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Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann: accountability for prosecutorial abuse

© Photograph: US Department of Justice
US Attorney Carmen Ortiz is under fire for her office's conduct in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz.
Imposing real consequences on these federal prosecutors in the Aaron Swartz case is vital for both justice and reform.

Whenever an avoidable tragedy occurs, it's common for there to be an intense spate of anger in its immediate aftermath which quickly dissipates as people move on to the next outrage. That's a key dynamic that enables people in positions of authority to evade consequences for their bad acts. But as more facts emerge regarding the conduct of the federal prosecutors in the case of Aaron Swartz - Massachusetts' US attorney Carmen Ortiz and assistant US attorney Stephen Heymann - the opposite seems to be taking place: there is greater and greater momentum for real investigations, accountability and reform. It is urgent that this opportunity not be squandered, that this interest be sustained.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that - two days before the 26-year-old activist killed himself on Friday - federal prosecutors again rejected a plea bargain offer from Swartz's lawyers that would have kept him out of prison. They instead demanded that he "would need to plead guilty to every count" and made clear that "the government would insist on prison time". That made a trial on all 15 felony counts - with the threat of a lengthy prison sentence if convicted - a virtual inevitability.

Just three months ago, Ortiz's office, as TechDirt reported, severely escalated the already-excessive four-felony-count indictment by adding nine new felony counts, each of which "carrie[d] the possibility of a fine and imprisonment of up to 10-20 years per felony", meaning "the sentence could conceivably total 50+ years and [a] fine in the area of $4 million." That meant, as Think Progress documented, that Swartz faced "a more severe prison term than killers, slave dealers and bank robbers".

Bad Guys

Preplanned Mali invasion reveals France's neo-colonialistic agenda

© Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr
Impact of French bombing of Gao in the northern region of Mali. France and other imperialist states are waging war on the West African state.
The speed and extent with which French warplanes have been deployed over the weekend in the West African country, Mali, point to a well-honed plan for intervention by the former colonial power.

Indeed, such is the careful choreography of this salient military development that one could say that the French have finally given themselves a green light to execute a plan they had been pushing over several months. That plan is nothing less than the neocolonial re-conquest of its former colony in the strategically important West African region.

Within hours of the Malian government requesting military support to counter an advance by rebels from the northern territory, French warplanes began carrying out air strikes on Friday. The attack sorties have reportedly been conducted for at least three consecutive days. Media reports said that French Mirage and Rafale fighter jets had struck across a wide belt of the remote Sahelian country, from Gao and Kidal in the northeast, near the border with Algeria, to the western town of Lere, close to Mauritania.

The warplanes were dispatched from France and also reportedly from Chad. The French government claimed that it had been granted over-flight permission by Algeria. Both North African neighboring countries are also former French colonies.


Florida legislators vote to ban spying with drones

© Tom Pennington Getty Images / AFP
A Florida senate panel has voted to ban state police from using drones to spy on citizens. But several exceptions to the ban will ensure that the skies of the Sunshine State are not entirely drone-free.

The Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act will limit law enforcement's ability to use drones to gather evidence against suspects. Any such evidence would be made inadmissible in a court of law, and citizens would be able to sue agencies that violate the rules.

"I support the use of drones to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not to monitor the activities of law-abiding Floridians," Republican Senator John Negron said after the bill he sponsored flew through the Criminal Justice Senate Subcommittee.

"This bill will protect the privacy of our citizens while providing law enforcement the tools necessary to respond to emergencies," he continued.

The panel amended the bill to allow for exceptions, such as when a warrant has been signed by judge or if "exigent" circumstances exist, including "reasonable suspicion that under particular circumstances, swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence."

Cowboy Hat

Obama unveils gun-control proposals


President Obama formally unveiled new gun-control polices Wednesday, and referenced several of the most violent shootings of the past few years.
President Obama on Wednesday formally proposed the most expansive gun-control policies in generations and initiated 23 separate executive actions aimed at curbing what he called "the epidemic of gun violence in this country."

While no legislation can prevent every tragedy, he said in announcing the proposals, "if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, we've got an obligation to try."

Obama spoke in a White House ceremony to formally unveil the proposals and to sign executive orders and paperwork initiating immediate administrative actions, including steps to strengthen the existing background-check system to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people as well as to improve mental health and school safety programs.

The president also called on Congress to swiftly pass legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines for civilian use and to require universal background checks for all gun buyers. Obama's proposals include mental health and school safety measures, as well as a tough new crackdown on gun trafficking.


White House petitions will now require 100,000 signatures before response

© Photograph: Lucasfilm/Ronald Grant Archive
Recent petitions have asked the White House to allow Texas to secede, to deport Piers Morgan and to build a Death Star.
After We the People site sees surge in popularity, Obama administration quadruples the previous 25,000 threshold.

The White House has quadrupled the number of signatures required to receive an official response to petitions submitted on its We the People website, after a surge in its popularity.

The Obama administration will now only be required to respond when a petition gathers 100,000 signatures, up from the previous 25,000.

Use of the We the People site doubled in the final two months of 2012, when petitions were added to grant Texas the right to secede from the US, to deport Piers Morgan and to keep him in the US ("because the UK doesn't want him"). All easily passed the 25,000 signature threshold.

Macon Phillips, White House director of digital strategy, wrote in a blog post that the site's popularity exceeded the "wildest expectations".

"When we first raised the threshold - from 5,000 to 25,000 - we called it 'a good problem to have,'" Phillips said. "Turns out that 'good problem' is only getting better, so we're making another adjustment to ensure we're able to continue to give the most popular ideas the time they deserve."


Armed man caught in woods behind Sandy Hook school was "off-duty tactical squad police officer from another town"

As police this week continued their probe into the December 14 incident involving 28 shooting deaths, including 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the lawyer who represents the Newtown Police Union is seeking help from the town, state, and federal governments to extend paychecks for "three to five" town police officers who were so traumatized by the incident that they have not yet been emotionally able to return to work.

Police union lawyer Eric Brown said this week that three to five of the town police officers who responded to the crime scene have been off work and collecting sick time pay in light of their being traumatized by the school shooting incident.

However, because the town provides only ten sick days for an officer annually, those police now face the prospect of being off work without pay, Mr Brown said.

Snakes in Suits

Federal justice and Aaron Swartz's death

© Credit: Wikipedia
Anger at Swartz's prosecutors is valid. Anger at the federal justice system in which they acted is needed .

Aaron Swartz was not the first brilliant young technologist to commit suicide while facing prosecution by the U.S. government for cybercrimes. In 2008, a young hacker named Jonathan James killed himself when he was named as a suspect in a case brought by the very same prosecutor who zealously pursued Swartz - Massachusetts Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann.

Unlike Swartz, James left a note. "I have no faith in the 'justice' system. Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control." He had been incarcerated for cybercrimes as a teenager. Meanwhile Swartz's family and partner directed some blame for his suicide last week at "a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

Swartz's defense lawyer Elliot Peters has specifically decried the zealousness with which the prosecutor pursued his client. Heymann, Peters charged this week, "was very intransigent." Peters said that the prosecutor was seeking "some juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron's case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill." According to Peters, "[Heymann] was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper."


Algeria: 2 dead in militant attack on BP gas complex

© AP
In this undated image released Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013, by BP petroleum company, showing the Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013.
Islamist militants were holding a group of foreigners hostage on Wednesday at a southern Algeria natural gas field partly operated by BP. There were two reported deaths, one of them a Briton, in the early morning attack on the complex, which may be linked to France's strike on rebel groups in northern Mali.

Algerian forces have surrounded the kidnappers and negotiations for the release of the hostages are ongoing, an Algerian security official based in the region said, adding that the militants had come from Mali. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a Mauritanian news outlet to say they had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking five hostages - three Norwegians, a Briton and an American.

The group's claim could not be independently substantiated and it was not clear why the reports over the citizenship and the numbers of those kidnapped differed.

The Algerian Interior Ministry said one foreigner had been killed. Algeria's state news agency later said there was been a second fatality, a British citizen.

Star of David

How 20 tents rocked Israel

© (Issam Rimawi / APA images
The establishment of Bab Al Shams is a direct action against Israel’s settlement enterprise.
When the Palestinian leadership won their upgrade to non-member observer status at the United Nations in November, plenty of sceptics on both sides of the divide questioned what practical benefits would accrue to the Palestinians. The doubters have not been silenced yet.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done little to capitalise on his diplomatic success. There have been vague threats to "isolate" Israel, hesitant talk of "not ruling out" a referral to the International Criminal Court, and a low-key declaration by the Palestinian Authority of the new "state of Palestine".

At a time when Palestinians hoped for a watershed moment in their struggle for national liberation, the Fatah and Hamas leaderships look as mutually self-absorbed as ever. Last week they were again directing their energies into a new round of reconciliation talks, this time in Cairo, rather than keeping the spotlight on Israeli intransigence.

So instead, it was left to a group of 250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a "state of Palestine" might be given practical meaning. On Friday, they set up a tent encampment that they intended to convert into a new Palestinian village called Bab al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun.

On Sunday, in a sign of how disturbed Israel is by such acts of popular Palestinian resistance, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the the occupants removed in a dawn raid - despite the fact that his own courts had issued a six-day injunction against the government's "evacuation" order.

Intriguingly, the Palestinian activists not only rejected their own leaders' softly-softly approach but also chose to mirror the tactics of the hardcore settlers.

Bad Guys

World war in Asia?

With the Asia Pivot, the US wants to encircle China, and supplies old and new allies with missiles aimed at its main rival. An amped up arms race means cash flow for the world's biggest death dealer. If all these Asian nations buy as many American fighter planes as Taiwan, US armament workers can knock down a few more Bud Lites, and take their wives and kiddies to Ruby Tuesday twice a week even.

So far, Japan is going along with this plan. The Sensaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute was dormant until stirred up recently by Tokyo. As tension heated up, the US then shipped missiles to Japan, with the lame explanation that they were meant to deter North Korea. Newly elected Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe lost no time declaring that Japan will increase defense spending, that China is "wrong" in this dispute and there's nothing to negotiate. By contrast, Abe said he could sit down with South Korea over another sea breeze stare down, since "both nations share liberal and democratic values, and have respect for basic human rights and the rule of law," unlike China, that is.

Such a verbal reverse kick won't soon be forgotten, especially from an adversary whose meat and bone crimes are still fresh. Three quarters of a century ain't ish in Asia. The chiefs of Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Sony and Sanyo, etc., must be gagging at Abe's posturing, for it's never wise to give your best customer the finger, and over what, a few symbolic rocks, with a fistful of tuna thrown in, wasabi not included? It's understandable that Japan is reluctant to yield its primacy in Asia to China, but these provocations surely won't reverse the tide, only yield dire consequences.