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The USA is the most corrupt country in the world and I have 10,000 posts that point heavily to that fact…

US sheriff ‘targeted Hispanics’ December 16, 2011

Joe Arpaio is said to have helped shape the US debate over illegal immigration

A lawman known for his tough stance on immigration has routinely discriminated against Hispanics, according to a federal investigation.

A US Department of Justice report found Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office had flouted US civil rights laws by racially profiling Hispanics.

Violations included unlawful arrest and detention, discriminatory jail practices and denial of services.

It comes as the Supreme Court reviews Arizona’s tough immigration law.

Sheriff Arpaio has styled himself as America’s toughest sheriff, and has been known to jail inmates in tents and dress them in pink underwear.

The justice department investigation into the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) was launched during the administration of President George W Bush.

Published on Thursday, its report requires the office to reform its practices or lose millions of dollars in federal funding.

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Arpaio’s own actions have helped nurture the sheriff’s office culture of bias”

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Thomas Perez
Department of Justice

The sheriff has until 4 January to say whether he will comply, or the federal government says it will sue him.

The justice department report says that in Maricopa County, Hispanics are four to nine times more likely to be pulled over by the police.

The sheriff’s office also treats all Hispanics as though they are in the country illegally, says the report.

It highlights how language barriers have been exploited by the sheriff’s deputies in the county jail.

Inmates with limited English were put in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours per day.

They were also locked in their jail cells for up to 72 hours for failing to understand commands in English.

The report cited a wide use by officers of racial slurs in emails and when speaking to inmates.

Sheriff Arpaio shot to national stature with his policy of putting prisoners in pink underwear

The justice department has said it is still investigating complaints of use of excessive force against Hispanics; sexual assault cases that were not properly investigated; and whether a “culture of bias” has deterred residents from reporting crimes.

The report links the malpractice to the sheriff himself.

“Arpaio’s own actions have helped nurture MCSO’s culture of bias,” Thomas Perez, head of the justice department’s civil rights division said.

“We found discriminatory policing that was deeply rooted in the culture of the department – a culture that breeds a systemic disregard for basic constitutional protections.”

He added that the justice department’s expert on racial profiling said this was the most serious case he had come across.

Republican presidential candidates have sought Sheriff Arpaio’s endorsement to boost their campaigns.

This year, the lawman backed Texas Governor Rick Perry, who denounced Thursday’s findings as politically motivated.

A federal grand jury has also, separately, been investigating abuse-of-power allegations at the sheriff’s office and especially within his anti-public corruption squad.

Meanwhile, legislation from Arizona that aims to crack down on illegal immigration is pending before the Supreme Court.

The law would enable police to demand proof of citizenship from those they stop or detain, and to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant.

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Nearly 1 in 5 US women have been victims of sexual assault, CDC finds December 15, 2011

A new survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday marked the beginning of a new annual project to look at how many women say they’ve been abused.

One expert called the new report’s estimate on rape and attempted rape “extremely high” – with 1 in 5 women saying they were victims. About half of those cases involved intimate partners. No documentation was sought to verify the women’s claims, which were made anonymously.

But advocates say the new rape numbers are plausible.

“It’s a major problem that often is under-estimated and over-looked,” said Linda James, director of health for Futures Without Violence, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates against domestic abuse.

It’s a startling number: 1 in 4 women surveyed by the government say they were violently attacked by their husbands or boyfriends.

Experts in domestic violence don’t find it too surprising, although some aspects of the survey may have led to higher numbers than are sometimes reported.

Even so, a government official who oversaw the research called the results “astounding.”

“It’s the first time we’ve had this kind of estimate” on the prevalence of intimate partner violence, said Linda Degutis of the CDC.

The CDC report is based on a randomized telephone survey of about 9,000 women.

Among the findings:

• As many as 29 million women say they have suffered severe and frightening physical violence from a boyfriend, spouse or other intimate partner. That includes being choked, beaten, stabbed, shot, punched, slammed against something or hurt by hair-pulling.

• That number grows to 36 million if slapping, pushing and shoving are counted.

• Almost half of the women who reported rape or attempted rape said it happened when they were 17 or younger.

Several of the CDC numbers are higher than those of other sources. For example, the CDC study suggests that 1.3 million women have suffered rape, attempted rape or had sex forced on them in the previous year. That statistic is more than seven times greater than what was reported by a Department of Justice household survey conducted last year.

There may be several reasons for the differences, including how the surveys were done, who chose to participate and how “rape” and other types of assault were defined or interpreted, said Shannan Catalano, a statistician with the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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Uzbekistan torture ignored by the west, say human rights group December 13, 2011

Western governments have turned a blind eye to criticism of torture and rights abuses in Uzbekistan to preserve relations with the state pivotal to supplying Nato forces in Afghanistan, according to a human rights watchdog.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic of 28 million people, had failed to keep promises to stop the use of torture, including electric shocks and simulated asphyxiation, in its criminal justice system.

“The west has to wake up to the fact that Uzbekistan is a pariah state with one of the worst human rights records,” Steve Swerdlow, HRW’s Uzbekistan researcher, said. “Being located next to Afghanistan should not give Uzbekistan a pass on its horrendous record of torture and repression.”

Uzbekistan’s relations with the US and EU soured in 2005 after a government crackdown on an uprising in the eastern city of Andizhan. Witnesses say hundreds were killed when troops opened fire on crowds.

Following harsh western criticism of the bloodshed and systematic human rights violations in the mainly Muslim nation, Uzbekistan evicted US forces from a key air base.

But Washington and its major allies have since reconciled with the country, which is a vital link in the supply line to Nato troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

President Islam Karimov, 73, has ruled his resource-rich nation with an iron fist for more than 20 years. He defends his authoritarian methods by saying he needs to forestall any rise of Taliban-style Islam.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Uzbekistan in October to thank Karimov for maintaining Uzbekistan’s role in a supply route that is becoming increasingly important since US ties with Pakistan deteriorated.

HRW said in March that Uzbek authorities had forced it to close its local office after obstructing its work. The group said its latest report, which cited numerous cases of torture, was based on more than 100 interviews conducted in Uzbekistan between 2009 and 2011.

An HRW spokesperson said: “The governments traditionally viewed as champions of the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan – the US, EU and its key members – have muted their criticism of the government’s worsening human rights record, including its continuing and widespread use of torture.”

Uzbek officials could not immediately be reached for comment. HRW said the use of torture appeared to be designed to break a detainee’s will to the point where they would sign a prepared confession or refrain from asserting their rights. It said it had heard several stories of detainees subjected to abuses to force them to confess to offences such as theft or to implicate others.

Citing one example, HRW quoted a criminal lawyer as saying his client who was “perfectly healthy” 10 days before had been tortured and forced to drop the services of independent counsel. “I noticed he couldn’t walk,” HRW quoted the lawyer as saying. “He quietly recounted that all his ribs were broken … He had lost hearing in one ear.”

The lawyer said he wanted to publicise the matter but the detainee refused, fearing for the safety of his family. In 2008, Uzbekistan introduced habeas corpus, a legal action through which a court is obliged to determine the lawfulness of a person’s detention. Karimov said the move showed the justice system was being liberalised.

But HRW said it had seen no improvement in Uzbekistan’s human rights record. Arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment remained rife, it added.

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The US national security smokescreen | Nancy Goldstein December 8, 2011

Ben Wizner, the litigation director for the ACLU’s national security project, cheerfully admits that its April 2011 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for 23 of the very same US State Department diplomatic cables we all read this time last year, when WikiLeaks released them to five newspapers including the Guardian, was “cheeky” – a way to foreground the “absurdity of the US secrecy regime”.

And so it has. Nearly eight months after the original FOIA request, the State Department has finally released … 11 cables. Federal censors have helpfully redacted them, making it easy to see, by a simple act of comparison (which the ACLU performs for us, here), precisely which sections the State Department wants hidden. Missing are a dirty dozen cables the government refused to release – despite those cables having already been leaked, published and analysed in virtually every major national and international media venue – again, because they were classified as secret or deemed to contain sensitive information.

Administration officials unleashed plenty of hyperbole and hysteria when the cables were first published. But it turned out that none of the information in them actually endangered American citizens, allies or informants. They did, however, prove embarrassing for the US and many foreign leaders. Because it turned out that claims about national security were often an excuse to prevent us from seeing our government engaged in unethical, unconstitutional and, sometimes, illegal practices. These ran the gamut from extraordinary renditions, detentions and torture to shaking down other governments in an attempt to influence their political processes and tamper with their criminal justice systems.

We learned that the same Obama administration that had refused to pursue the perpetrators of the Bush torture regime at home had also tried to put its thumbs on the scales of justice in Spain – aggressively attempting to prevent a counter-terrorism judge from trying the senior legal minds of the Bush administration for their part in the torture of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

We learned about the US attempt to scuttle the case of German citizen Khaled el-Masri, the greengrocer mistaken for a senior al-Qaida official. He was kidnapped, tortured, drugged, beaten and thrown into Afghanistan’s CIA-run Salt Pit prison, until – oops – they realised they had the wrong guy and dumped him in the Albanian outback. In public, Munich prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 13 suspected CIA operatives involved in his abduction and torture, and Angela Merkel’s office called for an investigation. In private, the German justice ministry and foreign ministry both made it clear to the US that they were not interested in pursuing the case, emboldening the US to refuse to arrest or hand over the agents.

If the first part of the ACLU’s agenda in asking for the 23 already-leaked cables is to highlight what it calls a “penchant for excessive secrecy in defiance of all reason”, the second is to spotlight the way in which the Bush and Obama administrations abuse the state secrets privilege to keep illegal programs from being judicially reviewed.

When the ACLU challenged the CIA on behalf of el-Masri in 2005, a judge dismissed the case. The US government did not deny that he was wrongfully kidnapped. Instead, it successfully argued that his case be dismissed because litigation of his claims would expose state secrets and jeopardise American security. This despite the fact that, as el-Masri pointed out, “President Bush has told the world about the CIA’s detention program, and even though my allegations have been corroborated by eyewitnesses and other evidence.”

First the Bush administration and then the Obama administration successfully evoked the state secrets privilege to prevent the ACLU from filing a federal lawsuit against Jeppesen DataPlan, Inc, the folks who helped the CIA fly extraordinary rendition victims to secret sites where they were detained, tortured and interrogated. Again, the government claimed that further litigation would undermine national security interests, even though much of the evidence needed to try the case was already available to the public. And again, it appears to have won.

In the hall of mirrors that the US security regime has become, information that is not officially acknowledged cannot be used to hold government officials responsible in the courts. And an administration that can evade charges of misconduct, including torture, by hiding behind state secrets claims, even when all the details are publicly known, becomes the guardian of its own liability. That’s bad news.

Transparency and accountability are the oxygen of democracy. But don’t hold your breath waiting for this administration to respond to requests for either one.

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The NAACP exposes voter suppression schemes | Kay Dilday December 7, 2011

The NAACP will be sending a delegation to the United Nations Commissioner of Human Rights alleging a concerted effort to deny voting rights to black and hispanic Americans. Given how rarely anyone in the United States looks to the United Nations for justice, and how often the United States ignores the UN, this is both a significant and futile effort. But what’s at issue is so egregious that the NAACP has chosen to shout it from a global stage.

In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, the United States had one of the highest turnouts ever of black and Latino voters. Undoubtedly, this made a difference in the election: Obama won by a slim margin in many states that had traditionally voted Republicans. The high turnout of blacks and Latinos made the difference in crucial swing states like Florida, Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico. And southern states, which have a high percentage of blacks, are traditionally carried by the Republican party – but if enough blacks and Latinos vote, that isn’t the case.

It does not seem like coincidence, then, that since 2008, many of these states have introduced laws that make it much more difficult to register to vote and to actually vote. They have done this in the name of combating “voter fraud”. This poses the question: does the United States have a problem with voter fraud? Not that it can find.

The Bush administration launched an initiative to combat voter fraud. After a five-year effort by the justice department, they found no organised effort, brought charges in 132 cases and obtained prosecutions in about 86, as the New York Times reported in 2007, after summarising the Bush administration’s report on the subject. And numerous other reports have supported the Bush administration’s findings.

But even if the United States can identify a problem with voter fraud, why should anyone take issue with efforts to prevent it, the proponents of these laws ask. After all, proponents say, the laws won’t prevent legitimate voters from voting. Indeed, some of the laws sound reasonable at first: why shouldn’t a potential voter have to produce government-issued identification proving that they are who they say they are and that they live where they say they live, mandates a law passed by eight states and pending in more.

Since I grew up in the Mississippi, which passed such a law ostensibly to prevent fraud, I’ll look at the practical application of it. Mississippi’s population has the highest percentage of blacks in the country: 38%. Compared to the $65 I pay in New York, where I live now, a Mississippi driver’s license seems like a bargain at $21. Unless, of course, you are poor – which abut 35% of blacks are, with 57% of blacks in Mississippi earning less than $25,000 per year according to the 2000 census. Then, it might seem like too much to pay if you don’t have a car to drive.

Well, if you don’t want to pay for a driver’s license, you can obtain an ID card in Mississippi for only $13. But you then have to bring a copy of your state-issued birth certificate, which, if you don’t have it, costs $15. And even if you could afford it, if you were born poor and black in Mississippi in the first half of the 1900s, it’s very possible that you were barred from the white-only hospitals and have only anecdotal evidence of the date of your birth. In the United States, citizens are not required to carry any sort of ID card in their daily life; thus the national government does not issue one without a specific request or fee. Nonetheless, it is difficult for affluent people, involved in all of the trappings of middle-class life – car-owning and driving, check-writing, international traveling, etc – to understand that many people don’t have drivers’ licenses or passports and aren’t asked for them in their extremely localised, cash-transactional lives.

So, this very reasonable-sounding requirement means that many poor people, a disproportionate number of whom are black in Mississippi, will be unable to vote.

This particular law has to be examined closely for one to realise how disenfranchising it is for poor people, blacks and Latinos. Others, though, are just bald efforts to prevent poor people, predominantly people of color, from voting. There are laws, for instance, that prevent early voting, even though this is essential for low-income people who often have little control over their working hours. There are laws, also, that subject voter registrations efforts, which often bring in poor people on the margins of society, to onerous restrictions. This recently forced, for example, the League of Women Voters, one of the nation’s bedrock voting groups, to cancel their annual drive in Florida.

I doubt the NAACP expects to obtain justice by pursuing their case at the United Nations. But the push to limit the ability of poor people, blacks and Latinos to participate in the electoral process is so outrageous, that it must be loudly denounced in front of the nations of the world. I was born after the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s, when white southerners still tried to use billy clubs to prevent blacks from voting. My daughter was born just after the first black president was elected. I thought we were making progress in this country.

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A New York spider gave me an insight into US private healthcare | Laurie Penny December 4, 2011

It started with a spider. Someone with a taste for narrative justice might call it retribution, but there’s really no moral correlation between the wisdom of absconding with a relative stranger after a party and waking up the next morning in Brooklyn with a rash of poisonous bites on your arm. When the angels of sexual continence want to punish you, they send crabs not spiders.

I assumed, at first, that the maddeningly itchy marks were the work of common-or-flophouse New York bedbugs, but 12 hours later, with my right arm swollen to the width and purplish colour of a prize turnip, my friend identified the hallmarks of the brown recluse spider, and uttered words I had hoped never to hear on this side of the Atlantic: “You should really get that checked out by a doctor.”

I first came to New York to write about the emerging social justice movements associated with Occupy Wall Street. Through my conversations with the protesters in Zucotti Park, I began to understand how profoundly the stranglehold of American private healthcare keeps ordinary people cowed and compliant in the land of the notionally free.

It’s not just the 59 million Americans living without health insurance and unable to access treatment for everyday maladies without crippling expense. It’s the millions more who dare not risk a dispute with their boss for fear of losing their medical cover, who expect to remortgage their homes in old age to meet the costs of failing health, or who live in fear of bankruptcy should they develop a chronic condition or have an accident.

The notion of a society that sanctions companies to profit from sickness feels barbaric enough, without then forcing ordinary people to choose between medical treatment and the financial future of their families. President Obama’s attempt to reform the system in 2009 roundly failed to remove healthcare as a source of perennial anxiety for most American citizens, or to lighten the dead hand of the market on medical provision in the US.

Socialised healthcare is in my blood but, unfortunately last Wednesday, so was a hefty dose of spider venom and several billion extra bacteria – the unfriendly sort that make an infected limb sweat and swell like a rotten root vegetable. I had travel insurance, but no idea if it stretched to the snacking habits of urban arachnids. So I uttered the words familiar to any uninsured or precariously insured American: “I’ll just wait for a little bit and see if it gets better.”

Had I waited another 24 hours, I might have lost my arm. By the time I was persuaded to go to the emergency response unit at Beth Israel hospital I could no longer move the limb, which was developing worrying purple track-marks. The triage nurse sent me straight through to ER, where I was given a bunk next to a groaning man in his mid-30s who, like me, had been so worried about the cost of treatment that he had allowed an infection to spread, in this case from a rotten tooth. He was already missing several teeth. He told me he was a postal worker with no health insurance, and that he wouldn’t have come for treatment had his girlfriend not driven him to hospital when he collapsed with a fever.

Compared to the accident and emergency unit at my local London hospital, the waiting period was civilised; it was a mere hour before a stern-looking registrar arrived to take my money. He explained the covering clauses of my travel insurance and showed me where to sign on several complicated forms. When I explained I was unable to do so because my arm wasn’t working, he gave me a look that suggested I’d have had to find a way to sign even if I’d come in with all four limbs off. I signed with my left hand.

After that, the service was exceptional. I was whisked off to intensive care for intravenous antibiotics. I was put in a quiet bed near a window, with no cracks or mildew in the walls, and brought cool water and a clean towel. And when, in the middle of the night, I went into near-fatal anaphylactic shock, the staff’s reaction was swift and efficient. I felt, in other words like a valued customer. But it also meant that, at 2am and thousands of miles from home, I was already wondering how I would afford the prescription for all the antibiotics I needed.

This is the difference that social medicine makes to the fabric and quality of life in a civilised country. When I finally wobbled out of the shiny lobby of the Beth Israel, clutching a bag of drugs, follow-up advice and complimentary hospital toiletries, I understood what it really means to be without means in America. Those who are wealthy enough to afford decent healthcare have their needs met in relative luxury, while those who are poor live in fear of getting ill, worrying that one misadventure might leave you with yet more debts to pay off.

No amount of fresh towels and edible breakfasts can make up for the feeling that your health is less important than the capacity of your chequebook. Which is why children and pensioners are still standing in Manhattan’s financial district with placards telling the world they cannot afford healthcare, as police patrol the perimeter. And why, when I got out of hospital, I went straight back down to Liberty Plaza to stand with them.

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US appeals against decision not to extradite fugitive George Wright November 29, 2011

The US Justice Department says it has appealed against a Portuguese judge’s decision not to extradite long-time fugitive George Wright back to the United States.

Spokeswoman Laura Sweeney says an appeal was filed with the Portuguese Court of Appeals requesting the return of Wright, who is wanted to serve the rest of a murder sentence and who has admitted that he hijacked a plane from the United States to Algeria.

Sweeney declined on Tuesday to give additional details about the US appeal.

Extradition cases in Portugal are conducted in secret.

The Portuguese judge denied Wright’s extradition on 17 November. Wright spent 41 years on the run on three continents.

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US telecoms merger under threat November 25, 2011

The combined mobile phone company would be the biggest in the US

US telecoms giant ATT and Deutsche Telekom have cast doubt over the $39bn (£25bn) sale of T-Mobile USA by withdrawing their merger application to the industry regulator.

ATT also said it would include a $4bn charge in its fourth-quarter accounts to cover any potential compensation due if the deal does not go ahead.

The US Justice Department moved to block the sale at the end of August.

The two firms said they would focus on clearing the deal with the government.

Seeking approval

ATT agreed to buy T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom in March, aiming to create the largest US wireless network.

However, the government has said the merger would lead to higher prices and restrict choice, and has requested a court order to block it.

As a result, the two firms have withdrawn their application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

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This would allow them to “focus their continuing efforts on obtaining antitrust clearance for the transaction from the Department of Justice”, the companies said.

They would then focus on seeking approval from the FCC, they added.

The deal needs the approval of both the Justice Department and the FCC to go ahead.

ATT’s bid to buy T-Mobile would give the US telecoms firm about 43% of the US mobile phone market.

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Justice department sues Utah over immigration law November 23, 2011

The US justice department has filed a lawsuit challenging Utah‘s immigration enforcement law, arguing that it usurps federal authority and could potentially lead to the harassment and detention of American citizens and authorised visitors.

“The federal government has the ultimate authority to enforce federal immigration laws and the constitution does not permit a patchwork of local immigration policies,” justice department officials said in a statement. “A state setting its own immigration policy interferes with the federal government’s enforcement efforts.”

The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday in Salt Lake City’s US district court after months of negotiations between justice department attorneys, Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff and the state’s elected leaders.

Justice officials said they plan to continue those discussions despite the lawsuit.

Even with the federal intervention, state officials remained confident the law would eventually be sustained.

“The legislature worked diligently to craft a law that would pass constitutional muster,” said Ally Isom, spokeswoman for Governor Gary Herbert. “We hope the courts do the right thing.”

The Utah law, signed by Herbert in March, requires people to prove their citizenship if they’re arrested for serious crimes ranging from certain drug offences to murder. It also gives police discretion to check citizenship on traffic infractions and other lesser offences.

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit earlier this year, and a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order in May against the law.

A hearing on that lawsuit is scheduled for 2 December.

Linton Joaquin, general counsel with the National Immigration Law Centre (NILC), said that hearing may be delayed because of the federal lawsuit. The NILC, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, is handling the original lawsuit against the state.

The federal lawsuit “reinforced the claims we’ve been making all along,” Joaquin said. “The Utah law is preempted by federal law and is unconstitutional.”

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Oddly, Texas can teach the UK a thing or two on criminal justice | Ian Birrell November 21, 2011

Hang ‘em high Texas is not the first place you might look for lessons in criminal justice. The lone star state prides itself on its toughness, with more executions and fewer bleeding hearts than elsewhere in the US. Texas locks up more miscreants than anywhere else in the world. But it is the unlikely centre of a revolution in prison reform sweeping the US, overthrowing decades of failed polices and sterile debate driven by politicians scared of being seen as soft. The state has cut crime, costs and the numbers in jail to such an extent it has just shut a high-security prison for the first time in history.

What makes this prison revolt even more unexpected is that it is led by some of the most conservative figures in politics. They have decided – correctly – that an expensive prison system repeatedly locking up the same people is a sign of failure. As a result, they have endorsed policies traditionally seen as liberal to keep people out of jail.

The right in Britain should take note as our prison population hits record highs. Just as in this country, politicians in Texas were desperate to be seen as being tough on crime. There was reckless rhetoric and endless headline-grabbing legislation, including the ludicrous three-strikes law that led to life sentences for a third offence – even when that was stealing a slice of pizza.

Inevitably, prison populations and spending soared. The costs of incarceration rose fourfold in two decades. America now accounts for a quarter of all prisoners on the planet – and two-thirds of new inmates are recidivists.

Then Texas decided enough was enough. Four years ago, it was told to spend another $2bn on 17,332 new prison places. Instead, the state opted to invest in halfway houses to help those leaving prison and schemes to aid addicted and mentally ill offenders. Since then, taxpayers have saved a billion dollars, violent crime has fallen to its lowest level for three decades, and the right has seen the light on criminal justice. More than a dozen states have made similar moves, with some of the most doughty bastions of conservatism softening sentencing policies and shifting emphasis to treatment, training, early release and community-based punishments. A campaign called Right On Crime has been launched to promote the idea, supported by conservative standard-bearers such as Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich.

The driving force was financial. But it makes perfect sense for the right. As the group’s website says, turning law-breakers into law-abiding citizens should be a conservative priority because it advances public safety and the rule of law. The cause unites libertarians wanting to scale back the state, fiscal conservatives seeking to reduce spending, social conservatives concerned by family breakdown, and a religious right that believes in redemption.

Is it too much to hope for a similar outbreak of common sense in Britain? Among the biggest disappointments of the Blair and Brown governments was their pandering to the right on crime, with 28 criminal justice bills. The coalition has tried to adopt a more evidence-based approach, with an emphasis on rehabilitation and payment by results, but is wobbling in the face of fury on the backbenches and in the media.

Such is the hysteria that the sensible abandonment of cruel indeterminate sentencing had to be smuggled out last month under cover of tougher sentences for knife crimes. There was relief in Downing Street at the strategy’s success – but they are still kicking around a keynote speech on crime by the prime minister already postponed for a year.

It is clear from several countries, notably Finland, that imprisonment has no impact on crime rates. Putting fewer people in prison means more money can be spent on more effective community-based punishments, which are often tougher than lying around stoned all day in prison. In the Netherlands this approach has been so successful prisons built in expectation of rising crime are being rented to Belgium.

Locking people up and throwing away the key is a costly failure. The alternatives are smart, not soft.

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6 Somali Pirates on Trial in Paris November 15, 2011

France has opened its first Somali piracy trial with six men appearing before a Paris court.  The trial comes amid growing international efforts, both on- and off-shore, to crack down on Somali piracy.

The six men are accused of taking a French couple hostage on their boat off the coast of Somalia in 2008.  Two weeks later, French special forces freed the couple and seized the men.  Today the six Somalis, who range from 21 to 35 years of age, say they were fishermen who were forced into piracy.

Paris-based maritime lawyer Xavier McDonald says that on jurisdictional grounds, the French case is fairly clear.

“The alleged pirates were apprehended on board a yacht, which flies the French flag and is therefore considered to be part of French territory,” he said. “So they were effectively apprehended on French territory.”

A lawyer for one of the Somali defendants in Paris, Rachel Lindon, believes the French justice system should take Somalia’s chaos and poverty into account.

Lindon told French radio that within this context, her young client had little choice other than to become a pirate.

The trial, which is expected to last several weeks, is a first in France.  But as piracy has exploded off the Horn of Africa, a growing number of countries have launched similar proceedings.  Kenya took the lion’s share of the Somali cases, until it complained its overburdened justice system couldn’t handle more.

McDonald says France and other Western nations holding trials face problems of their own.

“There is absolutely this issue that once we have the pirates in our home jails, what do we then do?  How do we repatriate them after their jail terms?  Will they be able to seek asylum, will they be able to invite their families to join them?” asked McDonald. “There are all sorts of issues.”

Others argue the international community should attack the problem at sea.  

“We’re not criticizing the naval forces that are out there – they’re doing their best,” said Bill Box, secretary for Save Our Seafarers, a British-based anti-piracy campaign.  “The problem is in the follow-up.  The problem is when they catch pirates, some of the time, these guys are being released.”

But McDonald says there are no easy solutions.

“Everyone agrees on the issue being, ‘How do we eradicate the problem?’  And there is a consensus that the problem can only be eradicated on land and that dealing with the problem at sea is simply a partial response,” he said.

The debate is likely to continue. France is expected to hold another Somali piracy trial next May.

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US baseball star talks of kidnap November 13, 2011

Wilson Ramos – seen here after he was rescued – was held for two days in a mountainous region

The US Major League baseball player, Wilson Ramos, who was kidnapped in Venezuela, has been talking about his ordeal.

Ramos, 24, a catcher for the Washington Nationals team, was saved by Venezuelan security forces in a dramatic rescue.

Six Venezuelans have been arrested in connection with the kidnapping, which lasted two days.

At least four Colombians are still being sought, including the suspected ringleader.

Ramos said he wondered whether he would survive the kidnapping, that ended when commandos raided his captors’ hideout in the remote Montalban mountains.

He said the final moments of his rescue were hair-raising as police and the kidnappers exchanged heavy gunfire.

Colombian links

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They told me many things they knew of my private life…They knew a lot about me. They had very good information, an informant who told them all that.”

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Wilson Ramos
Major League baseball player

He said his kidnappers had carefully planned the abduction and told him they were going to demand a large ransom.

“I didn’t know if I was going to get out of it alive,” Ramos told reporters in his hometown of Valencia. “It was very hard for me. It was very hard for my family.”

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami, who was also at the news conference, said four of the captors, all of them Venezuelan men in their 20s, had been arrested.

A 60-year-old woman and a 74-year-old man were also arrested as accomplices for supplying the kidnappers with food, he said.

The authorities were still searching for at least four Colombian men who escaped during the rescue, Mr El Aissami said.

“Research suggests that there were people linked to Colombian paramilitary groups that could be involved in the abduction of Wilson Ramos,” he told reporters.

Ramos said some of his abductors spoke with Colombian accents and revealed they had studied his movements before carrying out the abduction.

“They told me many things they knew of my private life,” he said. “They knew a lot about me. They had very good information, an informant who told them all that.”

Ramos was seized at his mother’s home in Valencia, 150km (90 miles) west of the capital Caracas, after going to Venezuela to play games during the US close season.

Once investigators thought they had found the general area where Ramos might be, President Hugo Chavez personally authorised an aerial search mission and teams also set out on foot in the mountainous area, the Justice Minister said.

He said the teams searched most of the day on Friday and finally came upon the remote house where Ramos was being held.

Mr Chavez authorised the rescue operation and followed it “minute by minute”, the minister said.

On Saturday, Mr Chavez congratulated all those involved in the rescue mission.

Sports figures have found themselves the target of violent crime in Venezuela in the past, but this is thought to be the first case targeting a baseball player in the US Major League.

Most kidnappings in Venezuela are carried out to extort a ransom.

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Anger of Penn State boy’s mother November 11, 2011

Jerry Sandusky is accused of abusing at least eight boys over 15 years

The mother of one of the alleged victims in the child abuse scandal at Penn State has demanded justice for her son, in a television interview.

She told ABC News that her son had been afraid to come forward and accuse former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The investigation into alleged molestation by Mr Sandusky has now widened to the state of Texas.

Head coach Joe Paterno, accused of failing to act, was fired on Wednesday.

Speaking to ABC News’ Good Morning America on Friday, her identity concealed, the mother said: “I want justice. I want him to be locked up.

“There’s no help for someone who does this. Not like this. He needs to be put away. He needs to be put away for a long time.”

‘Moral bearing’

She said she had asked her son why he did not inform her earlier and he replied: “‘Well, I didn’t know what to do… you just can’t tell Jerry, no.’”

Penn State fired head coach Joe Paterno on Wednesday night, prompting a riot by fans

She said the right action had been taken against Mr Paterno and other Penn State officials who are accused of failing to notify the authorities.

“There’s got to be some moral bearing, in my opinion. Yes, they all needed to be gone,” she said.

Court papers, which refer to her son as Victim 1, describe how Mr Sandusky met the boy in 2005 when he was 11 or 12 through a charity for vulnerable children which the former coach had founded.

According to grand jury testimony, Mr Sandusky “indecently fondled Victim 1 on a number of occasions, performed oral sex on Victim 1 on a number of occasions and had Victim 1 perform oral sex on him on at least one occasion”.

Texas prosecutors say they are looking into possible abuses that took place in 1999, when Mr Sandusky travelled there to see the Penn State team play.

A now-27-year-old man, identified as Victim 4, told the Pennsylvania grand jury that Mr Sandusky had threatened to send him home from Texas when he resisted the coach’s advances.

‘Multiple threats’

Authorities meanwhile plan to boost security at Penn State’s final home football game on Saturday.

Mike McQueary, one of the other coaches, will not attend the game after receiving “multiple threats”, said officials.

It is alleged that he saw Mr Sandusky raping a boy as young as 10 (known in the grand jury testimony as Victim 2) in a locker room shower in 2002.

A distraught Mr McQueary reported it to Mr Paterno, who said he alerted the university’s athletic director, Tim Curley, and senior vice-president Gary Schultz. They in turn informed University President Graham Spanier.

But police say the allegation was never reported to them.

Mr Spanier was also sacked on Wednesday, while Mr Curley and Mr Schultz are charged with failing to report the suspected abuse and of perjury during their grand jury testimony.

Wednesday night’s firings prompted outbreaks of disorder from Penn State fans that saw a news van overturned and missiles thrown.

Mr Sandusky, 67, was arrested last weekend accused of sexually abusing eight boys between 1994 and 2009.

He retired from Penn State in 1999, but continued to use the university’s facilities for his work with the Second Mile foundation, a charity for vulnerable children.

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AWOL soldier faces new charges in alleged plot to kill soldiers November 10, 2011

WASHINGTON (CNN) — An AWOL soldier who allegedly wanted to attack other soldiers with a bomb and then shoot survivors now faces new federal charges that carry a maximum of life in prison.

A superseding indictment against Naser Jason Abdo charges him with one count of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, one count of attempted murder of officers or employees of the United States, two counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a federal crime of violence and two counts of possession of a destructive device in furtherance of a federal crime of violence.

Abdo was arrested on July 27 in Killeen, Texas. Prosecutors allege he was in the process of constructing a bomb he planned to set off inside “an unspecified restaurant, frequented by soldiers from Fort Hood,” according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Texas. According to court documents, Adbo had a .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol, instructions on how to make a bomb and bomb components.

Abdo allegedly had gone to a local gun store to buy bomb components where he aroused the suspicion of a clerk who alerted authorities, according to law enforcement officials.

Abdo, 21, was absent without leave from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

An earlier indictment charged him with possession of an unregistered destructive device, possession of a firearm by a fugitive of justice and possession of ammunition by a fugitive from justice. Those charges remain in effect, but prosecutors will proceed with the new charges contained in the superseding indictment first.

An attorney for Abdo, Dan MacLemore, said the judge had imposed a gag order. He did say that defense attorneys had received the new indictment and that they “are not surprised by the additional charges.”

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California’s medical marijuana outlets threatened in government crackdown November 8, 2011

The Obama administration is heading towards an ugly confrontation with California‘s medical marijuana dispensaries after the federal government ordered dozens of outlets to close by Saturday or face an immediate crackdown.

Growers and sellers of marijuana for medicinal use say the threats amount to a betrayal of campaign promises made by Obama in 2008, and that they fear a nationwide attempt to destroy the burgeoning industry. Partly encouraged by Obama’s campaign messages that he would not use federal force against practitioners complying with state laws, dispensaries have spread over the past two years across 16 states, including Arizona, New Jersey, Delaware and Maine as well as Washington DC, with a combined annual turnover of up to $100bn.

California, which permitted medical marijuana in a referendum in 1996, is by far the leader in the field, with some reports suggesting it has more dispensaries than Starbucks coffee houses. Nobody knows precise figures, given the still murky nature of the business, but there are thought to be more than a million Californians who are registered with doctors for growing and consuming cannabis, and hundreds of thousands more across the country.

The Obama administration has steadily toughened its approach over the past two years, arguing that medical marijuana has become a front for illegal distribution of the drug. This summer it sent out letters to several towns in states across America, including California, which have passed their own independent regulations permitting the medical use of the drug. Prosecutors pointed out that cannabis remained illegal under federal law and warned the municipalities, from Montana to Rhode Island, not to allow cultivation on their land.

Then, on 7 October, federal prosecutors held a press conference in which they announced they were extending their threatened action to landlords who provided rental space to dispensaries, giving them 45 days to send their tenants packing or face the consequences. For many of those outlets, the deadline runs out on Saturday.

“This is a clear case of the federal government overreaching itself,” said Morgan Fox of the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project. “It goes against what Obama said many times in his presidential campaign, so either he has lost control of the Department of Justice or he is betraying his election promises.”

It is not known how far the federal authorities intend to go in enforcing their threats; the sight of Swat teams going in to smash dispensaries used at least in part by seriously ill patients may not produce the most sympathetic headlines in the more liberal towns and cities of California. But already the chill has spread, and several outlets are understood to have shut their doors or been evicted by landlords.

Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, ASA, the largest pro-medical marijuana group in the country, said the Obama administration was being substantially more aggressive on this issue than its Bush predecessor. “We are seeing a new vitality in the attacks against medical marijuana and that’s extremely troubling. Political will in this country is changing, and its about time the administration caught up with it.”

A recent Gallup poll found that for the first time since records began, more than a half of Americans were in favour of legalising all marijuana use.

ASA has filed a lawsuit that accuses the department of justice of violating the 10th amendment of the constitution, which devolves any power not specifically delegated to the federal government to the states.

Further lawsuits have been launched across California pressing for a temporary restraining order on the federal authorities to prevent raids happening after the 45-day time limit is reached.

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Justice inspector general: There were no $16 muffins October 29, 2011

Washington (CNN) — Oops.

The Justice Department inspector general announced Friday that its highly publicized assertion last month that department officials paid $16 per muffin at a Washington legal conference was wrong.

Acting Inspector General Cynthia Schnedar issued a revised report, which said her office’s highly publicized original report in September had incorrectly concluded that the cost of the muffins at a 2009 conference were so pricey. “We regret the error in our original report,” the new document says.

The $16 claim created an inside-the-Beltway storm, with both the Hilton hotel chain and key department officials blasting the independent inspector general’s report. The report cited the high cost of the muffins as an example of uncontrolled federal costs.

“After publication of the report, we received additional documents and information concerning the food and beverage costs at the Executive Office of Immigration Review conference,” the new inspector general’s report said.

“After further review of the newly provided documentation and information and after discussions with the Capital Hilton and the (Justice) Department, we determined that our initial conclusions concerning the itemized costs of refreshments at the EOIR conference were incorrect and that the department did not pay $16 per muffin.”

“We have therefore revised the report based on these additional documents and deleted references to any incorrect costs,” the reported noted.

The new report does not attach a cost to the notorious muffins.

The EOIR hosted the August 2009 conference at the Capital Hilton in downtown Washington.

The Hilton chain and conference organizers vigorously challenged the initial cost assertion, which cited the $4,200 cost for 250 muffins at a conference reception. The hotel chain said the muffin and pastry costs included fresh fruits and beverages, and that space for the conference was provided free of charge.

Though the initial inspector general’s report said the receipts specifically cited “muffins,” the hotel insisted that was simply shorthand.

The story received front-page treatment in Washington-area newspapers, and came amid high-profile battles over government budgets and the need for cost-cutting.

“We hope that our correction of the record for this one conference among the 10 conferences we reviewed does not detract from the more significant conclusion in our report: Government conference expenditures must be managed carefully,” the new report noted. “The department can do more to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely and accounted for properly.”

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Response: It’s ridiculous to claim our extradition treaty with the US is fair October 27, 2011

You report that Sir Scott Baker and his panel have concluded the extradition treaty between the UK and US is fair and there is no need to introduce a “forum bar” to extradition into law (Inquiry urges extradition power curbs, 19 October). As a human rights lawyer who has been campaigning against the treaty since 2004, I find their view astonishing.

Your article states that the review panel “found no ‘practical difference’ between the information or standard of proof required by both countries and said the ‘widespread perception that they operate in an unbalanced manner’ is not justified”. Its conclusion appears to ignore the fact that, under the treaty, a defendant facing extradition in a US court can challenge the materials against him, while a UK defendant has no such rights. Nick Clegg’s description of the treaty as “lopsided” would therefore appear to be justified.

A forum bar would, as you report, “have allowed British courts to block extradition if a significant part of the alleged offence took place in the UK”. This would prevent the extradition of British citizens such as Gary McKinnon and Babar Ahmad. The review panel’s findings contradict those of the parliamentary joint committee on human rights, which observed in June that the forum bar had already been agreed by parliament and that the government should bring forward the relevant legislation.

The findings of the review panel are not binding on the government, and arguably it should instead follow the recommendations of the parliamentary committee, which consists of elected representatives. Indeed, the forum amendment to the treaty was supported by every senior member of the present cabinet while in opposition – with the current attorney general and solicitor general both having spoken at length in debate in favour of the amendment.

To allow a British citizen accused of crimes committed in Britain to be extradited to the US – on the same evidence on which this government has decided not to prosecute him – completely undermines our criminal justice system. There is growing public outrage over this, with the voices of discontent increasing every day. In recent weeks, over 40,000 people have signed an official e-petition calling for Ahmad to be put on trial in the UK rather than extradited.

It is not just Muslim terror suspects such as Ahmad – now in his eighth year of detention without trial – who are being harmed by this treaty. Corporate bankers such as the NatWest Three were previously extradited. All have been abandoned, if not betrayed, by their government.

It is the responsibility of the British public to defend the sovereignty and integrity of our criminal justice system. An open debate must be held in parliament to force the government to comply with the findings of the joint committee on human rights and introduce the forum bar into law, thereby allowing Ahmad, McKinnon and others to be tried in Britain.

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Occupy Wall Street protesters follow Dr King’s arc of moral justice | Amy Goodman October 20, 2011

The national memorial to Martin Luther King Jr was dedicated last Sunday. President Barack Obama said of Dr King: “If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there.”

The dedication occurred amid the increasingly popular and increasingly global Occupy Wall Street movement. What Obama left unsaid is that King, were he alive, would most likely be protesting Obama administration policies.

Not far from the dedication ceremony, Cornel West, preacher, professor, writer and activist, was being arrested on the steps of the US supreme court. He said, before being hauled off to jail: “We want to bear witness today that we know the relation between corporate greed and what goes on too often in the supreme court decisions … We will not allow this day of Martin Luther King Jr’s memorial to go without somebody going to jail, because Martin King would be here right with us, willing to throw down out of deep love.”

West was arrested with 18 others, declaring “solidarity with the Occupy movement all around the world, because we love poor people, we love working people, and we want Martin Luther King Jr to smile from the grave that we haven’t forgot his movement.”

Over the same weekend as the dedication, the US military and CIA’s drone campaign– under commander-in-chief Obama – launched what the independent, non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, called the 300th drone strike, the 248th since Obama took office. According to the BIJ, of the at least 2,318 people killed by drone strikes, between 386 and 775 were civilians, including 175 children. Imagine how King, Obama’s fellow Nobel peace prize laureate, would respond to those grim statistics.

Back in 1963, King published a collection of sermons titled Strength to Love. His preface began: “In these turbulent days of uncertainty the evils of war and of economic and racial injustice threaten the very survival of the human race.”

Three of the 15 sermons were written in Georgia jails, including Shattered Dreams. In that one, he wrote: “To co-operate passively with an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressor.” King revisited the idea of shattered dreams four years later, eight months before his assassination, in his speech called Where Do We Go From Here, saying: “Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted … Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Earlier in that year, 1967, a year to the day before he was killed, King gave his oft-overlooked Beyond Vietnam speech at Riverside Church in New York City. King preached: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”

With those words, with that speech, King set the tone for his final, fateful year. Despite death threats, and his close advisers urging him not to go to Memphis, King went to march in solidarity with that city’s sanitation workers. On April 4, 1968, he was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Deeply impacted at the time by the assassination, we can follow two young men along King’s arc of moral justice all the way to Occupy Wall Street. One was John Carlos, a US Olympic track star. Carlos won the bronze medal in the 200m at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Carlos and his teammate Tommie Smith, who won gold, raised their black-gloved fists in the power salute on the medal stand, instantly gaining global fame. They both stood without shoes, protesting black children in poverty in the United States.

Last week, John Carlos spoke at Occupy Wall Street, and afterwards he told me: “I’m just so happy to see so many people who are standing up to say: ‘We’re not asking for change. We demand change.’”

The other person is the Rev Jesse Jackson. He was with King when he was assassinated. Late Monday night, the New York City Police Department seemed to be making a move on Occupy Wall Street’s first-aid tent. Jackson was there. Just days past his 70th birthday, Jackson joined arms with the young protesters, defying the police. The police backed off. And the arc of the moral universe bent a bit more toward justice.

• Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

© 2011 Amy Goodman; distributed by King Features Syndicate

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Martin Luther King finally honoured in Washington after 43 years October 16, 2011

In 1968 the African American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha had a dream. It would build a monument in Washington DC to honour one of its members who had been gunned down just weeks before as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis.

It may have taken 43 years, and several bitter controversies, but on Sunday that dream was finally realised.

Tens of thousands of people, mainly African Americans, from all over the US gathered at the National Mall in the centre of the capital under a cloudless autumn sky to see the official dedication of the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.

“We honour this man because he had faith in us,” President Barack Obama told the crowd. “That is why he is on this mall, because he saw what we might become.”

Obama said that the monument marked “a black preacher, of no official rank or title, who somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals; a man who stirred our conscience and thereby made our union more perfect”.

Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The nine-metre statue of King, hewn from a huge block of granite, is the first monument to a non-president or a black person on the mall or surrounding parks.

It stands on Washington’s tidal basin, close to the Lincoln memorial where King made his famous “I have a dream” speech on 28 August 1963. The dedication was meant to have taken place on the anniversary of that day this August, but Hurricane Irene put paid to that.

Obama paid tribute to King’s famous address, saying that without it “we might not have had the courage to have come as far as we have”.

The speech inspired the memorial’s design, particularly the line: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope”.

Visitors to the monument pass through two massive jagged blocks – the mountain of despair – before they come to the statue of King, his arms crossed, that represents the stone of hope.

It was designed by artist Lei Yixin, the subject of one of the most heated controversies surrounding the monument. Black artists, many of whom struggle to find commissions, asked why the job had been given to a Chinese sculptor, with the work carving out the granite largely carried out in China.

There was also controversy over the inscription: “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” That is a boiled down version of comments made by King at his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta two months before he was assassinated: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.”

Maya Angelou, the African American author and poet, ridiculed the bastardised quotation, saying that “it makes Dr Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit”.

The ceremony brought together several of King’s close relatives, including his sister Christine King Farris and his youngest child Bernice King.

John Lewis, the only surviving speaker of the ten including King who addressed the 1968 March on Washington, also gave a speech on Sunday.

Attendees emphasised both King’s historic role and the importance of his message today. Al Sharpton, the Harlem-based activist, said: “This is not a monument of times past, this is not a memorial to someone who has passed into history, this is a marker for the fight for justice today and a projection of the fight for justice in the future.”

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US steps up pressure on Iran over alleged plot to kill Saudi envoy October 12, 2011

Washington is stepping up attempts to isolate Tehran after accusing factions in the Iranian government of a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington on US soil.

The US announced new economic sanctions against five Iranians, including four senior members of the Quds force, the special operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which American officials have implicated in the alleged plot.

Sanctions were already in place but the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said a “very strong message” needed to be sent to the Iranian regime.

She said she and Barack Obama want to “enlist more countries in working together against what is becoming a clearer and clearer threat” from Iran.

The US is discussing with Saudi Arabia and other allies the possibility of taking the matter to the UN security council, according to Reuters, which cited an unnamed western diplomat.

A spokesman for the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described the allegations as “a fabrication” while Iran’s ambassador to the UN has written to the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, complaining of US “warmongering”.

Mohammad Khazaee wrote: “I am writing to you to express our outrage regarding the allegations levelled by the United States officials against the Islamic Republic of Iran on the involvement of my country in an assassination plot targeting a foreign diplomat in Washington.”

Even in the US, there was incredulity at the brazen nature of the alleged plot.

But in a sign that relations between Tehran and Washington have soured further, the state department issued a worldwide alert about the supposed threat posed by Tehran to US citizens.

It said: “The US government assesses that this Iranian-backed plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador may indicate a more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries, to include possible attacks in the United States.”

Manssor Arbabsiar

Two men, one an American-Iranian, Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, and Gholam Shakuri, an Iranian, have been charged in New York with the alleged “murder-for-hire” plot to pay a Mexican drug cartel to help assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador and close confidant of the Saudi king.

The US justice department said Arbabsiar was working under the direction of the Revolutionary Guards, and that Shakuri was a member of the Quds force.

According to the justice department, the aim was to bomb a restaurant in Washington frequented by Jubeir.

Arbabsiar allegedly met a confidential source from the US drug enforcement administration on several occasions in Mexico. He allegedly told the DEA source to go ahead with the plot despite the probability of mass casualties, saying: “They want that guy [the ambassador] done [killed] … If the hundred go with him, fuck ‘em.”

The agent and Arbabsiar allegedly discussed bombing a restaurant in the US that the ambassador frequented. When the agent noted that others could be killed in the attack, including US senators dining at the restaurant, Arbabsiar allegedly dismissed these concerns as “no big deal”.

US officials said the Iranians had put a $1.5m (£950,000) price tag on the assassination.

Arbabsiar appeared briefly in court in New York on Tuesday afternoon, and was held without bail. Shakuri is said by the US to be in Iran.

The FBI’s director, Robert Mueller, said the alleged plot read like a Hollywood film, while Clinton said: “The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador: nobody could make that up, right?”

Incredulity among US officials was shared by observers, some of whom went further and suggested the plot was so far-fetched as to be unbelievable.

Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, told the Guardian: “This stinks to holy hell. The Quds force are very good. They don’t sit down with people they don’t know and make a plot.

“They use proxies and they are professional about it. This is totally uncharacteristic of them.”

The use of a sting operation is likely to heighten scepticism about the extent, if any, of the Iranian government’s involvement.

A senior law enforcement official who had been involved in the investigation and would speak only on the condition of anonymity said: “It’s so outside their normal track of activity. It’s a rogue plan or they’re using very different tactics. We just don’t know.”

According to the justice department, Arbabsiar met the DEA source in Mexico on 24 May, discussing explosives and explaining that he was interested in, among other things, attacking a Saudi embassy. They held further meetings in Mexico in June and July.

Arbabsiar allegedly arranged for $100,000 to be transferred into a bank account in the US for the supposed cartel member.

A friend of Arbabsiar, a former secondhand-car dealer, said the Iranian was known as “Jack” to his friends because his name was too hard to pronounce.

David Tomscha, who briefly owned a used car lot with him in Corpus Christi, Texas, said his friend was likeable, albeit a bit lazy.

“He’s no mastermind,” Tomscha said. “I can’t imagine him thinking up a plan like that. I mean, he didn’t seem all that political. He was more of a businessman.”

The Saudi embassy in Washington described the alleged attempt to assassinate Jubeir as “despicable”. Obama called the ambassador on Tuesday to express solidarity between the US and Saudi Arabia in the face of “a flagrant violation of US and international law”.

David Cameron added his voice to the condemnation. “Indications that this plot was directed by elements of the Iranian regime are shocking,” the prime minister said in a statement from his office. “We will support measures to hold Iran accountable for its actions.”

Relations between the US and Iran have been tense for years over claims Tehran is seeking to make a nuclear bomb.

But the court case increases tensions even further, introducing unpredictable elements such a risk of retaliation by Saudi Arabia.

The central question is whether a rogue element in Iran may have been involved or whether the alleged plot was sanctioned by a senior leader.

Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, who was briefed in detail, refused to say whether Ahmadinejad had been involved in the supposed plan but he insisted it was “an Iranian government-sanctioned event”.

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