Friday, May 30, 2008

The 10 Most Annoying Airline Fees

orbes Traveler has put together a list of the top 10 most annoying airline fees, and it's a good one — or is it a bad one? Airlines are feeling the effect of skyrocking oil prices and they're trying their best to pass the costs along to you, their customers, without driving down demand. The result? These delightful fees. Gotcha!

Forbes Traveler's 10 Most Annoying Airline Fees

1. Checked Baggage: $10-$100
American Airlines now charges $15 for the first checked bag. Ugh.

2. Talking to Real People: $10-$25
"It costs $20 to book through a representative at American Airlines, and US Airways charges $15—the same as discount airlines JetBlue and Southwest."

3. Seat Preference: $10-$20
"United Airlines' Economy Plus plan is unique: For a $349 annual fee, one member and his or her companion are seated at the front of economy section whenever possible."

4. Rewards Redemption: $75-$100

Expect to pay this fee if miles are redeemed without "sufficient notice," and because you can't redeem the miles through the website, get ready to "pay for the convenience of booking through a ticket agent."

5. Curbside Check-In: $2-$3+
Remember, this fee doesn't include tip.

6. Traveling with a Child or a Pet: $10-$100 and up
"Delta recently doubled its [unaccompanied minor] rate to $100 and Continental upped its charge to $75 on direct flights and $100 on trips with connections."

7. Changing a Reservation: $30-$200

"United Airlines has hiked its ticket-changing charge from $100 to $150. "

8. Paper Ticket: $50-$70

"Delta charges $50 to customers who still want a physical copy of their ticket."

9. Airport improvement: $4.50-$20+
"...the airport-improvement fee has one short-term impact: It makes your ticket more expensive."

10. Fuel Surcharge: $30-$300
"Fuel now accounts for 40 percent of a ticket's price, and surcharges are regularly $65 each way on most major carriers. "

For the full article and slide show, click here.

Annoying Airline Charges [Forbes Traveler]

(Photo: Travelin' Librarian )

Original here

Old Meters Mean Double the Price at the Pump

For a brief moment on Wednesday morning, the gas pump at Gary Staiano’s Texstar service station in Bellerose, Queens, turned into a time machine. After 11.3 gallons was pumped into a Pontiac Grand Am, the meter read $23, or $2.03 a gallon, a price not seen in more than three years.

Then Mr. Staiano transported his customer back to reality when he doubled the total at the cash register. Using pumps so old that the meters go only as high as $3.99 a gallon, Mr. Staiano began pricing his gas by the half-gallon this week, just as station owners did when gas prices skyrocketed a generation ago.

“Some people say I got the cheapest prices in town” until they see the receipt, said Mr. Staiano, 50, who started pumping gas as a teenager and remembers when it rose above $1 a gallon for the first time in the 1970s.

As the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in New York City hit a record $4.20 on Wednesday, the State Bureau of Weights and Measures gave station owners like Mr. Staiano the official go-ahead to charge by the half-gallon, provided they can prove that they have ordered new pump computers that can handle prices up to $9.99 a gallon. The new computers cost about $400 each, not including installation fees; Mr. Staiano said his would arrive in about a month.

Experts estimate that as many as 500 stations across the state, most of them independently owned, have older pumps that are unable to go above $3.99. A handful of such stations are sprinkled around the city and suburbs, including a Getty pump on Kings Highway in Brooklyn and another on Broadway in the Bronx, according to Other stations are on Long Island in Cedarhurst, Elmont and Hewlett.

By the end of the business day on Wednesday, the state had received 40 applications from stations wanting to charge for gasoline in half-gallon increments. There is a backlog of up to 17 weeks for the replacement machines from various companies, so state officials expect half-gallon pricing to be around for about five months.

“It’s an interim fix to this problem,” said Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. “There is a national shortage of these computing devices.”

There was little rush to get the new pumps until a few months ago, when gasoline prices kept climbing. As prices blew past $4 this month, stations with older pumps turned into bargains overnight for drivers lucky enough to spot them.

Of course, what the drivers saved, the owners lost. Mr. Staiano said his profits were trimmed by 6 cents to 8 cents a gallon when the pumps were stuck at $3.99 (and 9/10). That is why he began charging by the half-gallon a couple of days ago, when, he said, state officials told him an approval was imminent.

“I could absorb it for a little while,” he said. “But we’re not here to lose money.”

The state previously let stations charge by the half-gallon in the fall of 2005, when gas prices passed $2.99, but only for 90 days. This time, prices have risen so high so quickly that the manufacturers of the replacement parts have been unable to keep up. Mr. Staiano has sent a $1,000 deposit for his new pump computers to U.S. Petroleum Equipment in Combined Locks, Wis.

The gauges in the older gas pumps are computers but look more like the innards of an old adding machine or cuckoo clock. Gears of different sizes spin at different speeds depending on the digits they represent. Station attendants flick tabs to change the digits, which are written on hard black rubber spools. The digit representing $2 on one of Mr. Staiano’s pumps was written in what looked like white-out.

Mr. Staiano called his older pumps, which were bought in the 1980s, “war horses” because they rarely break or lose their calibration. New digital pumps that accept credit cards and sell multiple brands of fuel can cost as much as $15,000 each. But because 80 percent of his customers pay cash, Mr. Staiano said, the investment is not worth it.

The higher gas prices go, the more often stations have to repair pump computers, according to Robert Renkes, the executive vice president of the Petroleum Equipment Institute, a trade group in Tulsa, Okla., that represents manufacturers of station equipment.

While gasoline is still dispensed at no more than 10 gallons a minute, higher prices mean the mechanical equipment must spin faster to keep up, leading to more problems.

“When gas was a dollar a gallon, the penny wheel went to a dollar in one minute,” Mr. Renkes said. “But anything that goes four times faster is going to wear out quicker.”

For now, Mr. Staiano has placed yellow tape on his pumps alerting customers that the prices are for half-gallons. He also tells them when they first pull in that the price on the meter would be doubled. Customers using credit cards on Wednesday paid $4.15 a gallon, lower than at many stations in the area. Those using cash paid $4.05, since Mr. Staiano did not have to turn over 2 percent or more to the credit-card companies.

“I know he’s trying to keep it reasonable,” said Mary Romano, a regular customer. “But he’s in business to make money.”

Original here

Gas prices keep climbing even as oil prices drop

Justin Vargas fuels up his truck which he uses for his work in carpentry and construction at a gas station in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Tuesday, May 27, 2008. Vargas fuels up his truck mostly with bio-diesel to save on expenses. He then tops off the tank with diesel. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

NEW YORK — The gasoline price record keeps getting broken with each passing day. AAA puts the national average for a gallon of regular at a record $3.95. It's jumped 35 cents in the past month and is 76-cents-a-gallon higher than a year ago.

If you need premium, it's also never been more expensive. The auto club says the national average for premium is $4.35. That's an 84-cent-a-gallon jump over last year.

Oil prices fell back Thursday ahead of a report expected to show U.S. inventories of crude and petroleum products grew last week.

Prices remained volatile, though, buffeted about by threats against Nigerian oil facilities, worries about falling gasoline demand in the U.S. and a strengthening U.S. dollar.

By midday in Europe, light, sweet crude contract for July delivery was down 65 cents at $130.38 a barrel in electronic trade on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In London, July Brent crude fell 86 cents to $130.07 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

The Nymex July contract dipped below $126 a barrel Wednesday in New York before recovering to finish at $131.03, up $2.18. At its low in the floor session, oil was more than $9 off the record high it hit last week above $135 a barrel.

"Fears that soaring oil prices could damage demand continue to weigh on sentiment," said a report from research firm JBC Energy in Vienna, Austria.

The reversal from the floor session's close came with a renewed strengthening of the dollar and ahead of the U.S. Energy Department's inventory report, to be released later Thursday.

In the last couple of days, the dollar has rebounded against both the euro and yen, receiving some support Wednesday when the U.S. Commerce Department said orders to American factories for big-ticket manufactured goods fell by a smaller-than-expected amount in April.

That was taken as a possible signal of a rebound in the slumping U.S. manufacturing sector and the dollar strengthened back above the 105 yen level, while the euro dropped below $1.56.

When the dollar declines, investors tend to buy commodities such as oil as a hedge against inflation. But a stronger dollar makes oil more expensive to investors dealing in other currencies, and the tendency usually reverses.

Also, a survey of analysts by Platts, the energy research arm of McGraw-Hill Cos., indicated that U.S. crude oil stocks were expected to have grown 750,000 barrels in the week ended May 23.

The Platts survey also indicated analysts were expecting a build in U.S. gasoline stock of 400,000 barrels, and a build in distillate stocks, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, of 800,000 barrels.

Prices were still being supported, though, by further threats against Nigerian oil facilities. Those threats led investors in the U.S. to at least temporarily set aside concerns about falling gasoline demand.

On Wednesday, the Nigerian rebel group The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta threatened new attacks on oil installations to mark the one-year anniversary of President Umaru Yar'Adua's inauguration. A weekend attack by the group on an oil facility cut about 130,000 barrels of the nation's oil production, according to Addison Armstrong, director of market research at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Connecticut, in a research note.

News of disruptions in Nigeria, one of Africa's largest producers and a major U.S. supplier, have helped push oil prices higher over the past year.

That contended Wednesday with the growing belief that U.S. demand for gasoline is falling as the average retail pump prices approaches $4 a gallon ($1.05 per liter). That belief was supported by two new surveys showing Americans consuming less gasoline.

Demand for gasoline fell 5.5 percent last week compared to the same week last year, according to the weekly MasterCard SpendingPulse survey. The survey also found that, on average, demand over the past four weeks is off 6.3 percent compared to the same period last year.

A separate survey of about 1,000 people found that more than half have cut back on their driving due to high fuel prices.

In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures fell 2.08 cents to $3.8035 a gallon while gasoline prices were down 1.31 cents to $3.4345 a gallon. Natural gas futures rose 1.9 cents to $12.014 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Original here

Online Buys From Bad Spellers

Problem: Finding hidden deals on eBay from sellers who have inadvertently mistyped their listing information.

Solution: Items for sale on the online auction site that have misspellings in their listing titles or descriptions are likely to receive fewer bids -- and sell for less -- because they're more difficult to find. Free online services can help uncover those hidden treasures by searching eBay item listings for misspelled words. Enter the correct spelling of the item you're looking for at a Web site such as Auction Bloopers ( or ( The sites will divert you to eBay results that include misspelled variations of the term you are seeking. For example, a search for "Laura Ashley" may turn up listings spelled as "Laura Ashly." Typo Buddy ( searches for typos in items on sale at both the eBay and Craigslist sites.

Caveat: Some searches may yield items that are unrelated to the one you're seeking. For more precise searches, read the sites' Frequently Asked Questions sections to see if you can exclude certain terms.

Write to Suzanne Barlyn at

Original here

First-Quarter Economic Growth Stronger Than Estimated

The economy grew at a faster pace than originally estimated in the first quarter, the government said Thursday, but the nation remained mired in its most stagnant period of growth in five years.

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The New York Times

Gross domestic product, a measure of overall economic growth, expanded at an annual rate of 0.9 percent in the first three months, according to a Commerce Department report. That was higher than the initial estimate, released a month ago, which had put the growth rate at 0.6 percent.

The government revised its figures because imports dipped more than expected in the first quarter, narrowing the trade deficit. Weaker demand for imports meant less money flowed out of American businesses into foreign countries, pushing up domestic bottom lines and, in turn, the overall growth rate.

But demand for imports fell because Americans were buying less. The bleak economic outlook has made many Americans more hesitant to spend, especially on large-scale purchases like cars and kitchen appliances. Though this trend helped nudge the G.D.P. estimate up in the first quarter, it was likely to lead to a retrenchment in the business sector in the coming months.

Despite the nominal increase in the G.D.P. figure, the revised report still showed an economy struggling to tread water as the housing slump and a crisis of confidence in the credit markets weighed on investments and buying.

Inventories slipped slightly, signaling that businesses were producing fewer goods in anticipation of slack consumer demand. Imports dipped 2.6 percent, revised down from an initial estimate of a 2.5 percent increase. A measure of consumer spending, known as real final sales growth, was revised up from last month’s estimate of a decline of 0.2 percent, but only to the still-anemic pace of 0.7 percent.

“There is no end in sight to the economic slump,” Joshua Shapiro, an economist at the research firm MFR, wrote in a note to clients.

The Commerce Department also provides data on inflation, almost all of which remained unchanged from last month’s initial estimate. Prices rose at a 2.6 percent annualized rate in the first quarter, after a 2.4 percent increase in the final quarter of 2007.

Over all, gross domestic product expanded 0.6 percent at the end of last year, and 4.9 percent in the third quarter of 2007.

Data on the G.D.P. is regularly revised; the Commerce Department’s final first-quarter estimates will be released June 26.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said that the number of new applications for unemployment insurance rose to 372,000 last week, seasonally adjusted. The increase, of 4,000 claims, was slightly more than economists had anticipated.

Original here

Russia army suicides cause alarm

Russian soldiers march during a Victory Day Parade on Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2008
Conditions are notoriously harsh for new recruits in the Russian army

Almost an entire battalion of Russian soldiers committed suicide last year, the country's chief military prosecutor has said.

A total of 341 military personnel killed themselves in 2007, a reduction of 15% on the previous year.

But Sergei Fridinsky said the numbers were worrying and called for a national strategy to prepare men for service.

Bullying, often extremely violent, is rife in the army and is the most common reason for suicide.

"Almost a battalion of military servicemen - 341 people - were irrevocably lost in the past year as a result of suicide," Mr Fridinsky said.

The BBC's Russia analyst, Steven Eke, says dedovshchina - literally, rule of the elders, a culturally specific, often very violent, form of bullying, is cited as the most frequent trigger for young soldiers taking their own lives.

Conditions of military service - compulsory for one year for Russian men - are so harsh that many parents and young men offer bribes to avoid getting conscripted.

Yet Mr Fridinsky said that about half of the suicides were among professional, contract-based soldiers, who would not face this kind of bullying.

He suggested that Russia use the experience of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan to help their troops deal with the psychological trauma of combat.

Original here


Head of state and government George W. Bush
Death penalty retentionist
Population 303.9 million
Life expectancy 77.9 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f) 8/8 per 1,000

The US authorities continued to hold hundreds of foreign nationals at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, although more than 100 were transferred out of the facility during the year. Detainees in Guantánamo were held indefinitely, the vast majority of them without charge, and effectively without recourse to the US courts to challenge the legality of their detention. Most detainees in Guantánamo were held in isolation in maximum security facilities, heightening concerns for their physical and mental health. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programme of secret detention and interrogation was re-authorized by President Bush in July. In December, the Director of the CIA revealed that the agency had destroyed videotapes of detainee interrogations.

Soldiers refusing to serve in Iraq on grounds of conscience were imprisoned. Prisoners continued to experience ill-treatment at the hands of police officers and prison guards. Dozens of people died after police used tasers (electro-shock weapons) against them. There were serious failings in state, local and federal measures to address sexual violence against Native American women. Discrimination remained a concern in a variety of areas, including policing practices, the operation of the criminal justice system and housing rights. There were 42 executions during the year. In late September, the decision of the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of lethal injections led to a de facto moratorium on executions by this method. In December, New Jersey became the first US state in more than four decades to legislate to abolish the death penalty.

‘War on terror’

For the sixth year running, the US authorities continued to hold foreign nationals they had designated “enemy combatants” in indefinite military detention without charge at Guantánamo Bay. At the end of 2007, there were approximately 275 detainees held in Guantánamo. During the year, more than 100 detainees were transferred to their home countries for release or continued detention. Four detainees, described by the Pentagon as “dangerous terror suspects”, were transferred to Guantánamo. One person described by the Pentagon as a “high-level member of al-Qa’ida” was transferred to the base from CIA custody.

Fourteen men described by the US authorities as “high value” detainees and transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006 for the stated purpose of standing trial had yet to be charged by the end of 2007. The men had spent up to four and half years in secret CIA custody prior to the transfer and their cases had been used by the administration to obtain the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA). On 9 August, the Pentagon announced that all 14 had been affirmed as “enemy combatants” by the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), panels of military officers able to rely on secret and coerced information in making their decisions. The CSRTs for the 14 men were held behind closed doors on the grounds that the detainees had classified information about the CIA secret detention programme, including interrogation techniques, conditions of detention and the location of CIA detention facilities. Allegations made by some of the men of torture in CIA custody were censored from the CSRT transcripts. By the end of 2007, only one of the 14 had had access to legal counsel for the narrow judicial review of the CSRT decisions provided for in the Detainee Treatment Act (2005). No such review of any of the Guantánamo detentions had been conducted by the end of the year.

On 20 February, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that provisions of the MCA stripping the courts of the jurisdiction to consider habeas corpus petitions applied to all detainees held in Guantánamo “without exception”. On 2 April, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal against this ruling. However, on 29 June, the Supreme Court took the historically unusual step of vacating its 2 April order and agreeing to hear the case after lawyers for detainees filed new information about the inadequacy of the CSRT scheme. The new information was provided by a military officer who had been involved in CSRT reviews. The Court’s ruling was pending at the end of 2007.

  • Ali al-Marri, a Qatari national resident in the USA who was designated an “enemy combatant” in June 2003 by President Bush, remained in indefinite military detention on the US mainland at the end of the year. In June, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the MCA did not apply to Ali al-Marri’s case and ruled that his military detention “must cease”. However, the government successfully sought a rehearing in front of the full Fourth Circuit court; a ruling was pending at the end of the year. Military commission proceedings resumed at Guantánamo.
  • In March, Australian national David Hicks became the first – and by the end of the year, only – Guantánamo detainee to be convicted by the USA. He pleaded guilty under the MCA to one charge of “providing material support for terrorism”. A panel of military officers recommended seven years in prison, but six years and three months of the sentence was suspended under the terms of a pre-trial agreement. David Hicks was transferred out of Guantánamo in May to serve the remainder of his nine-month sentence in Australia. He was released from Yatala prison in Adelaide on 29 December.

Three other Guantánamo detainees were facing charges at the end of the year, including two who were under 18 years old when they were taken into custody.

Conditions of detention in Guantánamo and their impact on the health of detainees already distressed by the indefinite nature of their detention continued to cause serious concern. One detainee, a Saudi Arabian national, was reported to have committed suicide on 30 May. By mid-January, 165 detainees had been transferred to Camp 6 where they were confined in individual steel cells with no external windows for at least 22 hours a day. Contrary to international standards, the cells have no access to natural light or air, and are lit 24 hours a day by fluorescent lighting. Around 100 other detainees were held in Camp 5, where detainees have been confined for up to 24 hours a day in small cells with some access to natural light, although with no view to the outside. Some 20 more detainees were believed to be held in Camp Echo, where detainees are held for between 23 and 24 hours a day in windowless cells with no natural light.

On 20 July, President Bush issued an executive order that the programme of secret detention and interrogation operated by the CIA would comply with Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. Amnesty International wrote to President Bush emphasizing that if the CIA programme received detainees as it had before, he would have re-authorized the international crime of enforced disappearance. No reply had been received by the end of the year.

One detainee, ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, was reported to have been transferred from CIA custody to Guantánamo during the year. The Pentagon announced the transfer on 27 April, but gave no details about when he was detained or where he had been held before the transfer. In June, Amnesty International and five other human rights organizations published a list of more than 36 individuals believed to have been detained in the CIA programme whose fate and whereabouts remained unknown.

In December, the Director of the CIA revealed that in 2005 the agency had destroyed videotapes of interrogations conducted in 2002 of detainees held in secret custody. It was reported that the tapes depicted hundreds of hours of interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, two of the “high-value” detainees transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006. Both alleged at their CSRTs in 2007 that they had been tortured in CIA custody. Abu Zubaydah was among those reported to have been subjected to “waterboarding” (simulated drowning).

Hundreds of people remained in US custody in Afghanistan and Iraq. There were also concerns about killings in Iraq by private US contractors (see Afghanistan and Iraq entries).

Torture and other ill-treatment

There were reports of ill-treatment in jails and police custody on the US mainland, often involving cruel use of restraints or electro-shock weapons.

Sixty-nine people died after being shocked with tasers, bringing to nearly 300 the number of such deaths since 2001. Many of those who died were subjected to multiple shocks or had health problems which could have made them more susceptible to the adverse effects of tasers. Although such deaths are commonly attributed to factors such as drug intoxication, medical examiners have concluded that taser shocks caused or contributed to a number of deaths. The vast majority of those who died were unarmed and did not pose a serious threat when they were electro-shocked. Many police departments continued to authorize the use of tasers in a wide range of situations, including against unarmed resisters or people who refused to comply with police commands. Amnesty International presented its concerns to a Justice Department inquiry into taser deaths and reiterated its call on the US authorities to suspend the use of tasers and other stun weapons, pending the results of a rigorous, independent inquiry, or to limit their use to situations where officers would otherwise be justified in using deadly force.

Thousands of prisoners continued to be confined in long-term isolation, in high-security units where conditions sometimes amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

  • Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, both inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, remained in extended isolation. For more than 30 years, they had been confined alone to small cells for 23 hours a day with only three hours of outdoor exercise a week. Both men were reportedly suffering from serious health problems as a result of their conditions. A lawsuit claiming the prisoners’ treatment was unconstitutional remained pending at the end of the year.

The two men had originally been placed in “lockdown” after being accused of involvement in the killing of a guard during a prison riot in 1972, charges they have always denied. Amnesty International remained concerned that their long-term isolation was based, at least in part, on their past political activism in prison, including membership of the Black Panther Party (a black radical organization).

Prisoners of conscience

Army Specialist Mark Lee Wilkerson served three and a half months in jail after being sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for refusing to serve in Iraq on conscientious grounds. Another conscientious objector to the Iraq war, US Army Medic Agustín Aguayo, was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment on similar grounds. He was released after one month as time spent in custody awaiting trial was taken into consideration. Several other soldiers refusing to serve in Iraq because of their opposition to the war faced possible prosecution at the end of the year.

Justice system

Jose Padilla, a US citizen previously held for more than three years without charge or trial in US military custody as an “enemy combatant”, was convicted in a federal civilian court in August of conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. His sentencing was pending at the end of the year. The court dismissed his lawyers’ claims that torture and other ill-treatment in military custody had left him unfit to stand trial. The government declined to introduce information obtained during his military detention, which may have been open to challenge on the grounds that it was coerced. Amnesty International remained concerned about the lack of accountability for his three years of unlawful treatment, and the damage done to his right to be presumed innocent by the government repeatedly and publicly branding him a “dangerous terrorist”.

Gary Tyler, an African American, remained in prison in Louisana for the murder of a white schoolboy during a racially charged incident in 1974. During his 33 years in prison, Gary Tyler, who was 16 at the time of the killing, has consistently maintained his innocence. He was convicted by an all-white jury following a trial which was seriously flawed. Appeals to the outgoing state governor to grant him a pardon were unsuccessful.

In August an oral hearing took place in the case of five Cuban nationals convicted in Miami in June 2001 of conspiring to act as agents of the Republic of Cuba and other charges (USA v Gerardo Hernandez et al). Grounds for the appeal included insufficient evidence and alleged improper statements by the prosecution during the trial. The appeal court’s decision was pending at the end of 2007. The US government continued to refuse to grant the wives of two of the prisoners visas to visit them in prison.


Continuing concerns about discrimination in the USA included racial disparities in police stops and searches and other areas of the criminal justice system, and the treatment of non-US nationals held in the context of the “war on terror” (see above).

  • Mychal Bell was tried in July – on charges of attempted second-degree murder – in an adult court, despite being a minor at the time of the alleged offence. The case raised concerns about disparities in the treatment of black and white teenagers. He was one of six black high school students in Jena, Louisiana, who were charged with assaulting a white student in December 2006 during a period of racial tension triggered when white students hung three nooses from a tree in the high school grounds. The black students were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder, which could have put them in prison for decades. Charges against the defendants were later reduced and Mychal Bell was transferred to a juvenile court, following civil rights demonstrations.

Death penalty

A total of 42 prisoners were put to death in the USA during the year, bringing to 1,099 the total number of executions carried out since the US Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976. This represented the lowest annual judicial death toll in the USA since 1994 and was in part due to the halt in executions that followed the Supreme Court’s announcement on 25 September that it would consider a challenge to the three-chemical lethal injection process used in Kentucky, and in most other states that use this method.

In June, the Supreme Court blocked the execution of Scott Panetti, a Texas death row inmate suffering from severe delusions. The ruling found that the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had employed a “flawed” and “too restrictive” interpretation of the Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling affirming that the execution of an insane prisoner is unconstitutional. The ruling had the potential to provide additional protection for condemned prisoners suffering from serious mental illness.

South Dakota carried out its first execution since April 1947. Elijah Page was executed for a murder committed in 2000 when he was 18 years old and emerging from a childhood of deprivation and abuse. He had given up his appeals. His execution meant that 34 states and the federal government had conducted at least one execution since 1976.

On 2 January, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission – set up by the state legislature in 2006 to study all aspects of capital punishment in New Jersey – released its final report in which it recommended abolition of the death penalty. In December New Jersey became the first US state since 1965 to legislate to abolish the death penalty when the legislature passed, and the governor signed, legislation replacing capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

New York effectively became the 13th abolitionist state in the USA in October when its highest court refused to make an exception to its 2004 ruling finding the state’s death penalty statute unconstitutional. The challenge to that ruling had been brought by the state in the case of the last person left on New York’s death row.

More than 120 people have been released from death rows in the USA since 1975 on the grounds of innocence.

  • Curtis Edward McCarty, who had spent 21 years in prison, 16 of them on Oklahoma’s death row, was released in May after a federal judge ordered that the charges against him be dismissed. DNA evidence helped to exonerate him, and the judge ruled that the case against him had been tainted by the questionable testimony of a discredited former police chemist.
  • In December, Michael McCormick was acquitted at his retrial for a murder for which he had spent 16 years on death row in Tennessee.
  • In December, prosecutors dismissed all charges against Johnathan Hoffman in the crime for which he had served nearly a decade on death row in North Carolina.
  • Joseph Nichols was executed in Texas on 7 March for the murder of Claude Shaffer in 1980. His co-defendant, Willie Williams, who had been tried first, had pleaded guilty and been executed in 1995. At the trial of Joseph Nichols, the state argued that regardless of the fact that Willie Williams fired the fatal shot, Joseph Nichols was guilty under Texas’ “law of parties”, under which the distinction between principal actor and accomplice in a crime is abolished and each may be held equally culpable. The jury was unable to reach a sentencing verdict and Joseph Nichols was retried. This time the prosecution argued that Joseph Nichols had fired the fatal shot and the jury voted for a death sentence.
  • Philip Workman was executed in Tennessee on 9 May despite compelling evidence that a key state witness lied at the trial and that the police officer he was convicted of killing may have been accidentally shot by a fellow officer. Philip Workman had been on death row for 25 years.
  • On 16 July, less than 24 hours before he was due to be put to death, Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis received a stay of execution from the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. He had been on death row for more than 15 years for the murder of a police officer. There was no physical evidence against him and the weapon used in the crime was never found. The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony, most of which had subsequently been recanted. On 3 August, the Georgia Supreme Court granted an extraordinary appeal and agreed to hear his case for a new trial. A decision was pending at the end of 2007.

Violence against women

Native American and Alaska Native American women continued to suffer disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence, but faced barriers accessing justice. This was due to the complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions, which allowed perpetrators to escape justice; underfunding by the government of key services; and failure at state and federal level to pursue cases. Recommendations by Congress for increased funding to tackle some of these concerns were pending government approval at the end of the year.

Housing rights – Hurricane Katrina

Thousands of evacuees from Gulf Coast areas affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 remained displaced with little prospect of returning to their homes. Many continued to live in precarious situations in temporary accommodation throughout the USA, without work or access to their former support networks.

Civil rights and community groups expressed concern about proposals to demolish a large proportion of the public housing units in New Orleans even though they suffered only minor flood damage and could reportedly be repaired and rehabilitated. It was feared that the absence of affordable housing had created a demographic shift in which poor, largely African American, communities were unable to return to their homes.

Amnesty International reports

Original here

Military suicide rate

The number of Army suicides increased again last year, amid the most violent year yet in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

An Army official said Thursday that 115 troops committed suicide in 2007, a nearly 13 percent increase over the previous year's 102. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because a full report on the deaths wasn't being released until later Thursday.

About a quarter of the deaths occurred in Iraq.

The 115 confirmed deaths among active duty soldiers and National Guard and Reserve troops that had been activated was a lower number than previously feared. Preliminary figures released in January showed as many as 121 troops might have killed themselves, but a number of the deaths were still being investigated then and have since been attributed to other causes, the officials said.

Suicides have been rising during the five-year-old war in Iraq and nearly seven years of war in Afghanistan.

The 115 deaths last year and 102 in 2006 followed 85 in 2005 and 67 in 2004. The only Army records immediately available go back to 1990, and show no year with a higher number of suicides than 2007. The figure in 1990 was 102.

More U.S. troops also died overall in hostilities in 2007 than in any of the previous years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Overall violence increased in Afghanistan with a Taliban resurgence and overall deaths increased in Iraq, even as violence there declined in the second half of the year.

Increasing the strain on the force last year was the extension of deployments to 15 months from 12 months, a practice ending this year.

The increases in suicides come despite a host of efforts to improve the mental health of a force stressed by the long and repeated tours of duty.

The efforts include more training and education programs, such as suicide prevention programs and a program last year that taught all troops how to recognize mental health problems in themselves and their buddies. Officials also approved the hiring of more than 300 additional psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals and have so far hired 180 of them. They also have added more screening to measure the mental health of troops.

Earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, the deputy chief of staff for personnel, directed a complete review of the Army's suicide prevention program, according to the Army's Web site. He called for a campaign that would make use of the best available science, and would raise awareness of the problem.

"Since the beginning of the global war on terror, the Army has lost over 580 soldiers to suicide, an equivalent of an entire infantry battalion task force," the Army said in a suicide prevention guide to installations and units that was posted in mid-March on the site.

"This ranks as the fourth leading manner of death for soldiers, exceeded only by hostile fire, accidents and illnesses," it said. "Even more startling is that during this same period, 10 to 20 times as many soldiers have thought to harm themselves or attempted suicide."

The numbers kept by the Army only show part of the picture because they don't include guard and reserve troops who have finished their active duty and returned home to their civilian jobs.

The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks the number of suicides among those who have left the military. It says there have been 144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military from 2002-2005 after fighting in at least one of the wars.

The true incidence of suicide among veterans is not known, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. Based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VA estimates that 18 veterans a day -- or 6,500 a year -- take their own lives, but that number includes vets from all wars.

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Phone home: Purported UFO video to be shown Friday

A video that purportedly shows a living, breathing space alien will be shown to the news media Friday in Denver.

Jeff Peckman, who is pushing a ballot initiative to create an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission in Denver to prepare the city for close encounters of the alien kind, said the video is authentic and convinced him that aliens exist.

"As impressive as it is, it's still one tiny portion in the context of a vast amount of peripheral evidence," he said Wednesday. "It's really the final visual confirmation of what you already know to be true having seen all the other evidence."

When Peckman went before city officials this month to discuss his proposed ET initiative, he promised to show the video.

Peckman said the general public will have to wait to see it because it's being included in a documentary by Stan Romanek.

"No one will be allowed to film the segment with the extraterrestrial because there is an agreement in place limiting that kind of exposure during negotiations for the documentary," he said.

But people won't have to wait too long to see it for themselves.

"There is an open, public meeting in about a month in Colorado Springs," Peckman said. "We'll hope to do one in Denver at some point, and then in a few months, there will be the documentary that anybody can have, and it'll have the footage."

An instructor at the Colorado Film School in Denver scrutinized the video "very carefully" and determined it was authentic, Peckman said.

Peckman, 54, said the video was among the reasons he was "compelled" to launch the proposed ballot initiative, which has generated news as far as South Africa.

"It shows an extraterrestrial's head popping up outside of a window at night, looking in the window, that's visible through an infrared camera," he said. The alien is about 4 feet tall and can be seen blinking, Peckman said earlier this month.

In a statement, Peckman said "other related credible evidence" proving aliens exist will be shown at Friday's news conference, too.

In 2003, Peckman authored an off-beat ballot initiative that would have required the city to implement stress-reduction techniques. The "Safety Through Peace" initiative failed, but garnered 32 percent of the vote. or 303-954-5099

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Women's Underwear Needed in Fight For Democracy in Myanmar

Women's Underwear Needed in Fight For Democracy in Myanmar

Women are being asked to volunteer their undergarments in an international effort to shame Myanmar's ruling junta into giving citizens greater access to humanitarian aid and human rights.

Organizers launched the Canadian edition of the Panties for Peace! campaign this week with a call for women to send underwear to the Myanmar embassy in Ottawa. According to the campaign, Myanmar's embassies in Europe, Australia and Brazil, among other places, have been receiving female underpants in the mail.

The campaign plays off what the groups says are regional superstitions that contact with women's panties can sap a man's power. Activists claim the fear is shared by the leaders of the country's military regime.

"If you don't believe me, you can bring this to the Yangon airport - you will be shot dead," activist Thet Thet Tun Tuesday as she clutched a pair of white undies. "So we use this against them."

Spearheaded by a pro-democracy group based in Thailand, the campaign was launched last year to draw attention to human rights abuses against women in the country, also known as Burma.

At the time, the junta was accused of violently suppressing a pro-democracy uprising by the country's Buddhist monks.

The Canadian version of the international campaign, co-ordinated by the Quebec Women's Federation and Rights and Democracy, hopes to also raise funds for victims of Cyclone Nargis.

More than 130,000 people are thought to be dead or missing in the wake of the cyclone that struck earlier this month. The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million survivors have not yet received any aid.

"I think there have been more victims from the cyclone from the fact that the military prevented aid from getting through," said Mika Levesque, Rights and Democracy's program officer for Myanmar.

Humanitarian workers have only just begun reaching the remote, hardest hit areas of the country.

Levesque said Rights and Democracy will funnel any money raised to known aid groups working along the Myanmar-Thai border. She refused to name the groups for security reasons.

Tun, who fled the country seven years ago, described a society suffocating under state control and widespread misogyny.

"Our daily clothes are separated from a man's clothes, our towels are separated from their towels," she said. "That's what everyone still believes."

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FBI files indict Bush, Cheney and Co. as war criminals

By Bill Van Auken, WSWS

The most stunning revelation in a 370-page Justice US Department Inspector General’s report released this week was that agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had formally opened a “War Crimes” file, documenting torture they had witnessed at the Guantánamo Bay US prison camp, before being ordered by the administration to stop writing their reports.

The World Socialist Web Site, together with human rights groups and other opponents of US militarism and repression, has long insisted that the actions of the Bush administration—the launching of wars of aggression, assassinations, the abduction and detention of civilians without trial and, most repugnant of all, torture—constitute war crimes under any legitimate interpretation of longstanding international statutes and treaties.

To have this assessment confirmed, however, by the IG of the Justice Department, the only senior official there not answerable directly to the White House, and by agents of the FBI, an agency not known for its sensitivity to questions of democratic rights, is an indication of the rampant character of these crimes as well as the crisis they have engendered within the US government and America’s ruling elite as a whole.

The report makes it absolutely clear that torture was ordered and planned in detail at the highest levels of the government—including the White House, the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the Justice Department. Attempts to stop it on legal or pragmatic grounds by individuals within the government were systematically suppressed, and evidence of this criminal activity covered up.

There was no immediate reaction from the White House on these new revelations. Responses from other agencies directly implicated in the crimes at Guantánamo were indicative of the general atmosphere of impunity in which the torture detailed in the IG’s report continues to this day.

“There’s nothing new here,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. A State Department spokesman, meanwhile, described the charges contained in the report as “pretty vague.”

Pretty vague? One can’t help but wonder what the spokesman would consider explicit. The report contains page after page of testimony by FBI agents on the sadistic and sickening practices carried out at Guantánamo.

In one section, the report states: “[An FBI Agent] recalled that, at some point during the interrogation, the military officer ‘put water down’ a seated detainee’s throat. He said he guessed that the purpose of the water was to give the detainee the sensation that he was drowning, so that he would provide the information that the interrogator wanted. [The agent] stated that the detainee was gagging and spitting out water. He said that the detainee appeared to be uncomfortable, and assumed that he had trouble breathing.”

Consider the account of the interrogation of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian national who was arrested by his own government, turned over to US forces and brought to Guantánamo in 2002:

“He was left alone in a cold room known as ‘the freezer,’ where guards would prevent him from sleeping by putting ice or cold water on him...

“He was subjected to sleep deprivation for a period of 70 days by means of prolonged interrogations, strobe lights, threatening music, forced intake of water, and forced standing.

“He was deprived of clothing by a female interrogator;

“Two female interrogators touched him sexually and made sexual statements to him;

“Prior to and during the boat ride incident, he was severely beaten.”

In addition, the document says, he was “led to believe he was going to be executed, and urinated on himself,” and was told that his mother and family would be detained and harmed.

Hundreds of FBI agents witnessed torture

Similar episodes were described, according to the IG report, by literally hundreds of FBI agents, who witnessed CIA, military and private contractor interrogators carry out illegal acts of torture and abuse against detainees.

In addition, the report cites: several agents who reported instances of beatings, 30 agents who reported witnessing prolonged shackling of detainees in stress positions, 70 agents who reported detainees being subjected to sleep deprivation, 29 agents who had information on the use of extreme temperatures in order to “break the detainees’ resolve to resist cooperating” and 50 agents reporting the use of extended isolation to “wear down a detainee’s resistance.”

In addition, four agents reported the kicking and beating to death of two detainees in Afghanistan who had been subjected to prolonged shackling in a standing position.

The episodes of torture detailed in this report are the tip of the iceberg.

They do not include the treatment of Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born in Germany, who was arrested during a trip to Pakistan in the fall of 2001 and was handed over to US officials for a $3,000 bounty. First taken to the US base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he was then transferred to Guantánamo. While by 2002 the US authorities concluded that Kurnaz had nothing to do with terrorism, he was imprisoned until the middle of 2006 and released only because of pressure from the German government.

Barred from entry to the US, he testified via video link to a sparsely attended hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week.

“I did nothing wrong and I was treated like a monster,” he said. He told how he was subjected to electric shocks, being suspended by his wrists for hours and subjected to the ‘water treatment,’ in which his head was stuck into a bucket of water and he was punched in the stomach, forcing him to inhale the liquid. (The Justice Department Inspector General’s report, it bears noting, affirmed that this last form of torture did not constitute “waterboarding,” but did represent “an effort to intimidate the detainees and increase their feelings of helplessness.”)

“I know others have died from this kind of treatment,” said Kurnaz. “I suffered from sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, religious and sexual humiliations. I was beaten multiple times.”

“There was no law in Guantánamo,” Kurnaz concluded. “I didn’t think this could happen in the 21st century.... I could never have imagined that this place was created by the United States.”

The inmates held at Guantánamo represent barely 1 percent of those detained at US prison camps and secret jails run by the military and the CIA in Iraq, Afghanistan and other points around the world. An estimated 27,000 people are being held without charges, much less trials, many of them simply having disappeared into Washington’s global gulag. Some are held on prison ships, others in secret dungeons run jointly by the CIA and regimes to which it “outsources” detainees, like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, where other, cruder forms of torture—being buried alive, given electric shocks or slashed with scalpels—are employed.

The report also reconfirms that the revolting scenes captured in the photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that came to light four years ago—naked and hooded men being subjected to torture and sexual humiliation by US guards—were no aberration. The methods described in the report—forced nudity, the use of attack dogs in interrogations, chaining detainees in “stress” positions, leading them around on dog leashes, draping them in women’s underwear—were identical to those officially blamed on a “few bad apples” at Abu Ghraib.

Sadistic torture “orchestrated” from the White House

The uniformity of abuse at these widely separated facilities is evidence that the psychopathic and criminal sadism inflicted upon those detained by US forces was planned and orchestrated from the top.

Indeed, as ABC News revealed last month, top administration officials on the so-called Principals’ Committee—Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General John Ashcroft and National Security Council Adviser Condoleezza Rice—conducted detailed discussions on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which, according to ABC, “were almost choreographed—down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.”

Bush subsequently told ABC that he was “aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved.”

The report establishes that FBI and Justice Department officials advised the White House National Security Council of their concern that the practices witnessed by the agents were “gravely damaging ... the rule of law” at Guantánamo.

In the end, however, they were told to back off, and they complied, thereby becoming accomplices in this criminality and its cover-up.

The revelations in the FBI report have provoked no significant protests or demands for action from the Democrats in Congress, or for that matter from the party’s presidential contenders, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, neither of whom have made torture an issue in their campaigns.

The New York Times Tuesday carried a lead editorial titled, “What the FBI agents saw,” which laid out the details of the report and stated that it “shows what happens when an American president, his secretary of defense, his Justice Department and other top officials corrupt American law to rationalize and authorize the abuse, humiliation and torture of prisoners.”

The paper’s conclusion: “The Democrats must press for full disclosure” through hearings to uncover “the extent of President Bush’s disregard for the law and the Geneva Conventions.” This, they tell their readers, “is the only way to get this country back to being a defender, not a violator, of human rights.”

Such is the impotence of erstwhile American establishment liberalism. The extent of the Bush administration’s outright criminality has been thoroughly exposed over the course of several years.

The wholesale and deliberate violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture are, under international law, war crimes—just as the FBI recognized they were. What is demanded is not another toothless congressional hearing, but rather the constitution of a war crimes tribunal. Those responsible must be held accountable.

Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet and Ashcroft should be placed on trial. Those like former White House counsel and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington and Justice Department deputy assistant secretary John Yoo, who crafted the pseudo-legal arguments legitimizing torture, should be prosecuted as well, together with those military and intelligence officials who directed the criminal practices at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and other CIA and military camps and prisons.

The Democratic leadership has no desire or intention to fight for such a reckoning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders have repeatedly insisted that impeachment of the president and vice president is “off the table.” They have no interest in pursuing the administration on the issue of torture because they themselves are complicit, with Pelosi and other senior congressional Democrats having been briefed extensively on the criminal methods employed at Guantánamo, which they approved and concealed from the American people.

On a more fundamental level, the Democrats have been complicit in a policy of global militarism and aggression—carried out under the mantle of a “global war on terrorism”—which is directed at using armed force to further the interests of America’s ruling oligarchy. It is this criminal strategy—resulting in the loss of over 1 million Iraqi lives—that has given rise to the crime of torture itself.

Nonetheless, the deepening crisis of American capitalism is creating the conditions for profound shocks and changes in political and social relations that may well result in Bush, Cheney and Co. standing in the dock as war criminals.

Such a trial is vitally necessary from the standpoint of halting these ongoing crimes, preventing the use of similar methods against political opposition within the US itself and politically educating the American people.

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