August 30, 2012
By MATTHEW BARAKAT Associated Press
A U.S. judge on Tuesday awarded $21 million to seven people who sued a former prime minister of Somalia now living in Virginia, claiming he tortured and killed his own people more than two decades ago.
The judgment against Mohamed Ali Samantar, 76, of Fairfax comes at the end of an eight-year legal battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Seven Somali natives filed the lawsuit in 2004 in federal court in Alexandria against Samantar, who served as vice president, defense minister and prime minister throughout the 1980s under dictator Siad Barre, until the months before the regime collapsed in 1991.
The suit claimed Samantar personally ordered the killings and torture of members of the minority Isaaq clan.
Samantar denied the accusations and claimed immunity from the lawsuit. On the day the trial was to begin, he entered a default judgment. While he accepted legal liability for the killings, he denied wrongdoing.
One of the plaintiffs, Aziz Deria of Bellevue, Wash., said that the ruling vindicates efforts to hold Samantar accountable.
"The case was never about money," said Deria, who has little expectation of recovering his $3 million share of the judgment against Samantar, who is bankrupt. "This case was about having an opportunity to be in court with Samantar and prove he was in charge of what was happening."
Samantar's lawyer, Joseph Peter Drennan, said he will appeal the ruling. In fact, the case is already on appeal. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether Samantar was properly denied immunity.
The case, first filed in 2004, has had a tortuous path through the courts. At first, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed the case, ruling that Samantar enjoyed legal immunity as a former foreign official. But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that argument. Eventually, the State Department argued in a legal filing that Samantar could not claim immunity because Somalia had no central government that could claim immunity on his behalf.
Brinkema then allowed the case to go to trial. Samantar's lawyer objected, saying the judge was granting excessive deference to the State Department — Brinkema had said she would have dismissed the case if the agency determined it could harm international relations.
After Samantar defaulted at the outset of the trial in February, the trial proceeded without him.
During the shortened trial, the plaintiffs presented evidence including a 1989 BBC interview in which Samantar acknowledged a leadership role in the bombing of Hargeisa, a city in the northern part of the country. Hargeisa was home to a large Isaaq population and a stronghold of a regional movement to break off from Somalia.
The evidence also included testimony from an army colonel who said he overheard a series of radio communications in which Barre was urging moderation in a bombing campaign, while Samantar advocated a harsher attack.
Several plaintiffs — some who live in the U.S. like Deria and others who still live in Somalia — told chilling stories of narrowly escaping summary execution, suffering beatings and spending years in solitary confinement in jail. Deria sued on behalf of his brother and father, who were killed.
The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, which represented the plaintiffs, said Brinkema's ruling is the first anywhere in the world to hold a leader in the Barre regime responsible for the crimes it perpetrated.
"This is a remarkable result for our clients, who faced down one of the most powerful men in their country's history and forced him to concede liability for his crimes," said Steven Schulman, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers.
But Drennan said Samantar continues to deny wrongdoing, and believes that efforts to hash out these claims in a U.S. court are counterproductive to the efforts to promote reconciliation and a cohesive national government in Somalia.
The lawsuit "needs to be seen for what it is — politics and clan warfare in the courtroom," Drennan said.
Deria, on the other hand, said holding Samantar formally accountable for atrocities in Somalia's civil war is the best way for Somalia to move forward. He said that clan retribution can be set aside when people can be assured of justice through the legal system and that he hopes the case can highlight to the Somali people that justice is attainable.
"This is the civilized way of dealing with criminals," he said.
August 30, 2012
Robin Roberts says Friday will be her last day co-anchoring “Good Morning America” for a while.
On Monday’s edition of the ABC News wakeup program, Roberts made official the start date for what’s being called her “extended medical leave.”
Roberts told viewers in July that she has MDS, a blood and bone marrow disease once known as preleukemia.
She says she will be hospitalized next week to prepare for the bone marrow transplant that will take place about 10 days after that.
But looking further ahead, Roberts noted she is luckier than many workers who become ill. She says her bosses have been generous in giving her the needed time off, and her job is waiting for her when she’s well enough to return. She described herself as “very blessed.”
August 23, 2012
By MICHELLE FAUL and THOMAS PHAKANE Associated Press
South African President Jacob Zuma on August 22 told striking miners the nation's leaders are mourning with them but he refused their request that he visit the dusty site where police killed 34 strikers and wounded another 78. The killings have caused outrage and eroded support for the party that brought down apartheid and has governed for the nearly two decades.
Zuma came to this mining town northwest of Johannesburg as demands for higher wages spread to at least two other mines, raising fears the instability could inflame protests at more of the South African mines that provide 75 percent of the world's platinum. South Africa's miningweb.com Web site calls it "a possibly ominous development" that could have a "devastating effect on the South African economy" since metals and minerals sales provide such a large part of the country's export income.
"What has happened is very painful. We cry with you, all of us," Zuma told miners in his native Zulu.
There was none of the usual applause or ululating that normally greets Zuma. The hundreds of miners and community members were near sullen.
When Zuma told them he had come to Lonmin PLC mine in Marikana the day after last Thursday's killings, some people shouted "You're lying!"
Zuma had rushed back home from a regional summit in neighboring Mozambique and flown straight to the area, but he visited only with wounded miners. Those who have continued to strike have been angry that he did not come to address them until a week later.
Strike leaders asked Zuma to visit the nearby site of the shootings, but he failed to visit the dusty bush site that miners are sanctifying like the scene of a martyr's death. When the presidential cavalcade left, workers followed its clouds of dust, expecting Zuma to stop at the site where hundreds more miners had gathered. But the convoy just drove past.
Strikers also asked Zuma if the 256 strikers arrested on a range of charges from public violence to murder could be released temporarily from jail to attend memorial services programmed Thursday. Zuma did not respond. And they told their president that they were striking, and would continue to do so, because they want to be paid a monthly minimum wage of R12,500 ($1,560). Zuma did not respond. The current minimum for a mine worker is R5,500 ($690).
Platinum mines, already hit by low world prices and flagging demand, especially from vehicle makers who use the metal to control carbon emissions, may not be in a financial position to seriously consider the demands, some industry analysts say.
The shutdown at London-registered Lonmin PLC mine at Marikana where the Aug. 16 shootings occurred has cost hundreds of millions of dollars in share value. The company said it may have to renegotiate with bankers debt payments that are due on Sept. 30. Lonmin also said it will be unable to meet its annual target production of 750,000 ounces.
Any slowdown in South Africa's platinum production will have little short-term effect internationally, since the platinum industry has allowed the world market to build up a surplus estimated to last between 18 months and two years, according to mining industry specialist Jan de Lange of Sake24.com, an Afrikaans-language business news Web site.
Thandi Modise, premier of North West Province where the platinum mines are located, warned that the protests may spread if authorities don't deal with the massive and growing inequality gap that has many South Africans feeling they have not benefited in the 18 years since black majority rule replaced a racist white minority government. South Africa has become the richest nation in Africa but still has more than 25 percent unemployment — nearer 50 percent among young people. Protests against shortages of housing, electricity and running water and poor education and health services are an almost daily affair.
That poverty is contrasted by the ostentatious lifestyles of a small elite of blacks who have become multimillionaires, often through corruption related to government tenders.
Zuma came to the troubled Lonmin mine a day after striking miners here heckled a committee of government ministers sent to help the grieving community with identification of bodies of slain miners, burial arrangements and bereavement counseling.
"If Jacob Zuma doesn't want to come here, how does he expect to gain our votes?" one man shouted at the Cabinet ministers.
"Don't you know if the miners here don't vote for you, the ANC is going down?" another piped up, referring to the ruling African National Congress party.
Defense Minister Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula responded with the first official apology for the police killings.
"As a representative of the government, I apologize," the minister said. "I am begging, I beg and I apologize, may you find forgiveness in your hearts."
South Africa is the world's leading producer of platinum and ferrochrome, the fourth-largest producer of iron ore and is among the top 10 gold producers in the world.
August 30, 2012
By BRETT ZONGKER Associated Press
A year after the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened to visitors on the National Mall, the group behind the monument is still working with the National Park Service to change an inscription quoting the civil rights leader and is planning to bring new programs to the site.
Critics, including the poet Maya Angelou, complained last year that the inscription didn’t accurately reflect King’s words from a 1968 sermon about how he would like to be remembered. It reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
The phrase is inscribed without quotation marks because it is paraphrased. But the full quotation seems more modest. The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the park service, ordered in February that the memorial should display the full quote.
The full quotation reads: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” The new text will be slightly smaller than the current inscription.
Harry Johnson, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the work to change the inscription will wait until after the height of the summer tourist season. Then the $120 million memorial’s original sculptor and stone carver will return likely in September or October to change the words carved in the central “Stone of Hope.”
“We’re trying for the least amount of disruption so that no harm is done to the stone,” Johnson said of the upcoming stone work. Previously, the memorial group fought the change saying an alteration would harm the design and cause a mismatch in the memorial’s granite color.
Now plans call for Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin to chip away stone from the current inscription, add new granite and then smooth the lines of the stone to help hide the patch work. Then third-generation stone carver Nicholas Benson of Newport, R.I., will add the full quotation to the memorial.
Organizers plan to complete the work by King’s birthday in January, though it’s not yet clear how much the work will cost. Johnson said the memorial foundation will help the park service pay for the stone work.
Between 1.5 million and 2 million people have visited the memorial in its first year, Johnson said.
The memorial group also is announcing plans to continue supporting the monument honoring King by becoming a booster organization to help the park service fund programs and maintenance at the memorial site.
Plans call for adding a multimedia walking tour using mobile devices like iPads to allow visitors to hear King’s speeches as they read some of his historic words engraved in the monument. A donor has already offered to provide the electronic equipment, and the memorial site is equipped with wireless Internet service, Johnson said.
“Our plan is to just talk about the significance of the quotes and give more of a walking history of the memorial,” he said. “That was in the plan originally. So now it’s time to take that a step further.”
The Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial is seen in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.
August 23, 2012
More than 3,000 lots flooded by Hurricane Katrina and bought with federal money in an emergency bailout sit idle across this city — a multimillion-dollar drain on federal, state and city coffers that lends itself to no easy solution.
An Associated Press examination of the properties sold to the government by homeowners abandoning New Orleans after the catastrophic 2005 flood has found that about $86 million has been spent on 5,100 abandoned parcels. And there’s no end in sight to maintenance costs for perhaps most of the 3,100 properties that remain unsold.
This portfolio of urban wasteland and blight represents part of the storm’s difficult legacy that persists nearly seven years later.
And with federal funding for maintenance running out, there’s concern the lots could fall into deeper neglect when this cash-strapped city is forced to pay for upkeep and that they could contribute to New Orleans’s staggering blight. At last count the city found an estimated 43,000 blighted properties, according to a city-sponsored analysis of U.S. Postal Service data.
“Right now nobody on those 3,000-plus properties is contributing. It’s costing the city and state government to maintain them. Police got to go out there, run kids out of there, drug-users,” said Errol Williams, the tax assessor in New Orleans.
Until now, the properties have been managed by the Louisiana Land Trust, an agency set up using federal funds.
Donald Vallee, a longtime New Orleans developer, complained that city officials had not acted fast enough.
He advocated selling the lots at auction. Sitting on the properties, he said, was a “pure waste of money.”
Every month, LLT spends about $88 to cut the grass at each location. Other expenses range from insurance to pest control.
Since 2007, when the first homes were bought, $34 million has been spent on maintenance, $4.5 million on security and $9.1 million on overhead costs in New Orleans, according to LLT. In addition, some $38 million has been spent on demolishing 3,607 homes beyond repair and tearing up 1,256 slabs.
In the Lower 9th Ward, 739 homeowners sold to the state. About 570 of those properties remain unsold and entire blocks sit undeveloped.
The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has said it’s sitting on many properties at the request of neighborhood groups to avoid flooding the market and hurting home prices.
Nicole Heyman, a New Orleans-based expert on vacant and blighted property with the nonprofit Center for Community Progress, said holding onto the property is the right choice. She is advising the city on its plans.
When a city sells cheaply they end up “just putting properties in the hands of investors who drive the properties’ values down,” she said. Buyers often sit on vacant properties hoping for a market turnaround, and when that doesn’t happen the properties end back up in the hands of a city, she said.