corporate website], the successor to a construction company founded by Bin Laden's father, because additional discovery is necessary to determine whether the company "purposefully directed its activities at the United States." This is the first such suit against Iran.
[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] on Thursday granted $300 million in punitive damages in each of two cases against Iran for deaths resulting from suicide bombings by Iranian-backed terrorist groups. The two claims against Iran were brought on behalf of Seth Haim and Alan Beer [opinions, PDF], who were both killed in Israel by suicide bombers. In the opinions by Judge Royce Lamberth [official profile], the court found the the plaintiffs could be awarded damages based on an exception [28 USC § 1605A] to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) for "state-sponsored terrorism." The court said the exception creates a federal right of action against foreign states for which punitive damages may be awarded when the current foreign state was established prior to sponsoring of terrorism, the victim was an employee of the US government acting within the scope of employment, and where the claimant has given the foreign state against whom the action is brought a reasonable opportunity to arbitrate the claim. Lamberth concluded in the Beer case that the court "expresses hope that the sanction it issues today will play a measurable role in changing the conduct of Iranand other supporters of international terrorismin the future."
Iran has been the target of suits by US citizens seeking damages for deaths as a result of Iranian-backed terrorist groups. In February 2010, 85 victims of rocket attacks in Israel filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] in DC District Court seeking damages from Iran and Iran's central bank for injuries suffered in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The suit claims that Iran, between 2001 and 2006, gave Hezbollah [JURIST news archive] more than $50 million "with the specific intent and purpose of facilitating, enabling and causing Hezbollah to carry out terrorist attacks against American and Israeli targets in order to advance Iran's Policy and Goals" of undermining the US and abolishing Israel. In 2009, the US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [JURIST report] in Ministry of Defense and Support for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran v. Elahi [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the brother of dissident Cyrus Elahi, assassinated in Paris in 1990, cannot collect on a default judgment he holds against Iran by attaching a $2.8 million judgment obtained by the Iranian Ministry of Defense against California-based Cubic Defense Systems [corporate website]. Dariush Elahi was awarded $11.7 million in compensatory and $300 million in punitive damages after Iran refused to respond to his 2000 lawsuit brought in a Washington federal court, alleging that the Iranian government was responsible for his brother's death.
[JURIST] The French Court of Cassation [official website, in French], the country's highest appeals court, ruled that the corruption trial against former French president Jacques Chirac [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] can continue, rejecting a constitutional challenge brought by one of his co-defendants. Chirac is being tried for allegedly misusing funds during his time as Paris mayor in 1990. Chirac's co-defendant, Remy Chardon, his former chief of staff, challenged a decision by the prosecution to dismiss the statute of limitations in the case against Chardon violates the French Constitution. The court however found the claims were not valid [BBC report] and did not need to go to the Constitutional Council [official website], France's highest constitutional authority. The challenge has postponed the trial since March in only its second day.
The trial began despite the fact that the main plaintiff dropped out of the suit. Last September, the Paris city council accepted a settlement deal [JURIST report] in which the former president agreed to pay USD $741,000 in compensation for the money paid out for false jobs. In exchange, the city agreed to drop out of the corruption suit. Chirac stated that the settlement was not an admission of guilt. A French judge placed Chirac under preliminary investigation [JURIST report] in December 2009. Chirac's trial on corruption charges marks the first time [JURIST comment] a former president will have to answer to charges against him in a court of law. The trial is a combination of two separate corruption-related cases, in which Chirac allegedly financed the Rally for the Republic (RPR), now renamed as the Union for a Popular Movement [party website, in French], by illegally establishing fake city positions between 1977 and 1995 for party members to collect salaries totaling several million dollars.
[JURIST] Belarus' Minsk City Court delivered suspended sentences on Friday to two former presidential candidates, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu and Vital Rymasheuski, convicted of organizing protests following the re-election [JURIST report] of President Alexander Lukashenko [BBC profile, JURIST news archive] in December. The two-year suspended sentences [RFE/RL report] were handed down days after former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau [Free Belarus Now profile] was sentenced to five years [JURIST report]. The two remaining presidential candidates who were awaiting trial, Mikalay Statkevich and Dzmitry Vus, were also supposed to be given sentences Friday, but sentencing has been postponed indefinitely. Another candidate was released in January [JURIST report], and the seventh has fled Belarus to seek asylum in the Czech Republic. All of the detained protesters [Belarusian Helsinki Committee] are accused of violating Article 293 of the Criminal Code of Belarus for inciting and participating in riots. Nyaklyaeu attributed his shortened sentence to the support with protesters of the US and the EU. The EU is set to implement travel bans and asset-freezes on Lukashenko next week, and is reportedly considering further sanctions.
[JURIST] A military court in Taiwan indicted a one-star general who confessed to spying for China on Friday. General Lo Hsien-che confessed [CNA report] to accepting bribes and divulging state secrets since March 2004. Due to his confession and relinquishment of bribes, the prosecutors plan to seek life in prison [Taipei Times report] rather than the death penaltyTa. Lo was the head of communications and electronic information at Army Command Headquarters, and there are fears that his espionage has compromised the US-Taiwan Po Sheng communications project, as well as Taiwan's weapons trade with the US. China allegedly lured Lo into committing espionage by having a Chinese female agent offer him sex and money.
Taiwan has had increasing difficulties with corruption. In November 2010, the Taiwan Supreme Prosecutors Office indicted 13 people [JURIST report], including three High Court judges, on charges of bribery, corruption and money laundering. The Taipei High Court acquitted former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] on charges of embezzling USD $20 million from banks [JURIST report] that sought to protect themselves during Chen's financial reform program. Chen is also appealing a 20-year sentence for corruption and embezzlement. He was originally sentenced to life imprisonment, but the court reduced his sentence [JURIST reports] after finding that he had not embezzled as much money as previously thought. Chen was originally found guilty on corruption charges and sentenced to life in prison in September.
[JURIST] Texas Governor Rick Perry [official website] signed into law Thursday a bill [HB 15 text; materials] that requires women seeking an abortion [JURIST news archive] to first get a sonogram. The law requires doctors to conduct a ultrasound and display the images at least 24 hours prior to an abortion, and would strip them of their medical licenses should they fail to do so. The law also requires doctors to provide "a simultaneous verbal explanation of the results of the live, real-time sonogram images, including a medical description of the dimensions of the embryo or fetus, the presence of cardiac activity, and the presence of arms, legs, external members, and internal organs." The law contains exceptions from the requirements under certain circumstances, including rape, incest or fetal abnormalities.
The Texas House of Representatives [official website] approved the bill [JURIST report] in March. Earlier this week, the Missouri House of Representatives [official website] passed a bill prohibiting late-term abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Last month, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (R) [official website] announced the signing [JURIST report] of two pieces of legislation restricting abortions in the state. One bill requires unemancipated minors to obtain notarized parental signatures before an abortion may be performed. The other, the "fetal pain bill", restricts abortions beyond 22 weeks of pregnancy based on the belief that a fetus can feel pain at that stage of gestation. Earlier in April, the Idaho legislature [official website] gave final approval [JURIST report] to a bill that would prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation.
Correction: The original text of this story said that the Texas law required "vaginal sonograms" before an abortion can be performed. The text of the law does not explicitly require vaginal sonograms. However, in many cases it will be necessary to administer the sonograms through a vaginal probe [The Dallas Morning News report]. [updated on February 9, 2012]
[JURIST] Japan announced Friday that they will be signing the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction [text] at next week's G8 summit [Guardian archiver]. Signatories of the Convention are required to return a child who has been "wrongfully removed" from his or her country of habitual residence, typically through international custody disputes. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano [official website, in Japanese] stated that the decision was made for the welfare of children [Japan Times report], and that Prime Minister Naoto Kan [official website, in Japanese] and the cabinet were in favor of signing. Current Japanese law favors giving custody to one parent [BBC report] and allowing that parent to choose whether the other receives visitation. There is also opposition from a significant portion of mothers who fled from abusive spouses to Japan due to their custody laws. Edano stated that this will be taken into account in the new laws.
The Hague Convention, which currently has 84 signatories [text], seeks to eliminate difficulties that arise when a court in one country does not recognize custody decisions [DOS backgrounder] of a foreign court. Japan was urged to sign the treaty [JURIST report] by 10 other nations early last year. Russia remains the only G8 nation to not sign the treaty. China is also not a signatory.
[JURIST] Top US congressional leaders agreed Thursday to put forth a clean extension of controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act [text; JURIST news archive] until 2015. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) [official websites] agreed to extend [WP report] several key provisions of the Act with no amendments and will first put it to floor debate in the House next Monday, where it could reach a final vote by the following Wednesday. Controversial provisions to be renewed include provisions allowing the government to use roving wiretaps on multiple carriers and electronic devices and allowing the government to gain access to certain records relevant to its investigations. The "lone wolf" provision enables investigators to get warrants to conduct surveillance over targets not connected to any particular terrorist group. It is unclear whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) [official website] agrees with the extension.
Last February, the US House of Representatives [official website] passed a short-term extension [JURIST report] until May 27 of the controversial surveillance provisions after they were set to expire on February 28, two days after the US Senate [official website] passed [JURIST report] the bill by an 86-12 vote. Earlier that week, a simple majority of the House approved a similar bill that would have extended the three provisions until December after it had failed [JURIST reports] the prior week under a special rule that required a two-thirds majority. Prior to that vote, the Obama administration released a statement of administration policy [text, PDF] vying for a three-year renewal of the provisions. The provisions were extended in February 2010 after the Obama administration asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to extend [JURIST reports] the Patriot Act.
Prior to November's judgment, Uruguay's Supreme Court had largely upheld the amnesty except in extreme circumstances, and in 2009 a popular vote failed to overturn the law [JURIST reports]. Many of the alleged kidnappings and deaths occurred in connection with Operation Condor [BBC backgrounder], a cooperative effort between the governments of Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Chile to eliminate left-wing political opponents. In June, ex-military officials in Argentina were put on trial [JURIST report] for the deaths of 65 activists in connection with Operation Condor. The Uruguayan government has also attempted to bring those responsible for the disappearance of leftist activist to justice. In 2006, eight former police and military officers were indicted by a Uruguayan court [JURIST report] on counts of kidnapping and conspiracy committed during the 1973-1985 dictatorship. The crimes were related to the 1976 disappearances of five members of an Uruguayan leftist group who fled to Argentina and were detained there by police, and who investigators suspect were victims of Operation Condor.
[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] has asked [order, PDF] challengers of the new health care reform law [text; JURIST news archive] to defend the legality of their participation in the case. The Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) [advocacy website] is challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate which requires that all citizens purchase health insurance. The court asked the TMLC to file a 10-page brief addressing standing concerns and whether it is bringing a facial or as applied challenge to the health care law. The court wants TMLC to explain its injury in fact, having filed the challenge three years prior to the effective date of the health care and to explain what enforcement mechanisms the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) [official website] can even use to force compliance. It also wants to know if TMLC is bringing a facial challenge, because, if so, there is a higher standard they must meet. TMLC filed the appeal in December after a federal district court upheld [JURIST report] the health care law's constitutionality.
[JURIST] US State Department [official website] Legal Adviser Harold Koh on Thursday defended the killing [JURIST report] of Osama Bin Laden [JURIST news archives] saying it was "consistent with the laws of armed conflict and US military doctrine" in a brief statement [text] published on OpinioJuris.org. Koh referenced a speech he made [JURIST report] in March 2010 defending the use of predator drones to kill US targets where he argued that al Qaeda is an imminent threat to the US, giving the US authority to defend itself using lethal force, which means targeting high-level al Qaeda leaders. Koh explained that the Obama administration is dedicated to the principles of distinction, meaning limiting attacks to military objectives, and proportionality, meaning limiting the death of civilians and damage to civilian property. In his recent statement, Koh said that materials collected during the Bin Laden raid confirm suspicions that Bin Laden remained an imminent threat to the US and its citizens and that his failure to submit to an appropriate surrender authorized the troops use of lethal force:
[T]he manner in which the U.S. operation was conducted—taking great pains both to distinguish between legitimate military objectives and civilians and to avoid excessive incidental injury to the latter—followed the principles of distinction and proportionality described above, and was designed specifically to preserve those principles, even if it meant putting U.S. forces in harm's way. Finally, consistent with the laws of armed conflict and U.S. military doctrine, the U.S. forces were prepared to capture bin Laden if he had surrendered in a way that they could safely accept. The laws of armed conflict require acceptance of a genuine offer of surrender that is clearly communicated by the surrendering party and received by the opposing force, under circumstances where it is feasible for the opposing force to accept that offer of surrender. But where that is not the case, those laws authorize use of lethal force against an enemy belligerent, under the circumstances presented here.
Former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens also recently commented on the killing of Bin Laden during remarks at Northwestern University, saying the killing was legally justified [CNN report] and that he was proud of the US Navy SEALs who carried out the mission.
Earlier this month, US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] said the killing of Bin Laden was lawful and justified. Testifying before the US Senate Judiciary Committee [official website], Holder said that the shooting of Bin Laden was "consistent with our values," and that the soldiers who killed him "conducted themselves totally appropriately." Some do not agree. Curtis Doebbler, professor of law at Webster University and Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, both in Geneva, Switzerland, argues the killing violated international law [JURIST op-ed] because it was a targeted killing carried out within Pakistan without the country's permission and because it was an "extrajudicial executions that violate the right to life."
While in the House, several amendments failed [Providence Journal report], including one to convert the bill to a same-sex marriage [JURIST news archive] bill, and another to clarify that marriage is reserved for opposite-sex couples. Another failed amendment would have put the decision to voters in a referendum. The bill is now sent to the Senate, where its passage is uncertain [AP report]. Governor Lincoln Chafee [official website] is expected to sign the bill but has expressed disappointment [NPR report] that it is limited to civil unions rather than same-sex marriage.
[JURIST] A coalition of more than 30 rights groups and development organizations in Cambodia issued an open letter [text, PDF] Thursday urging the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) [official website] to embrace a greater degree of transparency. In the letter, the groups outline "grave concerns" that the highly classified nature of Case 3 and Case 4 [materials] betrays a lack of "genuine" effort to bring the former members of the Khmer Rouge [BBC profile; JURIST news archives] to justice and implicates that the "impartiality, integrity and ... independence of ECCC judges are being tainted." The accusation comes amid mounting speculation that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen [BBC profile] has exerted undue influence over the court's proceedings. Hun has drawn criticism [Phnom Penh Post report] from rights groups and the international community for his public and at-times vehement opposition [AP report] to the continued work of the ECCC. The court further stoked suspicion Wednesday when it ordered [order, PDF; JURIST report] international co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley to recant statements he made earlier this month in a public brief [text, PDF] on the facts of Case 3. According to the court, the co-prosecutor lacked a "legal basis" for issuing statements about "crimes required to be judicially investigated" and violated the confidentiality provisions of the Internal Rules of the ECCC [text, PDF]. The groups' letter emphasized the Cambodian people's right to know such information:
One of the functions being fulfilled by the ECCC is to create an historical record about what happened. It is imperative that this record is as complete and accurate as possible. ... The Cambodians have a right to justice. ... In order to effectively exercise this right, all Cambodians need access to publicly available information. Ample information can be provided to victims while safeguarding the rights of those alleged to have perpetrated Khmer Rouge atrocities according to the highest international standards.
The groups said that they are "concerned that the mandate of the court ... is at risk of not being genuinely carried out" and emphasized that ECCC judges should be "prohibited from accepting or seeking any instructions from any government[.]"
Last October, Hun Sen informed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [official website] in a meeting that the government will not allow [JURIST report] the prosecution of low-ranking Khmer Rouge officers by the ECCC. Earlier this week in ECCC Case 2 [materials], a panel of judges denied a motion for pretrial release [JURIST report] by former Khmer Rouge official Ieng Sary [ECCC backgrounder; JURIST news archive]. Ieng, 85, served as deputy foreign minister under the Khmer Rouge regime during its reign in Cambodia from 1975-1979. Citing the ECCC rules and the Cambodian rules of criminal procedure, he argued that the court had no authority to detain a prisoner for more than three years without certain substantive rulings, making his detention illegal since November 2010. Ieng's co-defendants Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirith [ECCC backgrounders] have all challenged pretrial custody unsuccessfully. In March, Kaing Guek Eav [ECCC backgrounder; JURIST news archive], a former prison chief at the notorious Toul Sleng prison under the Khmer Rouge, better known as "Duch," appealed a 35-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity handed down by the ECCC [JURIST reports] last July. The conviction was the court's first since its founding in 2006.
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