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May 26 2015 12:55 PM

The Iranian Trial of a Washington Post Reporter Is About the Nuclear Deal, Not Justice   

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian went on trial today in Iran, nearly 10 months after his arrest. Rezaian, his wife, freelance journalist Yeganeh Salehi, and a female photojournalist whose name has not been released are being tried before one of Iran’s special “Revolutionary Courts,” usually reserved for sensitive national security cases, and the trial will be held behind closed doors. According to the BBC, the judge has been nicknamed the “judge of death” for the harsh sentences, including death penalties, he has handed down to activists and journalists.

The decision to hold the trial in private, denounced as “shameful” by Post editor Martin Baron today, is in keeping with the Kafkaesque nightmare these journalists have lived in since they were arrested without charges last July. The unnamed photojournalist and Salehi, who is an Iranian citizen, were released on bail last year. But Rezaian, a joint U.S.-Iranian citizen and the Post’s Tehran bureau chief, has been held in the notorious Evin prison and, according to the Post, denied needed medical care. His brother says he has lost 40 pounds since being arrested. He was held in jail for nine months before he was allowed to meet with an attorney and he had only one 90-minute meeting with her before trial. It was only after this meeting, in April, that the charges against Rezaian and his co-defendants were made public: They include espionage, “collaborating with hostile governments,” and “propaganda against the establishment.” The charges could carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.

From what’s been made public, it certainly seems as if Rezaian is being charged with committing journalism: Collecting sensitive information and meeting with anti-government sources is part of the job description. According to his attorney, a letter written to President Obama is being cited as an example of his contact with a “hostile government”—i.e., the government of the country where he was born and raised. The defense plans to claim that the U.S. and Iran are not, in fact, “hostile” nations, despite ongoing tensions, which gets to the real reason Rezaian is being imprisoned.

Rezaian’s trial is most likely a ploy by political hardliners in Iran to undermine President Hassan Rouhani and his efforts to improve relations with Western governments, particularly the nuclear deal currently under negotiation. Some of these hardliners have dropped hints that Rouhani’s nephew, who works in the Iranian president’s public relations office, gave Rezaian access to sensitive information, though Rezaian’s family denies he was in contact with any of Rouhani’s relatives. As Middle East expert Haleh Esfandiari pointed out last summer, there’s a history of foreign spy plots suddenly being uncovered at times when relations between Iran and the West seem on the verge of improving.

In trying to scuttle the nuclear deal, Tehran’s hardliners are in a tacit alliance with their counterparts in Washington. A number of GOP senators have called for the release of Americans being held in Iran to be a condition of any final deal. (In addition to Rezaian, a number of other Americans are being held, including Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor from Idaho, Amir Hekmati, a U.S. Marine veteran charged with espionage, and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007.) The White House has repeatedly spoken out about Rezaian’s case and demanded his release but has resisted linking the two issues.

While there are legitimate reasons for concern over whether an opening on the nuclear issue will—at least in the short term—lead to more human rights crackdowns in Iran, including an ultimatum as part of the nuclear deal is more likely to scuttle the deal than to actually win Rezaian’s release. For those against the deal in both nations, that may very well be the whole point.

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May 26 2015 10:31 AM

Repressive Regimes Donated to Clinton Foundation, Got Federal Approval for Arms Deals

Repressive regimes in Algeria, Kuwait, and Qatar donated to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and also "gained State Department clearance to buy caches of American-made weapons" during that time, an International Business Times investigation reports.

The IBT piece reviews all known donations to the Clinton Foundation by countries and defense contractors involved in arms deals that were approved by the State Department during Hillary Clinton's tenure. During a broader increase in military exports under the Obama administration, more than $300 billion worth of weapons shipments were approved to 20 countries that were or have since become Clinton Foundation donors. Some of these recipients were longtime United States allies, such as Australia and Germany, with relatively upstanding recent records on human rights. Others weren't:

The State Department formally approved ... arms sales even as many of the deals enhanced the military power of countries ruled by authoritarian regimes whose human rights abuses had been criticized by the department. Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar all donated to the Clinton Foundation and also gained State Department clearance to buy caches of American-made weapons even as the department singled them out for a range of alleged ills, from corruption to restrictions on civil liberties to violent crackdowns against political opponents. 

Among those countries, Algeria, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait are known to have given money to the Clinton Foundation specifically during Hillary Clinton's tenure at State.

As the piece explains, foreign donations to government officials' private nonprofits aren't illegal—but that's something of a loophole:

Under federal law, foreign governments seeking State Department clearance to buy American-made arms are barred from making campaign contributions -- a prohibition aimed at preventing foreign interests from using cash to influence national security policy. But nothing prevents them from contributing to a philanthropic foundation controlled by policymakers.

The IBT also found that Boeing, Lockheed, and Goldman Sachs paid Bill Clinton personal speaking fees at around the same time that arms deals in which they had a financial interest were approved by Hillary Clinton's State Department.

In the end, the IBT piece doesn't reveal any smoking-gun evidence of a corrupt quid-pro-quo transaction. But it does document again that a presidential candidate who's already taking a lot of heat for her cavalier attitude towards questions of money, ethics, and secrecy has often been willing to tolerate high-stakes conflicts of interest.

May 25 2015 2:48 PM

Charter Is Reportedly Almost Ready to Seal Deal to Buy Time Warner Cable

Looks like Time Warner is finally going to be sold. Charter Communications is just about ready to seal its long-discussed acquisition of Time Warner Cable in a $55 billion deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday. Bloomberg was first to report the news but Reuters, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal all quickly reported the same information from their own sources. Charter will also go through with its planned purchase of Bright House, the sixth-largest U.S. cable operator, for $10.4 billion.

The cash-and-stocks deal that the two companies appear to have agreed to would value Time Warner Cable at $195 per share, of which Charter would pay $100 in cash and the rest in stock. The move would come a month after Time Warner Cable went back on the market after a planned merger with Comcast fell through due to opposition from Washington regulators. While everyone is presenting this as pretty much a done deal, the New York Times’ sources “cautioned that talks were continuing and might still fall apart.”

Combining the second and third largest U.S. cable operators would automatically create a powerful new rival to compete with companies in the sector, including Comcast and DirecTV. Assuming it would go through as expected, the deal would mean a big victory for billionaire John Malone, the main Charter shareholder who has long sought to push the company toward growth.

May 25 2015 1:59 PM

Twister Kills 10 in Mexico Border City as Flooding Wreaks Havoc on Texas, Oklahoma

A powerful tornado ravaged a city on the U.S.–Mexico border on Monday, “destroying homes, flinging cars like matchsticks and ripping an infant from its mother’s arms,” reports the Associated Press.

Across the border, the governor of Texas declared states of disaster in 24 counties due to the flash flooding that has killed at least three people, while at least 12 remain missing. One of the dead was a firefighter in Oklahoma who was swept into a storm drain while he was trying to evacuate a 5-year-old’s birthday party, according to Fox News. “He’s our hero. That’s for sure,” the 5-year-old’s grandfather Steven Darnell told Fox 23.

In Hays County near Austin, as many as 400 homes were washed away by the flooding, reports CNN. “We do have whole streets that have maybe one or two houses left on them, and the rest are just slabs,” said Kharley Smith, emergency management coordinator.

Although the storms in the U.S. appeared to be calming down on Monday, the National Weather Service warned in the morning that severe thunderstorms would continue to strike the region. Officials warn the number of missing could still rise in Texas, notes the Austin-American Statesman.

May 25 2015 1:11 PM

Malaysia Finds 139 Graves in Horrifying Human Trafficking Camps

The migrant crisis of Southeast Asia was already horrifying enough. Now it turns out the depth of terror and inhuman action that smugglers are imparting on their victims may actually be worse than many predicted. Malaysia said on Monday it had found 139 graves, and signs of torture, in a cluster of around 28 abandoned camps in the jungle. “It is a very sad scene,” National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said, according to the Associated Press. “I am shocked. We never expected this kind of cruelty.”

The camps had barbed-wire cages in which it seems migrants were kept, and although authorities said there were signs that torture had been used, they did not elaborate on that point. The find comes weeks after police in Thailand found a similar set of camps and 36 bodies, notes the BBC. Thailand proceeded to increase security around the trafficking routes, which led the gangs to begin trying to move migrants by sea, which is how thousands have become stranded in what some have described as “floating coffins.”

Ever since Thailand began pursuing the smugglers, many starving migrants have been found aimlessly wandering Thai forests. “It’s people who are skeletal, they have no fat on their body they’re just bones. They can no longer support their weight,” an International Organization for Migration (IOM) official tells the BBC. Malaysia had long denied the existence of graves within its borders but now security forces will be under the spotlight. The graves “are within a security zone and call into question the role of Malaysia’s army and police forces in migrant trafficking,” notes the Australian.

May 25 2015 10:02 AM

Anne Meara, Actress and Ben Stiller’s Mother, Dies at 85

Comedy legend Anne Meara, an actress first known for her stand-up routine alongside husband Jerry Stiller, has died at 85. Stiller and son Ben Stiller said in a statement that Meara died Saturday but did not release any details on the cause of death. The statement issued to the Associated Press described Jerry Stiller as Meara’s “husband and partner in life.” “The two were married for 61 years and worked together almost as long,” the statement said.

The Brooklyn-born Meara met Stiller in 1953 at an agent’s office. The two were married in 1954, and Meara converted to Judaism, according to the Hollywood Reporter. They later mastered their improv skills at Chicago’s the Compass Players, whose members went on to form Second City. It wasn’t long before they were performing as Stiller & Meara, and a gig on Merv Griffin’s talent showcase led to their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, where they performed a total of 36 times, according to Reuters. Their act often played off their differences, and they created the “uber-Jewish guy” Hershey Horowitz and “uber-Irish girl” Mary Elizabeth Doyle, which they later described as caricatures of themselves, notes CNN. Meara and Stiller also took the time to pursue purely commercial endeavors and they “made a handsome living endorsing everything from banks to disposable lighters to moving companies—and wine,” notes the Hollywood Reporter.

The pair broke up their act in 1970, saying it was a necessary step if they hoped to save their marriage.  “I love Anne, but if I had depended on her in my professional life, I would have lost her as a wife. We felt like two guys,” Stiller told People in 1977. Meara agreed: “I didn't know where the act ended and our marriage began.” Meara went on to appear in many TV shows, including Rhoda, The Love Boat, ALF, and, more recently, Sex and the City and King of Queens, to name a few. She also acted in several movies, including The Out of Towners, Fame, Reality Bites, and Night at the Museum.

Ben Stiller took to Twitter on Monday to thank fans for their support.

May 24 2015 2:37 PM

Watch a Police Officer Taser, Pepper-Spray a Man Who is Suffering a “Massive Stroke”

Recently released video from police body cameras shows how an officer in Fredericksburg, Virginia used a Taser and pepper-sprayed a man who was suffering from a medical emergency on May 4. Fredericksburg police officer Shaun Jergens resigned on May 14 although he insists he did nothing wrong. Jergens was one of three officers who responded to calls of a hit and run driver going the wrong way down a street. David Washington, 34, was driving a Hyundai that hit a jeep before stopping in the middle of an intersection, reports WTOP. When the officers arrive they demand Washington put his hands up but the driver is nearly motionless and does not say anything. “Get out of the car or I’m going to fucking smoke you,” Jurgens says at one point. Jurgens then draws his Taser before using a huge amount of pepper spray on Washington’s face.

The way in which Washington barely reacted to such a large amount of pepper spray should have maybe been a hint that something was wrong. But another officer proceeds to yank Washington to the pavement and at that point he can be heard moaning. “I can’t breathe,” he says before telling the officers he has been sick for days and doesn’t know what’s wrong. He was later taken to the hospital and sources tell the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star that Washington “had a massive stroke and was treated in the intensive care unit.” Charges have been filed against Washington for hit and run, reckless driving and driving on a revoked license.

In a statement, Jurgens insists he acted out of concern for public safety. But the police department determined the amount of force used in the incident was “not appropriate.” Fredericksburg Police rules say officers cannot use a Taser on someone who is behind the wheel of a car or anyone who is “passively resisting,” according to WTVR.  “The use of force demonstrated in the incident involving Mr. Washington was not in compliance with department policy or training,” Capt. Rick Pennock said. “We take matters such as these very seriously and require that officers at all times exercise appropriate restraint and good judgment.”

May 24 2015 12:28 PM

Police Arrest 71 During Protests Over Cleveland Officer’s Acquittal

Cleveland police arrested 71 people on Saturday during protests that erupted after officer Michael Brelo was acquitted of killing two unarmed black suspects who died in a hail of police gunfire. The 31-year-old Brelo continues to be suspended without pay and could still face administrative charges but his acquittal on two counts of voluntary manslaughter means he won’t be going to prison. Shortly after the verdict, people gathered for mostly peaceful protests but later in the day some demonstrators “crossed the line,” Police Chief Calvin Williams said on Sunday, according to Reuters.

"We only moved into make arrests when things got violent and protesters refused to disperse," Williams said. "We wanted to make sure people understand we are going to help you in this process, but if things turn violent, we will take action to preserve safety."

474566982-people-block-e-4th-st-and-protest-in-reaction-to
People block E 4th St and protest in reaction to Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo being acquitted of manslaughter charges after he shot two people at the end of a 2012 car chase in which officers fired 137 shots May 23, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photo by Ricky Rhodes/Getty Images

Police are reviewing video to determine who will face criminal charges, notes the Northeast Ohio Media Group, whose crime editor was arrested during the protests. Kris Wernowsky did not have his press pass on him when officers in riot gear picked up a group of protesters, “mostly young black men whose only crime seemed to be failing to get out of the street when police asked them to move.”

Despite the arrests, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Cleveland should be seen as a model to the country due to the largely nonviolent reaction to Brelo’s acquittal. “They should be so proud of themselves and we should look at Cleveland as a model,” Kasich told ABC News’ This Week. “The people of Cleveland protest, they ought to protest, that's their right, but violence has been kept to an absolute minimum in that city.”

May 24 2015 10:41 AM

A Beautiful Mind Mathematician John Nash Killed in Car Crash

Princeton University mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash was killed when the taxi he was riding in on Saturday crashed into a guard rail on the New Jersey Turnpike. His wife of nearly 60 years, Alicia Nash, was also killed in the crash. John and Alicia Nash were traveling southbound on the Turnpike when their taxi driver lost control as he tried to pass a car that was in the center lane, leading to the crash, reports NJ.com. A law enforcement officer said the Nashes likely weren’t wearing seatbelts because they were both ejected from the car when it crashed. The taxi driver, however, was taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Nash, who was 86, worked as a senior research mathematician at Princeton University. Alicia Nash was 82. Nash won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994, which “marked not only an intellectual triumph but also a personal one,” notes the Washington Post. It came four decades after he had written a 27-page thesis on game theory that would go on to become one of the most celebrated works in his field. The Post explains what happened next:

Before the academic world could fully recognize his achievement, Dr. Nash descended into a condition eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. For the better part of 20 years, his once supremely rational mind was beset by delusions and hallucinations.
By the time Dr. Nash emerged from his disturbed state, his ideas had influenced economics, foreign affairs, politics, biology—virtually every sphere of life fueled by competition. But he been absent from professional life for so long that some scholars assumed he was dead.

Although already well-known, Nash became an international celebrity when his life story, including his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia, were portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 2001 film "A Beautiful Mind," which won four Oscars including Best Picture. "Stunned...my heart goes out to John & Alicia & family. An amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts," Crowe posted on Twitter today.

May 23 2015 3:08 PM

Man Convicted of Killing Chandra Levy is Likely to Get a New Trial

Federal prosecutors changed their mind on Friday and finally gave in to long-held demands to have a new jury hear the case against a man convicted in the 2001 killing of intern Chandra Levy. Attorneys for Ingmar Guandique have been arguing for more than a year that a former gang leader who issued crucial testimony lied when he said that his onetime cellmate Guandique had confessed to killing Levy. The “stunning legal reversal,” according to McClatchy, would mean that defense attorneys won’t get to cross-examine the original prosecutor over how she handled that key witness who has now come under fire because he was cooperating with prosecutors in other cases.

If the judge grants the request by the defense it means the mystery that engulfed Washington for years could return to the spotlight a case that “was challenging for authorities from the start,” notes the Washington Post. Guandique was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison even though there was no forensic evidence, no murder weapon and no eyewitness accounts, which is why the questioned testimony was so important for the 2010 trial. Despite the reversal, the prosecution insists it remains confident that Guandique is guilty. “We remain firm in our conviction that the jury’s verdict was correct and are preparing for a new trial to ensure that Mr. Guandique is held accountable,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement. Still, “The interests of justice will therefore be best served by the government's withdrawal of its opposition to the defendant's motion and affording him a new trial.”

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