Truthout Stories Sat, 25 Apr 2015 00:12:31 -0400 en-gb Why Comcast Seems to Be Walking Away

Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Comcast is likely to walk away from its proposed $45.2 billion merger with Time Warner Cable. Yesterday, Comcast met with the US Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission. The deal had been troubled for weeks.

The Justice Department and FCC had reason to carefully evaluate the merger, which was first announced in Feb. 2014 and had been expected at the time to be completed by the end of 2014 or early 2015. If the two companies had joined, they would have controlled just under 30 percent of the country's pay TV market and, by one measure, roughly 57 percent of the broadband Internet market (Comcast put the figure at 35 percent).

Comcast's argument that the merger would have minimal competitive harm seems to have unraveled. Here's some of what could have gone wrong.

TV Program Stifling

Comcast is already the largest video and TV service distributor in the country, according to the Leichtman Research Group. With a wider geographic footprint, it could have used its weight to push out competition on TV airwaves, according to critics of the merger. In fact, it already has. Comcast refused to carry Univision's sports network, Deportes Univision, one of the largest sports networks in the country and a competitor to Telemundo, which is owned by NBCUniversal and Comcast. Randy Falco, Univision's CEO, said in an earnings call in Apr. 2014 just after the merger was proposed that he feared "this type of anticompetitive conduct would continue." Comcast responded by saying it "has had an extraordinary, long-standing commitment to Hispanic programming," adding through its merger with Time Warner Cable it is "committed to bringing high-quality Hispanic content to millions of additional Americans." Just five months later, Comcast announced that it would offer Univision Deportes to its Xfinity TV subscribers in certain urban Latino markets.

John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, expressed concerned that these practices would expand if Comcast merged with Time Warner Cable, bringing the combined company the ability to reach 33 million cable subscribers. "In a world of lots of smaller video distributors, no one of them has the ability to single-handedly dictate terms like that since a video programmer could walk away," he wrote in an email.

Monopoly on Broadband Internet Service

Aside from TV, Comcast would have a number of mechanisms to squeeze out online companies. A typical household requires at least 25 mbps of Internet speed to go about their daily online routines. That might include watching an HD video over Netflix while also posting pictures to Instagram as another person in the home works on their laptop. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are two of the country's major providers of broadband service of this speed. If they were to merge, there would be few other Internet service providers that could compete, leaving many content companies like Google's YouTube with only one option to reach their subscribers, according to FCC filings by opponents of the merger. In this scenario, a merged Comcast/Time Warner Cable behemoth could leverage its interconnection points, which is where services like YouTube connect to stream video to their customers. Comcast could keep YouTube from offering services over its network, degrade their traffic or charge them a high fee to connect to Comcast customers. DISH Network wrote to the FCC that such chokeholds "over the broadband pipe would stifle future video competition and innovation, all to the detriment of consumers," adding that the merger would consolidate "too much power in the hands of too few." Comcast argued that it would "bring significant benefits to Time Warner Cable customers, including higher Internet speeds and greater reliability."

More Broken Promises

Comcast agreed to conditions to facilitate past mergers, but its record of complying with them raised concerns among critics. The FCC slapped several conditions onto its approval of Comcast's 2011 merger with NBCUniversal. For one thing, the agency required Comcast to "visibly offer and actively market standalone retail broadband Internet access service." But just a year later an FCC investigation found that the company was not visibly marketing the standalone service and required it to pay a $800,000 fine and extend the service offer for another year. Comcast also defied what are called "neighboring" conditions. Bloomberg complained to the FCC that Comcast placed Bloomberg TV in the outer dial away from most other business networks and its own channel, CNBC, in the lower dial with other business news where viewers would be more likely to come upon it. Comcast argued that the condition only applied to future news neighborhoods, not channels that existed prior to its merger. The FCC ruled against Comcast and ordered it to place Bloomberg TV in its neighborhood lineup of business news. Even then, Comcast said this was "not a compliance issue, it's an interpretive issue." Comcast also violated its own voluntary agreement to respect the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules. In February 2014, Comcast was found slowing Netflix traffic over its network which pressured Netflix into a paid agreement to ensure its traffic reached its customers at a normal speed. David Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president, said at a telecommunications summit three months later that paid prioritization for traffic was completely legal. "Whatever it is," he said. "We are allowed to do it."

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Lawrence Lessig on Why Elizabeth Warren Needs to Run for President

On Monday night Mayday Pac Cofounder and Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig made the passionate case for Run Warren Run at "An Evening With Lawrence Lessig In NYC."

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
US-Backed Saudi War in Yemen Continues as Aid Groups Describe "Catastrophic" Humanitarian Crisis

Warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition struck the Yemeni cities of Aden and Ibb early today despite a claim by Riyadh that it had ended the military operation known as Operation Decisive Storm. Saudi Arabia and nine Arab allies began bombing Yemen on March 25. The United States provided intelligence and logistical support for the attacks and accelerated the sale of new weapons to its Gulf allies. Earlier this week, the United States deployed two additional warships off the coast of Yemen. The bombing began after Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sana'a last year and deposed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the humanitarian situation in Yemen is "catastrophic." We speak to Toby Jones, associate professor of history and director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition struck the Yemeni cities of Aden and Ibb early today, despite a claim by Riyadh that it had ended the military operation known as Decisive Storm. Saudi Arabia and nine Arab allies began bombing Yemen on March 25th. The United States provided intelligence and logistical support for the attacks and accelerated the sale of new weapons to its Gulf allies. Earlier this week, the United States deployed two additional warships off the coast of Yemen. The bombing began after Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sana'a last year and deposed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the humanitarian situation in Yemen is "catastrophic." Following a brief visit to Yemen, the regional director of the ICRC, Robert Mardini, told reporters the collateral damage wrought on civilian life was absolutely shocking.

ROBERT MARDINI: The conflict in Yemen is in dire need for a political solution. We encourage that to happen. But in the meantime, the humanitarian situation is worsening by the day and, in certain location, is really catastrophic. We urge all the parties to take every precautions to protect women, men and children. We call on them once again to facilitate desperately needed, impartial humanitarian action.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch has said it appears Saudi Arabia may have deliberately bombed a humanitarian aid warehouse run by Oxfam that contained supplies to facilitate access to clean water for thousands of families in Saada. Oxfam said it had given the coalition forces the building's exact coordinates to keep it from being targeted. Human Rights Watch said, quote, "Serious violations of the laws of war committed with criminal intent - that is, are deliberate or reckless - are war crimes." On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the US said his country had achieved its mission in Yemen. This is Adel al-Jubeir.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: We destroyed their air force. We destroyed their ballistic missiles, as far as we know. We destroyed their command and control. We destroyed much, if not most, of their heavy equipment. And we made it very difficult for them to move, from a strategic perspective. So we've degraded their capabilities substantially, and thereby eliminated the threat that they pose to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and, in a process, ensured the safety of our borders, our territory and our citizens. That was the objective of Operation Decisive Storm, in addition, of course, to the protection of the legitimate government of Yemen. Those objectives have been achieved.

AMY GOODMAN: We're joined now by Toby Jones, associate professor of history and director of Middle East studies at Rutgers University, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. Jones was previously the International Crisis Group's political analyst of the Persian Gulf.

So, let's start with Operation Decisive Storm - obviously sounds just like Operation Desert Storm. Toby Jones, can you talk about what Saudi Arabia is doing right now in Yemen, with US support?

TOBY JONES: Well, Adel al-Jubeir said it very well, right? The Saudis are interested in destroying and degrading Yemen's military capacity, particularly those of the Houthis. But they have a series of mixed objectives that we shouldn't be persuaded by. One is the stated claim that they want to protect their borders in any threat to Saudi Arabia. The reality is, the Houthis have never represented a threat to Saudi Arabia, and they still don't, even though they enjoy control over much of Yemen. And the other is to restore the legitimate government of President Hadi. In reality, Hadi was - his position in power was orchestrated by the Saudi and the GCC after the Arab uprisings.

I mean, the bottom line is this: Yemen has long been the backyard of Saudi Arabia. It's a deeply impoverished place that the Saudis believe they should assert political authority in, that they should influence outcomes. The fact that they've been challenged on the southern border is troubling, but it's also because Yemen is fairly easy for them to intervene in. We've seen no resistance in the region. This is something that the Saudis can carry out with very little punishment or accountability, and carry on and declare an end to it when they like.

Reality on the ground is they've accomplished very little. The Houthis have retained political authority. They're even operating in Aden, which the Saudis said they hoped to preempt. It's not clear what they've accomplished. They've declared victory, but they've done little more than actually kill almost a thousand Yemenis and degrade what was already, you know, a troubled infrastructure and environment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the Saudis say that they've now changed - the new phase of operations is called Renewal of Hope. Toby Jones, could you respond to the repeated claims by the Saudis and others that the Iranians are supporting the Houthis and that's what's forced Saudi Arabia to intervene in this way?

TOBY JONES: Well, there's no clear coordination between Iran and the Houthis. Let's be clear: There's absolutely no evidence that Iran is operating on the ground in Yemen or that it's directing orders to the Houthi rebels. The Saudis have done a masterful job in the last month, and even before that, dating back to last fall when the Houthis began their march out of northern Yemen toward the south, in repackaging what the Houthis are up to as part of a regional sectarian problem. But the reality is that Yemen has been a deeply fractured place for quite a long time, and the Houthis have asserted and demanded their right to be equal participants in a federal political order. They've been historically marginalized. The Saudis have ignored all of this and have sort of pushed through a narrative that suggests that something more nefarious, conspiratorial and regional is at work. And I think we can measure Saudi Arabia's political and military intervention in terms of success and failure. They've accomplished very little on the ground other than to break things. But the fact that they've helped frame and convince the Western media, Western policymakers and many folks who might be casual observers that the Houthis are Iranian agents is a form of success, even though it's not true.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from Tuesday's State Department briefing. A reporter asked deputy spokesperson Marie Harf for evidence that Iran is supporting the Houthis.

REPORTER: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the administration has evidence that Iranians are supplying weapons and other support -

MARIE HARF: Correct.

REPORTER: - formal support to Houthis. What kind of evidence does the administration have? Can you update us?

MARIE HARF: Well, we've - this isn't something new, unfortunately. We've long talked about the support when it comes from funding or whether it's weapons supplies that the Iranians are sending to the Houthi. This has been really an ongoing relationship for a very long time. I'm happy to see if there's more evidence to share publicly of that, but this has been something we've expressed concern about for some time.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, can you respond to the State Department on this point? And also talk about the role of the US right now.

TOBY JONES: Well, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are Iranian weapons circulating amongst the Houthis. Right? I mean, the Iranians are opportunists. I mean, we don't want to whitewash Tehran's interests or objective in asserting its own hegemony in the region. I mean, it's involved in all kinds of places. But this is rather thin grounds on which to claim that there's some - that there's some widespread cooperation or coordination between Tehran and what's going on in North Yemen. Right? I mean, if we want to make the claim that rebels or militants operating with one country's weapons across the Middle East is a sign of coordination, then what do we make of al-Qaeda and ISIS using American weapons captured in the battlefield or having been supplied by Saudi Arabia and others in Syria and Iraq and Yemen? I mean, this is a dubious claim that obscures more than it clarifies.

As far as the American role goes, the Americans view Yemen as a Saudi backyard, and they're going to defer to the Saudis here. I mean, there's lots of geopolitical sort of moving parts here, as well. While the Americans are chipping away on a nuclear arrangement with Iran, they understand and they're very clear that the Saudis are uncomfortable with all of that. So they're making concessions on Yemen, because it's easy for the Americans to do so, providing small-scale cover and other kinds of material support, including putting warships close by the Port of Aden and elsewhere. I mean, this is simply a matter of the Americans making choices about where they can support the Saudis and where they can oppose them elsewhere, or at least where they can work at odds with them.

Yemen is and has for a long time been the most deeply impoverished place in the Middle East. But it has also been a political football in the region that the Saudis and the Americans have kicked around. This is a place where we talk about catastrophe and the environmental and humanitarian consequences of the recent campaign. This is not new in Yemen. Very little has been done to address it. And in spite of all of that, the US has almost always pursued Yemen as a place to drop bombs and to target what they call militants. And with that in mind, it's easy for them to support the Saudis, who are claiming to do the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of the Houthis now calling for negotiation? What do you think needs to happen, Toby Jones?

TOBY JONES: Well, I think the Houthis have long called for a political settlement and negotiation. I mean, think back to late last summer when they began moving out of the north and into the south, when they converged on Sana'a and pushed Hadi out of office. The Houthis were calling for, you know, a bigger negotiating table, a greater presence, real accommodation for various political demands from around the country. The Houthis aren't the only ones who have put pressure on Sana'a's old central government. Pressure has come from the south, it's come from tribal confederations, all of whom have suggested that the political dialogue, the national discussion, about the post-Arab-uprising political rapprochement that was necessary, had been a deeply flawed process. The Houthis didn't call for war, and they coordinated closely with actors on the ground. They're the ones who were being attacked, even though they're the ones who have been calling for a political settlement to a deeply broken system all along. The fact that the Saudis have recast this in a language that the Houthis are the villains and the ones acting dangerously is remarkable, as is the fact that the Saudis can drop bombs while calling it a humanitarian mission. In reality - I mean, in many ways, it's a play straight from the American playbook.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Red Cross is calling it a humanitarian catastrophe. Ten seconds, Toby.

TOBY JONES: Well, it is a humanitarian catastrophe. But Yemen was already in a state of humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands being internally displaced. This is a place that has rapidly run out of water. It has very little in the way of natural resources. The Saudis are just making a bad situation worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, we want to thank you for being with us, associate professor of history and director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, previously worked [as] the International Crisis Group's political analyst of the Persian Gulf.

That does it for our broadcast. I'll be speaking tonight in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at 7:00 p.m., at Celeste Hall inside the Cornerstone Arts Center. So check our website at And all Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we'll be broadcasting from The Hague. It's the hundredth anniversary of one of the oldest women's peace organizations in the world, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"Running While Black": Protests Swell Over Death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police Custody

Protests in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray have entered their fifth day. The 27-year-old African-American man died Sunday from spinal injuries, one week after Baltimore police arrested him. His family and attorney say his voice box was crushed and his spine was "80 percent severed at his neck." A preliminary autopsy report showed Gray died of a spinal injury. Video shot by a bystander shows Gray screaming in apparent agony as police drag him to a van. Another witness said the police bent Gray like a pretzel. While the police union has described the protesters as a lynch mob, former Black Panther Eddie Conway says Gray is the one who was lynched. "There was a lynch mob. There is a body. There was a death without a trial, without a jury, without a sentence. There was an execution. That's lynching," Conway says. "They're blaming the victims. They're blaming people that suffered the lynching for protesting."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today's show in Baltimore, where protests over the death of Freddie Gray have entered their fifth day. The 27-year-old African-American man died Sunday from spinal injuries, one week after Baltimore police arrested him. His family and attorney say his voice box was crushed and his spine was, quote, "80 percent severed at his neck." A preliminary autopsy report showed Gray died of a spinal injury. Video shot by a bystander shows Gray screaming in apparent agony as police drag him to a van. You can hear a bystander's voice.

BYSTANDER: His leg looks broke! Look at his f - ing leg! Look at his f - ing leg! That boy's leg looks broke! His leg's broken! Y'all dragging him like that!

AMY GOODMAN: Another witness said the police bent Freddie Gray like a pretzel. Gray was then held inside a police van for 30 minutes. Police said, quote, "During transport to Western District via wagon transport the defendant suffered a medical emergency and was immediately transported to Shock Trauma via medic."

The Department of Justice is now investigating Gray's death for possible civil rights violations. Since 2011, Baltimore has paid roughly $6.3 million to settle police misconduct claims. Baltimore authorities say five of the six officers involved in the arrest of Gray have now given statements to the Baltimore police. One has not. They remain suspended with pay. Baltimore police union attorney Michael Davey told reporters the officers were right to chase Gray after he ran away when a lieutenant "made eye contact" with him.

MICHAEL DAVEY: They pursued Mr. Gray. They detained him for an investigative stop. Had he not had a knife or an illegal weapon on him, he would have been released. They know what role they played in the arrest of Mr. Gray. What we don't know and what we're hoping the investigation will tell us is what happened inside the back of the van. He was placed in the transport van. Whether he was seat-belted in, I don't believe he was. Our position is: Something happened in that van; we just don't know what.

REPORTER: Do you think any of the six officers committed a crime that day?


REPORTER: Unequivocally. And what makes you say that?

MICHAEL DAVEY: Based on the information that I know, no.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, on Wednesday, our next guest spoke with residents of the Gilmor Homes housing project in West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was arrested, including one woman who says she witnessed officers loading him into the back of a police van. In a minute, we'll be joined by our guest, Eddie Conway of The Real News Network, but first, this is a clip of his interview.

EDDIE CONWAY: How are you doing? I'm Eddie Conway.

TAMIKA: Hi, I'm Tamika.


JACQUELINE JACKSON: And I'm Jacqueline Jackson. I seen it.


JACQUELINE JACKSON: I live 1628 Mountmor Court. My kitchen faces Mount Street.


JACQUELINE JACKSON: The paddy wagon was right there. They took the young man out, beat him some more. The man wasn't responding. They took him by his pants, and he was dragged. And I asked them to call an ambulance. They told me to mind my business. I told them it is my business. And they just threw him up in there. They boy wasn't hollering or nothing. And he wasn't hollering or nothing. How can you holler if you ain't saying nothing? They killed that young man. They killed him.

AMY GOODMAN: Eddie Conway of The Real News Network interviewing residents of the Gilmor Homes housing project where Freddie Gray was arrested. He was there last night when protesters [calling] for justice in his case marched again. And he joins us now in Baltimore. Eddie Conway is executive producer of The Real News Network, also a former Black Panther leader in Baltimore, Maryland, who was released from prison last year after serving 44 years for a murder he denies committing. We spoke to him last March, just 24 hours after he was released.

We're also joined by Dominique Stevenson, who was arrested at last night's protest in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray. She is program director for the American Friends Service Committee's Friend of a Friend Program, which fosters the peaceful resolution of conflict and promotes reconciliation and healing inside Maryland's criminal justice system. She's also co-author of Eddie Conway's memoir, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.

Dominique, let's begin with you. Can you explain why you were protesting yesterday and how you got arrested?

DOMINIQUE STEVENSON: Well, I was protesting because this is - there's a history in Baltimore of not so much police shootings, but people being beaten to death by the police. There is a long history. I feel that I needed to be there with the community. We have for some time been doing work in Gilmor Homes housing project, and I wanted to, you know, be there to stand in solidarity with the community. I was arrested because at some point a young woman, Michaela Price, decided to commit civil disobedience. She's 17 years old. I, one, did not want, or even trust, her being in police custody alone, and so I came over the barrier to accompany her.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dominique, the state of Maryland also has the highest - sorry, Baltimore has the highest rate of incarceration in the state of Maryland. Could you connect that to the action that you took and to what happened to Freddie Gray?

DOMINIQUE STEVENSON: Yes. One, if you look at statistics, that particular neighborhood - Sandtown-Winchester is the neighborhood in Baltimore - has actually the highest incarceration rate in the state. And you cannot disconnect that rate of incarceration from the style of aggressive policing that takes place. We've talked to many young men. OK, of course, there's crime in that community. There are no jobs in that community. There is no economic development happening in that community. But the other issue is the harassment of police, the unnecessary detainment of police. People don't know what Freddie Gray's history may have been with those folks that he saw and why making eye contact simply made him run. And so I think that we really need to take a look at how policing is done in Baltimore. It cannot be disconnected from our high incarceration rate. Black folks make up almost 80 percent of the total population in the Maryland prison system, yet we comprise about 28 percent of the population in the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Eddie Conway, you were interviewing people in the area. We just saw you talking to a witness. This issue of there being video of Freddie Gray in the takedown, when they are dragging him over to the - or trying to carry him over to the police van, it looks like he cannot move. Yesterday, the police union spokesperson - attorney, said, "Oh, you know, that's what these perps do. They have to be dragged because they won't walk." Can you respond to this, based on what you heard from witnesses?

EDDIE CONWAY: Yes, and I interviewed perhaps 30 people from that community that was in that area or either heard the incident or witnessed the incident. The incident actually occurred under one of the police cameras that has been operating for years in that community, and they have been using that camera to make numerous drug arrests over the years. And for some reason, that day, that camera did not work. It would have been directly over Freddie Gray's head. It would have recorded everything that took place.

One of the things that people say, that one of the police dropped down on his back, on his neck with his knee, and from that point on, he was incapacitated. And later, they even took him back out of the van and shackled his legs and did something else to him and threw him back in the van. So, as far as all the witnesses can tell and all of them report, that he was already fatally injured when they put him in, in the first place. That video that we saw with them dragging him to the van, he was already incapacitated.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And has anyone, Eddie Conway, given an exclamation for why that camera didn't work that day?

EDDIE CONWAY: No one knows why that camera didn't work. Everybody in the community says that that camera has been used consistently over the years to lock people up, and used for evidence in drug arrests and other arrests. One of the things is, and I guess I want to raise this issue, when is it a crime for a man to run somewhere? People run throughout the city all the time. People are constantly running. So, you get executed because you run?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, can you clarify, for people who haven't been following this case? The police union attorney yesterday said, in a high crime area, yes, you can arrest someone if they simply run. And no one alleges anything other than that Freddie Gray ran. What about this?

EDDIE CONWAY: Well, it's not a high-crime area. It is a "broken windows" police area in which people and residents in that area are arrested for sitting on their own steps. They are loitering in their own community, on their own steps, and they're harassed constantly. And this had been the reports that I have received. The Real News and myself and Friend of a Friend, we have been going down in that area trying to establish a relationship with the people in that area. And one of the things that they said is that they're not even allowed to sit out in the area on their steps, even though they live there. The police will come and harass them. That level of harassment causes verbal responses. It causes physical contact. It causes people to be arrested. And before you know it, they have an arrest record, even as - I'm talking 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-old juveniles. And they end up in the prison system. And that's why that becomes the high-crime system - the high-crime area.

AMY GOODMAN: A statement -

EDDIE CONWAY: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: A statement from the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, Baltimore's police union, compared the protesters calling for justice in the death of Freddie Gray to a "lynch mob." During a news conference Wednesday, reporters questioned the union's president about the comparison.

REPORTER 1: I just was reading the statement you all just handed out to us just now. And just reading it, the tone, I mean, it says that the images on TV look and sound much like a lynch mob. Are you - I mean, what do you - how do you expect that to be received?

MICHAEL DAVEY: I haven't seen that. I haven't -

GENE RYAN: I put that, because they've already tried and convicted the officers, and that's just unfair. They still get their day in court. They did not give up their constitutional rights when they became a law enforcement officer. That's what I was getting at with that. Some of the protesters and some of the stuff I've been watching on the news, they want them put in prison. Well, they haven't been charged, number one. Number two, they still get their day in court. So how can they request that they be put in jail? We haven't even got to that process yet. The investigation has to be completed before we move forward.

REPORTER 1: Right, but are you concerned with the tone of the statement at all?

GENE RYAN: No, because I was quite offended by some of the things that were being said yesterday. Me, personally. That's coming from me. That didn't come from Mike and the law firm. That's coming - that's -

REPORTER 2: But it says - this says it comes from the Fraternal Order of Police.

GENE RYAN: Yes. That's - I'm the president.

REPORTER 2: So are you likening these citizens protesting in this rally to a lynch mob, specifically?

GENE RYAN: Well, let's put it this way: If they're tried, convicted, and they would have put them in jail, where's the due process with that?

AMY GOODMAN: That's Gene Ryan, the police union president. Dominique Stevenson, this likening to a lynch mob. Yesterday, you did get arrested. You went over the barrier. What is your reaction to the police union president?

DOMINIQUE STEVENSON: Well, actually, if you take a look at what happened to Freddie Gray, he was tried, convicted and executed. And so, I resent likening people who are simply protesting and demonstrating and responding to a situation that was extremely unjust in their community to a lynch mob. As a person of African descent and understanding the history of lynching in this country, I find that statement offensive. I think that people are very frustrated because this is not the first time that this situation has occurred in Baltimore. I think that people have spent years of seeing these situations occur. People have experienced police brutality on so many levels, whether it's witnessing the mistreatment of loved ones or community members or experiencing it firsthand. There were so many people in the community yesterday who were willing to come up and talk about their experiences with the police, that this is something that has been so harmful to black communities across the country, but particularly here in Baltimore. So I think that it is - basically, it's a statement designed to garner attention and to garner a response. I think that people have a right to protest. They should continue to do that. But along with that, we need to really begin to organize. We need to take control of how policing is done in our communities. And that will begin to resolve some of the problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Dominique Stevenson, we want to thank you for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Eddie, I'd like to ask you to wait for one moment, because you'll be staying with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Eddie Conway with the Baltimore-based Real News Network. We are also going to be joined by the former president of the Baltimore City Council. This is Democracy Now! Major protests planned for today in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray. He was taken down by police on April 12th. He died on April 19th. His family and lawyers say 80 percent of his - that 80 percent of his spine was severed. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guests are - well, Eddie Conway is continuing with us right now. Eddie Conway is an executive producer for The Real News Network, former prisoner. He was in prison for more than 40 years. Lawrence Bell is also with us now, former president of the Baltimore City Council. He represents West Baltimore, which is the area where Freddie Gray was arrested.

So we're going through the facts as we know them. On April 12th, Freddie Gray was arrested by police. It is not clear why. His family, his attorney said he was arrested for running while black. No one contends anything other than he was running and they arrested him. They then drag him into the police van. The police union attorney said that could be because he was resisting. What the witnesses around him are saying is that he looked like he could not move. He could not use his legs, and he was yelling. He is put into this van. At least 30 - or was it 40? - minutes before any kind of medical or medics were called. He would be in the hospital for a week. He died on April 19th, last Sunday. Five of the six police who were involved have given statements; one has refused to. They've all been put on leave with pay.

Lawrence Bell, how typical is this? What are you most concerned about right now as the former president of the Baltimore City Council?

LAWRENCE BELL: Well, first of all, I want to say it's good to be here, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this subject. Unfortunately, Baltimore has had a long history, a very long history, of these kinds of incidents going on. And I think, really, what's changed here in Baltimore, as well as around the country, is that we live in an age where there's technology and people have cellphone smartphones, where they have cameras. Years ago, I remember, over 20 years ago, I was one of the people that led the struggle to try to get civilian review, strong civilian review, here in a city of Baltimore. And that's something that has been resisted for many, many years. And I think it's because there has been a camaraderie within the police department, kind of a "stop snitching" mentality among police.

AMY GOODMAN: Misconduct settlements involving Baltimore police officers have cost the city more than $6 million since 2011. One victim, Barbara Floyd, told The Baltimore Sun that a detective ground her face into the concrete in 2009.

BARBARA FLOYD: I stood by the tree outside of my door with my back facing the street. All of a sudden, I feel arms around my neck. So I was struggling, because I didn't know who it was. Yeah, I was screaming, when I could, "Get off of me! Leave me alone! Why are you all doing this?" They never answered my questions. They don't answer your questions. All they do is tell you to shut the hell up.

NARRATION: In March 2009, Barbara Floyd was watching a disturbance outside her home when, she said, a police officer grabbed her.

BARBARA FLOYD: He put another leg in the small of my back. He was grinding my face into the pavement. He kept telling me to lay down. I was already down.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Barbara Floyd. She received a settlement for $30,000. So you're the former president of the Baltimore City Council, Lawrence Bell.


AMY GOODMAN: More than $6 million for police misconduct over the last few years. Now, you weren't president during that time, but can you talk about this?

LAWRENCE BELL: Yeah, I mean, this has been going on for a number of years. And what's interesting is that the problem in Baltimore, I believe, became exacerbated in the early 2000s, when former Mayor Martin O'Malley began the zero-tolerance policy. And what happened is that basically, you know, they'd been arresting people for petty nuisance crimes, petty things, more arrests, more arrests, and there's been a devaluation of black life. And so, these things have happened. Now, one thing to note is that many of the settlements back over the several years occurred outside of the public meeting setting in the - at the Board of Estimates in Baltimore, so you didn't have a great groundswell of talk about it, because a lot of it wasn't really out in the public view as it is today. But this has been going on for a while.

And I think that it just speaks to the need for change. We need civilian review. We need a different attitude within the police department. We need a better attitude in the whole city. And I think, as I said earlier, we need to have jobs in these communities. You know, something that's concerned me is that, not only in Baltimore, but around the country, even among a lot of the black leaders, we've heard them talk about the issue of police misconduct, but we haven't talked about the ways that black lives are minimized when we are economically depressed and more money is going into prisons, building prisons, than has gone into jobs in places like Sandtown in Baltimore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lawrence Bell, what is your response to the way that the mayor has responded to what's happened? Both the mayor and the police commissioner in Baltimore are African-American, and some have pointed out that this means their response has been much better than what it was, for example, in Ferguson after what happened with Michael Brown.

LAWRENCE BELL: Well, I think the mayor is sincere. I think that there's still a problem with a lot of leadership, even black leadership, being out of touch with the people on the ground. You know, there's an emotion that people feel, and that has to be recognized. And I think the mayor and the commissioner, number one, they need to move a lot faster. I mean, we know that there was a certain number of people on the scene when this incident occurred. It shouldn't be - take rocket science to determine something went wrong. And we need answers a lot faster, a lot quicker. And the length of time that this is taking is the thing that's really inflaming the passions of the people in the community. So I think that the mayor should do a lot more, a lot faster.

I think that - again, as I said earlier, some years ago there was a video in Baltimore called Stop Snitchin', and it talked about people in the drug arena snitching on one another. But here's the thing. Police, apparently, have a mentality of "stop snitching" among themselves, not only in Baltimore, but around the country. And that's what people are upset about, the whole idea that there's cover-up and that we know these kinds of things have happened for years, years. And I think if you interview some police officers who are honest, maybe people who are retired, they'll tell you that this goes on all the time. So, we need to have a whole change. We also need to recruit more African Americans on the police force, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Murphy, the attorney for the Gray family, says police brutality is a pervasive problem in Baltimore.

LAWRENCE BELL: Absolutely.

BILLY MURPHY: And Baltimore has a sorry history of police brutality and an even sorrier history in terms of a governmental response to police brutality. Typically, the police deny, deny, deny, no matter what the facts are. And it is not unusual for them to promote the police officer, even after he's been found guilty of brutality. We had one case - I handled this - where we got a $44 million verdict against a police officer who rammed my client into the brick wall at the back of his holding cell and paralyzed him from the neck down.

CNN HOST: Oh, my goodness.

BILLY MURPHY: That police officer was promoted to sergeant, after the verdict against him. And the city refused to pay and made us appeal at every level. So we had to go to the Court of Special Appeals, the Court of Appeals.


BILLY MURPHY: We won in all of the appellate courts. And still they wouldn't pay the verdict. So, it's a sorry, sorry situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Family attorney Billy Murphy speaking on CNN. On Tuesday, Michigan Democratic Congressmember John Conyers reintroduced a bill to curb racial profiling and provide relief to profiling victims. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland introduced a companion bill in the Senate. During a news conference, Congressman Conyers cited the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: All lives matter. All lives matter. And I'm thinking now of Sean Bell, Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and now, sadly, Freddie Gray. And so, all of these African-American young men were killed at the hands of local police officers. Ultimately, they are tragic examples of the risk of racial profiling and the use of excessive force.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that's Congressmember John Conyers after reintroducing a bill against racial profiling. Lawrence Bell, would you call stopping a man while he's running is racial profiling? Again, the police union attorney said yesterday in the news conference that if they're running in a high-crime area, that's cause enough. Now, I was just watching on television Leonard Hamm, the former police chief of Baltimore, being interviewed, and he said, "No" - he was the former police chief. He said, "No, running is not enough." Lawrence Bell, your thoughts?

LAWRENCE BELL: Well, I think these people need to study the law, because there is a concept of probable cause that exists. And I think it's absurd to say that somebody simply running, after they make eye contact with a police officer, is probable cause. So it makes you wonder, really, you know, where are these people being trained, and where do they get this mentality. And I'll tell you something. Quite honestly, there is a question of how they perceive black men. The perception of black men and the value of black men is on display right now, when we see these kinds of incidents go on. So, I think that that's something we need to deal with right away.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Eddie Conway, we'd like to get your comments on the clip that we played earlier of the police union president, Gene Ryan, likening the protesters to a lynch mob. Could you comment on that?

EDDIE CONWAY: You know, as a journalist and a reporter, I have to question the language. I mean, a lynching did occur: Freddie Gray was lynched. There was a lynch mob. There is a body. There was a death without a trial, without a jury, without a sentence. There was an execution. That's lynching. So, for anybody to say that people that exercise their First Amendment right to protest, to demand justice, to demand an investigation, is a lynch mob, it's 1984. It's doublespeak. They are blaming the victims. They're blaming people that suffered the lynching, for protesting about the lynching, about their behavior. And I think that is - I mean, they do not serve and protect the citizens of the community, the people that pay them, when they kill those citizens and then, in turn, accuse those citizens of acting out of order, and arresting those citizens for protesting the violence that they inflict upon the citizens. That's absurd.

AMY GOODMAN: There is a big difference in the way North Charleston, South Carolina, dealt with the killing of Walter Scott and what's happening today. A police officer was arrested. The mayor and the police chief went to see the family of the Scotts to give their condolences. Now, I understand the Baltimore mayor did call the family to visit them, and they said it wasn't the time to do that. But on the issue - and I wanted to put this question to Lawrence Bell - of these six police officers, they have all been suspended with pay. Five have given statements; one has not. There's been very little information released. There's an internal investigation. There's a Justice Department investigation. There are a few others, apparently. What do you feel - and I'll put this question to both of you - needs to be done now? Apparently, the state will be releasing Freddie Gray's body soon.

LAWRENCE BELL: Well, there needs to be some finality in terms of the investigation. It has to happen a lot faster. We do - you know, we even have - doctors here at Johns Hopkins University have already said that the kind of injury that Mr. Gray suffered had to occur from - well, it had to be a very strong contact that he had with somebody, it seems to say. And so, you know, we don't - we're not rocket scientists. We don't need to study this forever to come up with certain conclusions. We need to have the statements that were made by the police officers released. We need to know everything that happened right away. We need to - we need speed here. We need to know what has happened. And we need to have some people charged. And I'll tell you, when you have people who are suspended but are still getting paid, that's the kind of thing that really inflames the passions of the people. And they feel that there's a two-tiered justice system: There's one for police; there's a different one for just regular citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally -

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah, and I would add that if any other citizen or any other six citizens had been involved in the death of another citizen, they would all be in central booking. They would all be up for bail hearings. They would all be at least investigated in that kind of manner. They wouldn't be receiving paid vacation. So there's a double standard here in terms of the lives of citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. Of course, we'll continue to follow this. More than a thousand people are expected in protests today in Baltimore. Eddie Conway, executive producer of The Real News Network, a former prisoner for more than 40 years. Lawrence Bell, former Baltimore City Council president, represented West Baltimore, which is an area where Freddie Gray was arrested.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we'll talk about Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen. Red Cross is calling it a "catastrophe." Stay with us.

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Google and Android in the Firing Line as European Union Pulls Trigger on Competition Inquiry

There are some specific words that are not particularly popular with the European Commission: "hi-tech", "anti-competitive" and "bundling", to name a few. Throw "US firms" into the mix, and the result is as many expected: Google has been accused of anti-competitive practices in Europe.

The culmination of a three-year investigation, the commission will now examine not only the prominence of Google's own services in its search results, but also launches an inquiry into Android, Google's mobile phone operating system.

The European Commission's competition chiefs have sent a Statement of Objections to Google, requiring the search giant to respond to allegations of anti-competitive behaviour in online shopping, where "Shop with Google" links - paid for by advertisers - are promoted over other search results.

Concerns of anti-competitive behaviour will similarly form the heart of the commission's investigation into Android, which is expected to focus on Google's agreements with tablet and smartphone manufacturers which might fall under Article 101 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

These sorts of contractual arrangements include exclusivity agreements, such as where manufacturers are required to pre-install Google's applications and services exclusively in their tablets and phones - for example, apps such as Google Maps, Gmail, Play, Music, Search and the other elements of the Google-branded ecosystem. They also include agreements whereby manufacturers are restricted from developing and marketing rival products to those Google offers.

The commission will also investigate Google's practice of bundling its applications and services. Tying and bundling occurs when the supplier requires that two or more products are purchased together, even though they might have not been requested. This practice can be equated to abuse of dominance, especially when the supplier is a market giant the size of Google - and particularly in Europe where its dominance in search is greater than in the US and other markets.

This anti-competitive behaviour is likely to trigger Article 102 TFEU, which prohibits the abuse of a dominant position due to its likelihood to prevent or restrict competition. Similar issues have dogged Microsoft, which was dragged through the European courts for anti-competitive practices involving, among other things, software bundling and designing its products in such a way that it was difficult for third parties to create compatible products.

Google Comes Out Fighting

In anticipation of the investigation, Google issued a memo presenting its basic argument against the commission's allegations and aiming to reinforce its brand as a promoter of innovation and an investor in new ideas.

Google points to the open-source nature of the Android system, the pricing of its products, as well as the existence of a vibrant competing market for apps and services - worth US$7 billion in revenue for developers and content publishers last year alone. The point Google is trying to make is that in a market where innovation thrives and consumers have wide choice characterised by low prices, there cannot be a negative or anti-competitive effect on trade.

Practically speaking, this investigation is likely to lead to a highly protracted court case - the EU case against Microsoft took 16 years. If and when Google is charged with breach of EU Competition Laws, the firm could face fines up to US$6 billion. But the bigger problem for a company the size of Google is the legal costs such a protracted case will incur. Distracted by arguing its case against the European Commission, Google risks falling behind in its highly competitive and fast-moving industry.

Proceed With Caution

A lesson from the Microsoft saga is the importance of timing - Microsoft was ultimately forced to unbundle software such as its media player from Windows many, many years after the case was brought - at a time when it no longer mattered. The pace of technological progresses far outstrips the European Commission's ability to keep pace, and the grounds for a lengthy investigation launched in 2015 may no longer be relevant a few years from now. Markets can change overnight, something of which the European Commission is well aware.

Ultimately, the technology industry and associated markets have unique characteristics in respect of competition law - the pace of innovation means no one can be sure today what tomorrow's big products will be. Consequently a dominant firm today may be last in line tomorrow. Competition specialists have long identified this fact and called for caution when intervening, as competition in the field of innovation takes place not in today's markets, but for the markets of tomorrow.

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
An Exclusive Interview With US Senator Bernie Sanders

Austin -  This special Rag Radio podcast features an exclusive 30-minute interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a leading progressive voice in the US Senate who discusses with us his potential presidential candidacy and what he calls the "grotesque level of income and wealth inequality" in this country.

The second part of the show is a discussion with Rag Radio political analyst Glenn W. Smith, a progressive Democratic strategist and director of Progress Texas PAC.

Bernie Sanders joined us by telephone from Washington, DC, in advance of his recent Austin visit which was highlighted by a March 31 "Bernie Sanders Town Meeting" that was by all accounts a rousing success.

The senator spoke before an enthusiastic gathering of close to 500 political activists, union members, and Bernie supporters who were packed into the union hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 520 on E. Ben White Blvd. in Austin. The event was chiefly organized by the increasingly active Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Bernie was introduced to the crowd by Texas' famed populist rabble-rouser and Rag Radio regular, Jim Hightower, and Austin City Councilman Greg Casar also spoke at the rally. The next night, Sanders headlined a high-dollar Democratic Party fundraising event.

On the radio show, Sanders saluted pundit Hightower: "Jim is an old friend of mine and you should be very proud to have him as your local agitator in Austin," he said. In a recent appearance on Rag Radio, Jim Hightower addressed many of the same themes that Sanders stresses, especially the need for a grassroots movement to counter what Hightower refers to as a "corporate plutocracy."

Bernie also gave a shout-out to Rag Radio: "Congratulations for having a cooperative radio show that talks about real issues that effect real people," he said. "We need to multiply what you do by a million times."

Sanders, who was elected to the Senate in 2006 after 16 years serving Vermont as its sole congressman, is the longest serving independent in American Congressional history. He is known for his outspoken advocacy on issues such as income inequality, big money in politics, climate change, and veterans' interests.

A native of Brooklyn who worked as a carpenter and a documentary filmmaker, Bernie is the former mayor of his hometown, Burlington, Vermont. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, which he previously chaired, and in 2015, was tapped to serve as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee. Bernie is one of only two Independents in the Senate and is the only member of Congress who openly identifies as socialist.

"In this country today we probably have more serious problems than we have had since the great depression," Sen. Sanders told the Rag Radio listeners.

Ninety-nine per cent of all new income today is going into the pockets of the top 1%. You have the top 1/10th of 1% owning more wealth than the bottom 70%. You have one family - the Walton family - owning more wealth than the bottom 42% of the American people…

Between 2013 and 2015, a two-year period, the wealthiest 14 people in this country - Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and the Koch Brothers - saw an increase in their wealth of $157 billion. That is more money than the bottom 40% of the American people have.

You've got our friends the Koch Brothers, who are the second wealthiest family in the country, prepared to spend more money than either the Democratic or Republican parties in the next election to push forward an extreme right-wing agenda which represents the very most wealthy people in this country.

About his potential run for the presidency, Bernie Sanders said:

What I have to weigh is whether I could put together - in terms of fundraising, in terms of a grassroots political infrastructure - the kind of support that we need to run a serious and winning campaign…

What does make me optimistic is that, on issue after issue… the American people are not as divided as the pundits tell us that we are.

People want to raise the minimum wage, they want to create jobs, they want to deal with climate change, they want to make college affordable, they are outraged by the greed of the top 1% and the grotesque level of wealth and income inequality.

The challenge, and it's not an easy challenge, is to bring people together around that progressive agenda.

"This country," Sen. Sanders believes,  "is moving very fast toward an oligarchic form of society where a small number of people have incredible wealth, incredible economic power."

You have on Wall Street six financial institutions that have assets that are over 60% of the GDP of the United States of America. They issue two-thirds of the credit cards and one-half of the mortgages in America.

You have the Koch Brothers, who are worth $85 billion, who not only put money into campaigns but they are involved in universities, they are involved in think tanks, they are involved in media… Smart people, well-organized, they have a political data base that is stronger than that of the Republican party.

Their goal is to make a counterrevolution in America and move us back to the 1920s.

And what their agenda is about is literally to repeal every piece of progressive legislation passed in the last 80 years: social security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, do away with the concept of the minimum wage. They are funding the climate deniers.

So, he asks rhetorically, "do we need to redistribute [wealth] back to the working families of this country, many of whom might have $2,000 in the bank? And many… who could go under if they had an automobile accident or a divorce or serious illness?"

"Of course we do."

About the current gang at the Supreme Court, Sanders says:

In area after area this Supreme Court has been a disaster, has undermined democracy, has been working day and night for the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country.

I think the Citizens United decision alone will probably go down as one of the worst decisions ever made by a Supreme Court. It essentially tells the billionaires, hey, you won much of the economy, now you can own the United States government.

And they are seizing that opportunity.

"That is not the kind of country I think that most Americans want to live in," Sanders concludes. "And that's the struggle that we face right now."

Joining us for the second segment of our show is prominent Texas political consultant and strategist Glenn W. Smith. We discuss the current political scene - both nationally and in Texas - including the assumed "inevitability" of Hillary Clinton ("Barring unforeseen circumstances, I think she will be the nominee.") and what Smith dubs the "mean demeanor" of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom he refers to as a "bully authoritarian." "He's no Penelope," Glenn chuckled.

Smith has recently joined forces with the Rev. Dr. William Barber, whose "Moral Monday" movement in North Carolina has been such a remarkable success in its grassroots efforts that have pulled together people of all races, genders, ages, and class backgrounds. Rev. Barber, Smith says, "is a powerful speaker with a moral vision that I haven't run across anywhere else in the country, and the ability to put it into action and get people to work together."

Moral Monday is now being organized on a national scale as the "Forward Together Moral Movement." Smith believes that Barber has the makings of a great civil rights leader and that the movement has the potential to become an important force nationally.

Glenn, who is director of the influential Progress Texas PAC, is Rag Radio's resident political analyst. A former political journalist, Smith helped manage Ann Richards' winning 1990 campaign for governor of Texas. He's guided national campaigns for, has been a senior fellow at George Lakoff's Berkeley think tank on moral, progressive political language, and is the author of the acclaimedPolitics of Deceit, a book which calls for a revolution in our political practices.

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Department of Justice Claims Grossly Disparate Treatment Will "Promote Respect for the Law"

On Thursday, David Petraeus will be sentenced in North Carolina. If all goes as his lawyers and the government have arranged, he will get a year of probation for leaking some of this country's most sensitive secrets to his mistress.

On May 11 (the date has been postponed from this week), Jeffrey Sterling will be sentenced for - the jury decided - leaking details of the Merlin program,  a CIA effort to deal flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran. In a sentencing memorandum, the government argues Sterling should be sentenced for 235 to 293 months - upwards of 19 years - for exposing CIA's Merlin (the government argues he exposed a program that might have thwarted Iran's nuclear ambitions, ignoring the evidence they themselves submitted showing it was poorly managed).

The same DOJ that recommends Petraeus should go virtually unpunished for sharing far more sensitive information with Paula Broadwell says that Sterling should go to prison for decades to set an example.

In addition, imposing a substantial prison sentence in this case is necessary to promote respect for the law and afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A) & (a)(2)(B). The importance of these factors cannot be overstated. A substantial sentence in this case would send an appropriate and much needed message to all persons entrusted with the handling of classified information, i.e., that intentional breaches of the laws governing the safeguarding of national defense information will be pursued aggressively, and those who violate the law in this manner will be tried, convicted, and punished accordingly.

Now, DOJ isn't making quite as ridiculous an argument as this first appears. It goes on to list several things that might distinguish Sterling - who leaked to expose CIA dysfunction rather than fluff his own ego - from David Petraeus. First, Sterling - who never got the option of a plea deal offering probation - went to trial.

Most importantly for sentencing-disparity purposes, the defendant exercised his right to a jury trial.

And for that, the government argues, he should get a much harsher punishment.

Then, in a squishy paragraph invoking harm that it did not prove (and then backing off that to "potential harm"), the government argues Sterling's behavior is far worse than any other Espionage Act case that has been prosecuted recently.

Moreover, the degree of harm at issue here further separates the defendant's conduct from other individuals who communicated national defense information to the public through the media. Cf. Abu Ali, 528 F.3d at 263 (finding that the harm contemplated by Ali was much broader in scope and more devastating in terms of its potential impact than the harm contemplated by John Walker Lindh, whose sentence the district court had used for comparison purposes). Here, the potential harm caused by the defendant is far greater in scope than the harm contemplated or caused by a defendant in any recent § 793 prosecutions.

They can make this argument, of course, because they're not prosecuting James Cartwright (at least not yet), even though he allegedly leaked details of the effort to thwart Iran's nuclear program using StuxNet. There's almost no conceivable way to suggest the Merlin story is a more harmful leak than the StuxNet one; they just haven't chosen to prosecute the latter.

Finally, they misrepresent the trial record to claim they've proved that Sterling leaked this information out of spite and self-interest.

People act in response to all manner of motivation, some more commendable than others. Here, the evidence established that the defendant communicated national defense information for purely selfish and vindictive purposes. It is exactly because this enormous decision-making responsibility cannot be left to the whims of the individual employee that the same secrecy agreement the defendant signed in 1993 made clear that, if he had concerns regarding classified information, he had appropriate, independent outlets through which to address such concerns, including the House and Senate intelligence committees and the CIA's Inspector General.

Earlier in the filing, the government dismissed Sterling's effort to bring his concerns to the Senate Intelligence Committee by falsely claiming he had never expressed concerns before and therefore suggesting his doing so in March 2003 had nothing to do with the Iraq war - which is what SSCI's own documents and witness testimony indicated - but instead had to do with spite. But Sterling had raised concerns before. As the government's own witness, the Russian scientist Merlin, testified, Sterling had raised concerns immediately with Bob S, only to be told to "shut up."

In other words, the government is still struggling to explain why Sterling should go to prison for decades when David Petraeus and (thus far) James Cartwright go free, the latter for a very similar kind of alleged crime as Sterling was found guilty of.

Yet they claim - with no apparent intended irony - that such a sentence would "promote respect for the law."

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Florida Policies Needlessly Derail Young Lives, Fill Prison Cells

Susana Marino knew she couldn't let her facial expression change.

She was listening to her 16-year-old son recount his experience in Florida's Pasco County Jail. Showing shock or horror might cause him to shut down - and she needed to know what happened if she hoped to help him. So, she kept her emotions in check as her son, a teenager who had never been in trouble with the law, described the four days he spent in jail after being arrested on charges stemming from a vandalism case.

What Miguel endured in 2009 as his mother attempted to secure a $30,000 bond for his release left her in shock. Only two hours after his arrest, other inmates threatened to beat him and sexually assault him unless he fought - something he refused to do. He was also forced to lick a toilet seat, and even drink water from it. The inmates created a list of humiliating chores for him to complete, such as rubbing lotion on the backs of other prisoners. He was slapped, beaten and threatened as he completed these tasks.

He endured the abuse for three days before a guard put him in protective custody. The officer discovered the youth crying in his cell after being hit in the face by one of the prisoners. He was emotionally breaking down.

"Miguel was never the same again," Susana said, holding back tears. "He tried to get back into school, but he couldn't concentrate anymore. He was angry. He couldn't sleep well at night. He really was trying to focus on his school. He said he couldn't cope. It's really bad because Miguel had tremendous potential."

Miguel's story is just one example of what can happen to a child in an adult jail or prison. As managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Florida office, I see far too many of these stories in Florida, a state that sends more children into adult court than any other - 10,000 kids over a five-year period. A stunning 98 percent of these kids were transferred to adult court without a hearing before a judge. That's because Florida largely puts the decision of prosecuting a child as an adult in the hands of the prosecutor - not a judge - through a statutory power known as "direct file."

This unchecked prosecutorial discretion creates wide disparities based on jurisdiction. Compared to Miami-Dade County, for example, children charged with felonies are almost twice as likely to be prosecuted as adults in Hillsborough and Duval counties, three times as likely in Palm Beach County and six times as likely in Escambia County. It's justice by geography.

What is happening here is more than the story of one state's flawed policies derailing young lives. It's more than the story of how one in six disenfranchised felons live in Florida - roughly one-quarter of all such persons in the country. This is the story of how Florida helps the United States to imprison more of its citizens than any other country - about 2.2 million people. That's one-quarter of the world's prisoners, an astounding feat for a country that represents only 5 percent of the world's total population.

Parents such as Michelle Stephens believe Florida's incarceration problem comes down to policy driven by fear rather than fact.

The fear of kids becoming juvenile "superpredators" - a fear laden with racial overtones - is at the heart of draconian policies that treat children as criminals and push them into the adult criminal justice system.

"Everybody just got scared of kids," Stephens said.

Her son is one of those kids. Kenny Ray, who was 16 at the time, was prosecuted as an adult for an accidental shooting that nearly killed his friend. Her son accepted a plea deal over the shooting incident - a gun discharging among boys fascinated by the weapon. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Under sentencing guidelines, he must serve at least 10.

"I never thought I'd be saying my son only got 15 years," his mother said.

Florida's "direct file" statute has handed prosecutors more than the power to try a child in an adult court. The mere threat gives a prosecutor a powerful tool to push a teen into agreeing to an unnecessarily harsh plea deal. Efforts are under way in the Florida Legislature to reform this statute - a good first step toward ending a system that needlessly derails the lives of children.

But it is only a first step.

Shortsighted "tough-on-crime" policies are taking a heavy toll on the children of our state. Like many states, Florida got caught up in the hysteria of media reports about juvenile crime in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1993, accounts of a bungled robbery by four teenagers that ended with the death of a British tourist and the wounding of another greatly contributed to this fear. The incident made international headlines and was seen as a threat to the state's tourism industry.

The 1996 book Body Count also helped sound what turned out to be a false alarm. It described "radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders."

There was one problem: The generation of superpredators never arrived to carry out their reign of terror. By 2001, the man who coined the term, former Princeton professor and Body Count co-author John Dilulio, acknowledged to The New York Times that his prediction had been wrong.

It was already too late.

Across the country, states had enacted harsh laws to punish juvenile offenders - often for minor offenses for which incarceration was excessive.

After four harrowing days in jail, Miguel attempted to get his life back on track while a lengthy court process marched on. Ultimately, he was sentenced to six months house arrest, 48 months of adult probation and restitution. He worked at a restaurant as he served his sentence with the hope of moving on from his brush with the law.

It wouldn't happen.

Shortly before Miguel's house arrest was set to end, he stayed at work late and stopped at a CVS Pharmacy for a gallon of milk, his mother said. He was due home at 5 p.m. Thirty minutes later, Miguel's probation officer was knocking on the door of his home.

The incident ended with a four-year prison sentence. Miguel began serving it last year at the age of 20, still suffering the consequences of a youthful mistake.

"The families of incarcerated [family] members - we are the silent victims of this process," his mother said. "We are cast out. The judicial process does not involve us, the parents who are the most important piece of this process when our kids are locked up."

Since her son has been locked up, Susana has worked diligently on the outside to protect his rights. When he was placed in a prison for violent offenders, Susana's phone calls and emails ultimately got her son moved out of that facility after a year. "I feel very sorry for kids like Miguel where the parents quit," she said. "The only thing they have are mothers like me making noise for justice. If we stay quiet, that's it. The system will swallow kids like Miguel."

Even parents of children charged as juveniles can find their children incarcerated in adult jails - a practice that is allowed under Florida law. It can be seen in the Polk County jail, which has dorms for children. Most of these children are simply awaiting court dates for nonviolent offenses. They aren't eligible for bail because they have been charged in the juvenile system.

Yet they are treated like throwaways beyond redemption.

"These are children who've made mistakes, but we shouldn't give up on them," said Lisa Jobe, whose teenage son K.J. was held at the jail. "And, that's what it seems like has happened at the Polk County Jail. They've given up on the children and they're just locking them up."

In Polk County, children have been relegated to a jail staffed by guards lacking the necessary training to oversee children. These children have been pepper-sprayed, left in isolation for prolonged periods of time and even placed in kennel-like cages. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit over these conditions in 2012, leading to a federal trial a year later. A judge's decision is pending.

Jobe watched the jail transform her 15-year-old son.

"He was always looking over his shoulder," she said. "You never know when you're going to be the person that's going to be jumped next."

After her son was assaulted, K.J.'s parents were not contacted. His mother didn't know until she saw his black eye during a visit. "It broke his spirit," she said. "He was just a different child. He felt there was no hope."

The Polk County sheriff began housing children at the county jail in October 2011, shortly after Florida passed legislation allowing county commissions to place children charged as juveniles in adult jails without following Department of Juvenile Justice standards - reversing more than 40 years of efforts to create safeguards and meaningful rehabilitative programs for vulnerable children.

Needlessly criminalizing young people through Florida's direct file statute and other policies comes at a high price. A report by the Justice Policy Institute found that it costs as much as $55,407 a year to lock up a young person in Florida, although the Department of Juvenile Justice's budget suggests the cost could be twice that amount. These policies also fail to make us safer. An adult court conviction diminishes opportunities for education and future employment. And children become more likely to re-offend, not less.

Susana's son, a young man with ambitions of becoming a journalist or screenwriter, can clearly see how these policies shortchange a young person's future. In an email to his mother with the subject line "University of Hardknocks," he describes prison as a school that carries its own powerful reputation, one that follows everyone who has "graduated." He imagines how it would be advertised.

"[Y]ou aren't mailed a diploma and there is no graduation ceremony: Every corporation, law enforcement agency, and military office will know you have graduated with us, and thank[s] to our mainstream media representatives and advertising agencies, will be proud to deny you of all career options, unprejudiced judgment, and even civil rights," he wrote. "The future looks green and our paychecks are contingent upon how many students we teach, so please enroll in State Prison today!"

Stefan Campagna also understands the importance of recognizing that juveniles are fundamentally different from adults - even when they run afoul of the law. He should know. The 28-year-old Sarasota native, who is now program administrator for the coordinator of the National Association of Youth Courts, found himself facing a Florida youth court when he was 16. He had been arrested for a string of car break-ins, racking up 27 felony charges.

But at the sole discretion of that circuit's prosecutor, Campagna was not "direct filed" into the adult courts. Instead, he was referred to youth court for resolution. These courts, composed of other teens, allow young people who accept responsibility for their actions to have their charges dismissed after fulfilling the punishment meted out by the youth court. Campagna was one of the most serious cases to appear before the court when he was a teen. He was sentenced to 150 hours of community service and 18 rounds of youth court jury duty.

At first, he wasn't receptive to the program, now in 55 of Florida's 67 counties, but he noticed something unique about youth court.

"I wasn't being judged so much as I was being guided," he said.

Campagna completed his sentence. Then he took advantage of his second chance: He went on to graduate from Hofstra University College of Law in New York.

He believes it's important that adults remember what it was like to be a teenager. He points to the body of research showing that the portion of the brain responsible for making rational decisions isn't fully developed until a person is in his or her mid-20s. This means a child may engage in behavior without fully realizing the risks and consequences for themselves and others.

"Basically, kids are making decisions as intoxicated adults would," he said. "It's all impulse and hormones."

It's also why young people can't really explain why they engaged in bad behavior. Sixteen-year-old Campagna couldn't do it when he was facing the youth court.

"The answer that 99 percent of kids in court give is, 'I don't know,'" he said. "It's probably the most honest answer that they can give because in that moment thinking back on why they did it, they can't remember what the reason was because they probably didn't have a clearly articulated reason. It was probably a 'Well, why not?' kind of deal."

But this immaturity means a teenager is still growing and developing as a person. It means the youth will change. This fundamental difference between youths and adults - the possibility of real and dramatic behavioral change for the better - is why the juvenile justice system was created. It also is leading a growing chorus of experts to conclude that incarceration for children should be a last resort, not a first response.

"I would like people to remember that it's juvenile justice policy," Campagna said.

There have been some encouraging signs, most notably the United States Supreme Court decision that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted as adults are unconstitutional. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court recognized that this principle must also be applied retroactively, to children already sentenced.

But reform is coming too slowly. Fear and tough-on-crime rhetoric still too often drown out the facts.

We still have a system that gives prosecutors the unchecked authority to push children into the adult system. We're still putting vulnerable children in jails intended for adults as they await court dates. We're still not providing the support that will help children become good citizens rather than exposing them to brutality, abuse and neglect.

As for Miguel, his mother hopes he can move on with his life after he serves his sentence. She currently lives in Maryland with his stepfather and younger brother - a move that was originally intended to provide her son with a fresh start after he completed his house arrest. Of course, now that fresh start must wait at least until he has served a four-year prison sentence. And it won't erase the felony record that will likely limit job opportunities and frustrate a young man striving to get his life back on track.

And it all stems from an incident that occurred when he was 16.

It's time for Florida to change the policies that needlessly criminalize young people. We must recognize that young people, even those who commit serious crimes, can be rehabilitated. We must recognize that although they must be held accountable, the punishment should not derail a young life forever.

Children should be held accountable in the juvenile justice system - a system designed to meet their unique needs and potential - instead of being subjected to harsh policies rooted in fear and myths.

As Susana can attest, it makes no sense to lock up a child and throw away his future over one thoughtless mistake.

"The collateral damage of this experience - it will last a lifetime," she said.

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Walker's Dark Money Allies Orchestrate Coup of the Courts

Two court cases this week - one being heard in open court, another being considered in silence behind closed doors - will decide the future of Wisconsin campaign finance law, the independence of the Wisconsin judiciary and will impact the future of presidential candidate Scott Walker. The stakes could not be higher, but the converging cases have garnered little national attention.

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has detailed the bipartisan state investigation into the Walker campaign and the secretive big money groups that bankrolled his 2012 recall victory. (Photo: Gateway Technical College)The Center for Media and Democracy has detailed the bipartisan state investigation into the Scott Walker campaign and the secretive big money groups that bankrolled his 2012 recall victory. (Photo: Gateway Technical College)Do you want media that's accountable to YOU, not to corporate sponsors? Help publish journalism with real integrity and independence - donate to Truthout!

Two court cases this week - one being heard in open court, another being considered in silence behind closed doors - will decide the future of Wisconsin campaign finance law, the independence of the Wisconsin judiciary and will impact the future of presidential candidate Scott Walker.

The stakes could not be higher, but the converging cases have garnered little national attention.

Walker Criminal Probe to Be "Heard" in Silence

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is slated to take up the "John Doe" criminal investigation of alleged coordination between Friends of Scott Walker and "independent" groups during the tumultuous 2011-2012 recall elections.

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has detailed the bipartisan state investigation into the Walker campaign and the secretive big money groups that bankrolled his 2012 recall victory. Wisconsin Club for Growth (WiCFG), headed by Walker campaign manager R.J. Johnson and the "third Koch Brother" Eric O'Keefe, spent at least $9.1 million on Wisconsin's unprecedented recall elections, and funneled almost $10 million more to other politically-active groups, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Yet, WiCFG, which enjoys tax free status, told the IRS that it spent $0 in political activity during that period.

Prosecutors allege that Walker secretly raised millions for WiCFG from out-of-state donors like Donald Trump and Paul Singer, and allegedly coordinated with WiCFG in order to evade Wisconsin's donor disclosure laws. Talking points prepared for the governor advised him to "stress that donations to WiCFG are not disclosed," and to tell donors "that you can accept corporate contributions and it is not reported."

These dark money schemes left voters completely in the dark about who was truly influencing elections in the state, CMD argued in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Wisconsinites never knew that a Florida-based mining company lobbying for a massive open pit mine in Wisconsin secretly gave $700,000 to WiCFG, nor did they know that John Menard gave $1.5 million to the group, and in turn received at least $1.8 million in tax credits from Walker's job development agency.

The investigation has been halted by a passel of lawyers hired by the groups under investigation and its fate now rests with the Wisconsin's Supreme Court.

In an unprecedented move, the court's right-wing majority decided not to hear oral arguments, in order to protect the defendants against leaks, over the strong objections of the Chief Justice.

While WiCFG leader Eric O'Keefe is constantly howling "partisan witch hunt" to the Wall Street Journal and even likened the investigation to being raped, the fact is that the chief prosecutor is the case is Francis Schmitz, a well-respected Republican anti-terrorism prosecutor who received the "US Attorney General's Award for Distinguished Service" from Michael Mukasey's Justice Department in 2007. Schmitz even admitted to voting for Walker in the recall election.

Schmitz and his team took note that four of the right-wing justices were elected to office with huge expenditures by the very big money groups under investigation. He has demanded that these justices recuse themselves from the case, but the request has been ignored.

In "hearing" the John Doe, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will consider not only the future of the investigation and the fate of Walker, but also the future of Wisconsin campaign finance law, and whether candidates (including the justices themselves, when they are up for reelection) will be able to coordinate with dark money groups whose job it is raise and spend unlimited dollars from powerful special interests.

Wisconsin's Common Cause director Jay Heck explained: "What is at stake here is the independence of the Wisconsin judiciary. The Wisconsin Supreme Court was once considered the model for the nation in terms of its impartiality and independence. That history could be wiped out by a single decision by this court to open up the doors to coordination with outside groups and effectively render campaign contribution limits meaningless."

Walker and Dark Money Allies Orchestrate Coup of the Courts

In a related case, Walker's big money allies are busily engineering a coup of the courts to strip the independent Chief Justice, Shirley Abrahamson, of her title and authority.

Wisconsin elects Supreme Court Justices for 10 year terms. For 126 years under the Wisconsin's Constitution, the title of Chief Justice has been given to the longest serving member, but sticking to that plan would leave critical thinkers in charge for decades to come. Abrahamson was reelected as Chief to a 10 year term in 2009 with 60% of the vote. After Abrahamson, Justice Anne Walsh Bradley, who has fought to keep partisan politics out of the courts, would be next in line.

As CMD previously reported the threat of having a Chief who was not under their thumb was simply too much for Team Walker and his dark money allies. The GOP controlled legislature urged on by WMC and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity backed a constitutional change to strip the Chief of her title and authority and rushed to get it on the low-turn out spring ballot.

As veteran Milwaukee journalist Bruce Murphy put it: "Proponents of the measure have said it's about displacing seniority with democracy, but declined to make it effective in 2019, when Abrahamson's term ends, leaving no doubt this was a get-Shirley amendment." And let's not forget the unseemly, undisclosed lobbying by other justices hoping to be Chief, including Pat "Patience" Roggensack.

To orchestrate a constitutional coup a phony "vote yes" group was formed by Rogensack's former campaign manager and WMC piled on the cash in a $600,000 ad blitz saying it was all about "democracy." In the final weekend before election day, the liberal Greater Milwaukee Committee fielded an extra $200,000 in ads, but it was too late to make a difference.

Perhaps if the WMC ads had explained that they were unseating the chief and purchasing the best court money could buy, the result may have been different. But it was no surprise when, as the Capital Times explained: "They secured a narrow 53 percent to 47 percent victory in a low-turnout election; barely 10 percent of Wisconsin's voting-age population supported the deliberately confusing amendment." Court observers tracking the "We Hate Shirley" amendment assumed that she would soon lose her title and her authority.

But the feisty 81-year old Chief Justice is not taking the dark money onslaught lying down. She filed a federal lawsuit (documents here) brought by one of the nation's most respected constitutional lawyers, Robert Peck of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, arguing that changing the rules concerning how a Chief is selected in the middle of her term violates the Equal Protection and Due Process rights of the chief herself and the voters who elected her under the US Constitution.

While WMC lobbyists and right-wing politicians are fuming at this audacious move, respected constitutional scholar David Schwartz, Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin had a different view.

Chief Judge Abrahamson's decision to file a suit in federal court is a "sensible and appropriate way" to resolve a complicated question of how to interpret the new Wisconsin amendment which was silent on when it should take effect. "Changing the rules in the middle of the game violates fundamental fairness that is guaranteed by the Due Process Clause. It would violate both her rights and the rights of voters who elected her in the expectation that she would be Chief Justice," Schwartz tells CMD. "Note that the Chief Justice's suit challenges only the retroactive application of the law, and does not question the right of the people of Wisconsin to restructure its court system in general, or to change the rules for selecting a chief justice at the next vacancy of that position."

In addition, Schwartz explained that "by suing in federal court, Chief Justice Abrahamson seeks a resolution by neutral judges who have no personal stake in the outcome of the case. Since the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices have a personal stake in the case, it would be problematic for them to try resolve the question themselves."

Walker to Anoint Lawyers in the Abrahamson Challenge?

But the dark money men at the WiCFG are also not backing down. WiCFG director Eric O'Keefe is apparently so awash in money that he has teams of both state and federal attorneys "building a court they can bend to their will," as judicial watcher Nan Aron from the Alliance for Justice put it.

Last year, O'Keefe hired federal lawyer David Rivkin to unleash a swarm of frivolous lawsuits related to the campaign finance probe. Rivkin, last spotted defending Bush's torture memo in the New York Times, filed suit in federal court to try blocking the investigation. O'Keefe had some initial success with a far-right judge who regularly attended Koch judicial junkets, but he was eventually slapped down by famed conservative jurist Frank Easterbrook on the 7th Circuit.

But O'Keefe, who funded infamous hatchet man James O'Keefe the year he took down a Republican State Senator standing in Walker's way, is not done.

Last week, Rivkin went after the Chief Justice herself in a federal suit. In a bizarre twist, Rivkin's suit cited newspaper articles describing an incident when Justice Prosser called the Chief "a bitch" and threatened to "destroy her" and another article when Prosser nearly choked Justice Bradley to somehow make the case that it was Abrahamson and not Prosser who was out of control. (He missed Prosser's latest ethics violation or he would have blamed her for that one too.)

Rivkin purported to represent Wisconsin voters who backed the constitutional amendment. But Milwaukee reporter Bruce Murphy quickly spotted the usual cast of characters, with deep ties to both Scott Walker and Eric O'Keefe. Eric O'Keefe is on the CRG Board, says Murphy. In 2014, Rivkin helped CRG file another lawsuit in US District Court challenging the legality of state laws banning coordination between political candidates and dark money groups. CRG was last in the news working with the David Koch's Americans for Prosperity group to stop - horrors! - a proposed trolley system in Milwaukee.

But Rivkin's gambit to intervene in the Abrahamson case was wisely rebuffed by the federal judge James Peterson.

And in the latest odd twist to the case Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that counsel for the Supreme Court justices named in the Chief's suit will be appointed by none other than Governor Scott Walker.

Abrahamson and her attorney should protest. While Walker might think he runs the courts, he doesn't yet. If private counsel is needed by any judge it is the policy of the state courts that the Director of the State Courts appoint outside counsel, not the governor.

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Two Years After Rana Plaza Tragedy, Rights Abuses Still Rampant in Bangladesh's Garment Sector

Dhaka/United Nations - Some say they were beaten with iron bars. Others confess their families have been threatened with death. One pregnant woman was assaulted with metal curtain rods.

These are not scenes typically associated with a place of work, but thousands of people employed in garment factories in Bangladesh have come to expect such brutality as a part of their daily lives.

Even if they don't suffer physical assault, workers at the roughly 4,500 factories that form the nucleus of Bangladesh's enormous garments industry almost certainly confront other injustices: unpaid overtime, sexual or verbal abuse, and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.

Two years ago, when all the world's eyes were trained on this South Asian nation of 156 million people, workers had hoped that the end of systematic labour abuse was nigh.

The event that prompted the international outcry - the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on the morning of Apr. 24, 2013, killing 1,100 people and injuring 2,500 more - was deemed one of the worst industrial accidents in modern history.

Government officials, powerful trade bodies and major foreign buyers of Bangladesh-made apparel promised to fix the gaping flaws in this sector that employs four million people and exports 24 billion dollars worth of merchandise every year.

Promises were made at every point along the supply chain that such a senseless tragedy would never again occur.

But a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster has found that, despite pledges made and some steps in the right direction, Bangladesh's garments sector is still plagued with many ills that is making life for the 20 million people who depend directly or indirectly on the industry a waking nightmare.

Based on interviews with some 160 workers in 44 factories, predominantly dedicated to manufacturing garments sold by retailers in Australia, Europe and North America, the report found that safety standards are still low, workplace abuse is common, and union busting - as well as violent attacks and intimidation of union organisers - is the norm.

Violation of Labour Laws

Last December the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage for factory workers from 39 dollars a month to 68 dollars. While this signified a sizable increase, it was still less than the 100-dollar wage workers themselves had demanded.

Furthermore, implementation has been slow. According to Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers' Unity Forum representing 80,000 workers, only 40 percent of employers comply with the minimum wage law.

She told IPS that women, who comprise the bulk of factory workers, form the "lifeblood" of this vital industry that accounts for 80 percent of the country's export earnings and contributes 10 percent of annual gross domestic product (GDP); yet they have fallen victim to "exploitative wages" as a result of retailers demanding competitive prices.

Indeed, many factories owners concur that pressure from companies who place bulk orders to scale up production lines and improve profit margins contributes to the culture of cutting corners, since branded retailers seldom factor compliance of safety and labour regulations into their costing.

"[These] financial costs [are] heavy for the factory owners," Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told IPS. "They argue that a small compromise on the profit margin can go a long way in helping Bangladesh factories achieve compliance."

Wherever the blame for non-compliance lies, the negative consequences for workers - especially the women - are undeniable: an April 2014 survey by Democracy International found that 37 percent of workers reported lack of paid sick leave, while 29 percent lacked paid maternity leave.

Workers who are unable to meet production targets have their salaries docked, while HRW's research indicates that "workers in almost all of the factories" complained of not receiving wages or benefits in full, or on time.

Forced overtime is exceedingly common, as are poor sanitation facilities and unclean drinking water.

Collective Bargaining - Risky Business

Faced with such entrenched and systematic violations of their rights, many garment workers are aware that their best chance for securing decent working conditions lies in their collective bargaining power.

But union busting and other anti-union activity are rampant across the garments sector, with many organisers beaten into submission and scores of others terrorised into keeping their heads down.

Although Bangladesh has ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, those who try to exercise these rights face harsh reprisals.

"I have faced many cases, and been arrested and jailed seven times but later released because they found no [evidence] against me," Mishu, of the Garment Workers' Unity Forum, told IPS. "The only charge they bring against me is raising my voice in favour of the workers. Whenever we raise our voices against the garments factory owners, instead of negotiating with us they apply force to silence us."

Mishu's testimony finds echoes in numerous incidents recorded in HRW's report, including an attack in February last year on four activists with the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity (BFWS) that left one of their number so badly injured he had to spend 100 days in hospital.

Their only crime was helping employees at the Korean-owned Chunji Knit Ltd. Factory fill out union registrations forms.

Other incidents include a woman being hospitalised after an attack by men wielding cutting shears, activists threatened with death or the death of their families, and one organiser being accosted on his way home and slashed so badly with blades he had to be admitted to hospital.

"We find that factory owners […] use local thugs to intimidate and attack union organisers, often outside the factory premises," HRW's Ganguly explained. "And then they blithely disclaim responsibility by saying that the attacks had nothing to do with the factory."

In one of the worst examples of anti-union activity, HRW reported that an activist named Aminul Islam was "abducted, tortured and killed in April 2012, and to date his killers have not been found."

Although hard-won reforms have raised the number of unions formally registered at the labour department from just two in 2011-2012 to 416 in 2015, overall representation of workers remains low: union exist in just 10 percent of garment factories across Bangladesh.

Factory Safety

Ganguly told IPS that because the Bangladesh garment industry grew very rapidly, "a lot of factories were set up bypassing safety and other compliance issues."

Between 1983-4 and 2013-14, the sector mushroomed from just 120,000 employees working in 384 factories to four million workers churning out garments at a terrific rate in 4,536 factories, which run the gamut from state-of-the-art industrial operations to "backstreet workshops" and everything in-between.

Unchecked expansion in the 80s and 90s meant that many of these buildings were disasters waiting to happen. While incidents like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse and the 2012 Tazreen factory fire, which killed 112 people, have largely taken the spotlight, a string of similar calamities both before and after suggest that Bangladesh has a long way to go to ensure worker safety.

Figures quoted by the Clean Clothes Campaign point out that between 2006 and 2010, 500 workers died in factory fires, 80 percent of which were caused by faulty wiring.

Since 2012, 68 factory fires have claimed 30 lives and left 800 workers injured, according to the Solidarity Center.

Atiqul Islam, president of the industry's leading trade body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told IPS that factory owners are taking far more precautions now to ensure that preventable or 'man-made' disasters remain a thing of the past.

Before the Rana Plaze incident, he said, there were only 56 inspectors overseeing thousands of factories. Now, there are over 800 inspectors, trained by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to keep a check on the many operations around the country.

Indeed, regulations like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an initiative carried out on behalf of 175 retailers based primarily in Europe, which is overseeing improvements in over 1,600 factors, as well as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety that is looking into improvements in 587 factories at the behest of 26 North American retailers, indicate progress.

But as Ganguly said, "Much more needs to be done to ensure worker rights."

For a start, experts say that proper compensation must be paid to survivors, or families of those who lost their lives due to negligence in the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions disasters.

As of March of this year, only 21 million dollars of the estimated 31 million dollars' compensation has so far been pledged or disbursed. HRW also found that "15 companies whose clothing and brand labels were found in the rubble of Rana Plaza by journalists and labour activists have not paid anything into the trust fund established with the support of the ILO to manage the payments."

News Fri, 24 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400