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April 1 2015 9:59 AM

Palestinian Authority Officially Joins International Criminal Court

The Palestinian Authority formally joined the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, becoming that group’s 123rd member. (The ICC’s official comments on the matter refer to the “State of Palestine,” though Palestine’s statehood is not universally recognized.) 

The move opens the possibility of pursuing war-crimes prosecutions against Israel, though Israel is not a member and does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction, and Palestinian representatives are not expected to push for any specific cases at this time. The court is investigating 2014’s Israel-Palestine war in Gaza, though the Guardian notes that this investigation could also result in charges against Hamas and other militants who are now subject to the court's oversight.

Israel announced Friday that it would release tax revenue to Palestine that had been withheld for three months in retaliation for Palestine’s application to join the ICC.

The United States is not a member of the ICC because of concerns about the potential prosecution of U.S. military personnel and political leaders, though the Obama administration has followed a policy of “engaging” with the court.

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March 31 2015 11:24 PM

Creator of the Fad Pet Rock Dies as a Viral Pioneer

The inventor of the Pet Rock died last week at the age of 78 and nobody seemed to notice. On Tuesday, however, the New York Times rectified this with an obituary of Gary Dahl who in 1975, while working as an advertising copywriter, created some of the U.S.’ original viral content when he packaged and sold pet rocks for just under $4 a pop. If you assumed there couldn’t possibly be a market for, as the Times describes it  “a plain, ordinary, egg-shaped rock of the kind one could dig up in almost any backyard,” you’d be wrong. More than three million were sold over the course of several months making Dahl a millionaire and creating pop culture history.

Here’s more from the Times on the birth of the fad that predated the viral age:

[Dahl] recruited two colleagues as investors, visited a building-supply store and bought a load of smooth Mexican beach stones at about a penny apiece. The genius was in the packaging. Each Pet Rock came in a cardboard carrying case, complete with air holes, tenderly nestled on a bed of excelsior. Mr. Dahl’s droll masterstroke was his accompanying manual on the care, feeding and house training of Pet Rocks…
Pet Rocks hit the marketplace in time for Christmas 1975. They were soon featured on “The Tonight Show” and in a blizzard of newspaper articles. In a matter of months, some 1.5 million rocks were sold… While Pet Rocks were the must-have gift of the 1975 holiday season, they soon went the way of all fads. The idea’s very simplicity proved its undoing: Though Mr. Dahl trademarked the name, there was nothing to stop someone from putting a rock into a box and selling it, and many did.

March 31 2015 9:27 PM

White House Resumes Military Aid to Egypt 

The U.S. ended its year-and-a-half–long hold on military aid to Egypt on Tuesday, putting an end to sanctions that were imposed in the wake of the military coup that led to the overthrow and imprisonment of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

President Obama announced the administration’s change of heart during a phone call with Morsi's successor, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Withholding military support for the longtime ally was meant as a condemnation of the anti-democratic turn in Cairo following the Arab Spring. Since Morsi’s overthrow, however, the strategic political terrain has shifted dramatically for the U.S., with Egypt fighting both ISIS in Libya and Houthi rebels who have toppled the U.S.-backed government in Yemen.

“The White House said President Barack Obama was freeing up the equipment and making other changes to military ties with Washington's long-time ally to support U.S. interests while encouraging Egypt's political reforms,” Reuters reports. “Obama directed the release of 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits made by General Dynamics, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said.”

“The President also advised President al-Sisi that he will continue to request an annual $1.3 billion in military assistance for Egypt,” according to the White House. Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel.

March 31 2015 6:35 PM

Obama Commutes Sentences for 22 Drug Offenders, Including Eight Serving Life

President Obama commuted sentences on Tuesday for 22 drug offenders, including eight serving life sentences, doubling the total number of commutations issued during his time in office. Calling their sentences the product of an "outdated" system, the White House acknowledged that defendants convicted of the same crimes under current law would likely face far lighter punishment. From the Huffington Post:

Tuesday's announcement marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach on clemency from the White House, which has faced persistent criticism for being slow to grant pardons and commutations. Until Tuesday, Obama had only commuted the sentences of 21 people and pardoned 64, out of thousands of applications received.
The Justice Department expanded its criteria for clemency applicants last year, prioritizing defendants who would have likely been given a shorter prison term had they been sentenced today and who have served at least 10 years behind bars, have had good conduct in prison, have no significant ties to criminal enterprises and have no history of violence or significant criminal history.

When President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the disparity in sentences mandated for crimes involving powdered cocaine and crack was dramatically reduced. Advocates of reform have continued to press for the law to be made fully retroactive and support is slowly growing in both parties for congressional action to free inmates with sentences like those the president commuted today, which the White House describes as "years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, currently under consideration by the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate, would add "clarification" to allow all prisoners whose crimes would bring lighter sentences under the Fair Sentencing Act to petition for a reduction in prison time. The bills have a decidedly bipartisan list of supporters, with Ted Cruz, Cory Booker, Rand Paul, and Dick Durbin co-sponsoring the Senate version.

Still, some Republicans are skeptical. But GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a vocal advocate for drug sentencing reform, could have the key to getting them on board: Say "socialism." Appearing at an event on sentencing reform held in February by Generation Opportunity, a libertarian youth organization, Massie described the approach he uses to lobby conservatives in favor of more lenient drug sentencing: It's not conservative to spend public resources keeping non-violent offenders locked up. When you're paying all of an inmate's living expenses and getting no public benefit, Massie says, that's "socialism with restrained mobility."

March 31 2015 5:42 PM

Arkansas Legislature Passes Religious Freedom Law Similar to Indiana’s

Arkansas’ legislature Tuesday passed a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is similar to the law of the same name that many observers believe has authorized discrimination against LGBT individuals in Indiana. Arkansas’ bill thus goes to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson for a veto or signature on the same day that Indiana’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, announced that he now supports additional legislation explicitly forbidding such discrimination.

The political dynamics of the situation in Arkansas appear similar to those that pertain in Indiana, with businesses expressing unease over the law’s potential effect while conservative politicians and activists resist suggestions to add language preventing businesses from citing the law in order to deny service to LGBT customers. (Until today, Pence had opposed such additional language.) From the New York Times:

While there were several attempts up until the last minute to add a clause to the bill that would explicitly bar discrimination of gays and lesbians, a measure that Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana pledged to add in a news conferenceon on Tuesday, the sponsors of the bill in the General Assembly rejected such moves.
Business resistance to the bills in both states continued to ratchet up, with Gap and Levi Strauss joining Walmart, Apple, Yelp and other major corporations in expressing disapproval. On Monday, the chief executive of Acxiom, a marketing technology company based in Little Rock that employs nearly 1,600 statewide, urged the governor to veto a bill that was “a deliberate vehicle for enabling discrimination.”

Like Indiana’s law, the text of the Arkansas bill appears designed to protect businesses that refuse service to LGBT customers, explicitly extending religious-freedom protections to for-profit entities and specifying that religious-freedom rights can be claimed in a judicial dispute between private parties. (For what it’s worth, the bill’s Arkansas sponsor appears to believe that businesses in his state already have the right to refuse service to such customers because LGBT individuals are not a specifically protected class under state law.)

March 31 2015 5:27 PM

New U.S. Climate Targets Are Letting the World Down

On Tuesday, the U.S. submitted its first-ever official, internationally recognized plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020. Problem is, it’s pretty much just a retread of the path the U.S. is already on, which isn’t enough to keep global warming from crossing the “dangerous” two degree Celsius threshold—a point above which scientific consensus paints an increasingly bleak future, with global impacts capable of destabilizing human society.

As the country with the greatest historical responsibility for climate change, the U.S. was expected to increase its ambition in the run up to the important UN climate negotiations in Paris later this year. As it turns out, the U.S. believes it already has done as much as it can. The Obama administration’s new plan is essentially exactly what it had already outlined as part of its bilateral pledge with China late last year: a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels. The only change is that now the U.S. has pledged to shoot for the upper end of that target—which analysts believe is easily achievable, and vastly short of what’s needed.

Tuesday’s U.S. voluntary pledge—known in UN-speak as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution—was initially tough to download via a Google Chrome browser, which some considered symbolic:

The short five-page document contains a self-congratulatory two-page cover letter, touting the U.S. targets as “fair and ambitious.” However, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of independent climate analysts, the U.S. goal is neither. Factoring in various countries’ abilities to reduce carbon, the Climate Action Tracker preliminarily ranked the U.S. pledge as “medium,” not something to be especially proud of. The European Union and China fall into the same category.

Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, told Slate that the U.S. pledge was quite clearly a first step. “We’re going to have to strengthen ambition over time,” he said, adding that the Obama administration, dealing with a largely hostile Congress, is committing to the “most that they can” under existing law.

That may be, but given the fact the U.S. has emitted more total carbon than any other country—one-fifth of all carbon ever emitted—Obama could have at least used this moment to help developing countries transition to low carbon economies. Noticeably missing from Tuesday’s pledge were specifics on how the U.S. plans to fund its pledge to a floundering international climate change adaptation fund, for example, a key requirement that poor countries have attached to the current international negotiations, intended to partially account for the historical inequality of emissions.

But even that probably would not be enough to inspire other countries. One analysis from the consulting firm Climate Advisers shows that so far, the world’s pledges have been only half as ambitious as necessary. That’s led to leaders of the UN climate negotiations to ratchet back expectations for the agreement due to be signed in Paris in December.

March 31 2015 4:19 PM

Defense Rests in Boston Marathon Bombing Trial

Attorneys representing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in his federal trial over charges related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing rested their case Tuesday after calling four witnesses. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s representatives have already admitted that he helped carry out the bombing and are attempting only to persuade the jury that Dzhokhar should not be sentenced to death because his brother Tamerlan was more responsible for their crimes. From the AP:

During its brief case, the defense called a cell site analyst who showed that Tsarnaev was at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth when Tamerlan purchased components of the two bombs used in the 2013 attack, including pressure cookers and BBs.
Tsarnaev's lawyer told jurors that it was Tamerlan who shot and killed MIT police Officer Sean Collier three days after the bombings. Tamerlan died after a gun battle with police hours after Collier's slaying.

The Boston Herald notes that the defense also called an FBI fingerprint examiner who said that the only prints recovered from the marathon crime scene matched Tamerlan Tsarnaev, not Dzhokhar.

Closing statements have been scheduled for next Monday. If/when Tsarnaev is found guilty, a separate trial phase will determine whether he is sentenced to death or to life in prison.

March 31 2015 3:43 PM

Leftist Militants Killed After Taking Prosecutor Hostage in Istanbul Court

Update, 4:10 p.m.: Authorities say that Kiraz, the prosecutor who was taken hostage, has died.

Original post, 3:43 p.m.: Reports say that two leftist militants were killed when security forces raided an Istanbul courthouse where gunmen were holding a prosecutor—who has been “seriously wounded”—hostage. The captors had earlier released a striking photo of the prosecutor, Mehmet Selim Kiraz, with a gun to his head:

Kiraz—who was taken to a hospital for emergency surgery—has been investigating the death of a teenager, Berkin Elvan, who died at age 15 after being knocked into a coma when he was hit by a tear gas canister during anti-government protests in 2013. From the AP:

A website close to the left-wing DHKP-C group said that militants from the banned organization had taken the prosecutor hostage at midday and had given authorities three hours to meet five demands, including forcing policemen held responsible for the teenager's killing to confess to the death.
The group also demanded that the policemen be tried by "peoples' courts" and for court officials to drop prosecutions or investigations against people who took part in protests denouncing the boy's death.

The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. Authoritarian Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who was previously the country’s prime minister and is now its president—has claimed that Berkin Elvan had connections to “terrorist organizations,” though that allegation does not appear to be substantiated. (Many reports from credible outlets say Elvan was caught up in protests while trying to buy bread.)

March 31 2015 3:43 PM

What Should We Expect From Chuck Schumer as Senate Democratic Leader?

What little drama remained in the race to replace Harry Reid as the Senate’s top Democrat has all but disappeared. The New York Times reports Chuck Schumer has already locked up the support of all 42 members of the current Democratic caucus who plan to stick around for the next Congress. That group includes the man who had long been seen as Schumer’s most realistic challenger, Dick Durbin; the media’s dark-horse pick, Patty Murray; and progressive favorite Elizabeth Warren. Barring a serious surprise between now and January 2017, Schumer is now a lock to take over for Reid after the Nevadan retires at the end of this term.

So, just what can we expect when Schumer takes the reins of the Senate’s Democratic caucus? The short answer: Pretty much the same thing we got from Reid.

As my former colleague Matt Yglesias and others have already noted, Senate leaders don’t actually do a whole lot of leading, when it comes to setting their party’s policy agenda. The caucus largely decides where it wants to go, and then it’s the Senate leader’s job to plot the course to get there. By the very nature of the job, Schumer’s personal views—say on Wall Street, which he sees as his hometown industry and uses as a campaign ATM—will take a backseat to those of his party as a whole. The New Yorker will have to find middle ground between Warren and Bernie Sanders on his left, and Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp on his right—just like Reid did, and like House Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly struggled to do on the other side of the Capitol.

The good news for Democrats is that Schumer has plenty of practice doing just that.

March 31 2015 1:41 PM

Nigeria May Be Set for First Peaceful, Democratic Transfer of Power Between Parties

Former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari has defeated current President Goodluck Jonathan—whose regime has been unable to prevent the Boko Haram terrorist group from perpetrating repeated massacres and kidnappings—in Nigerian elections. If power is transferred successfully, it will mark the first democratic transition between parties in Nigeria, and the BBC reports that Jonathan has in fact called Buhari to concede defeat. From the New York Times:

With all but one of Nigeria’s 36 states counted, the former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, held a lead of more than two million votes over President Goodluck Jonathan.
The remaining state is in the north, where Mr. Buhari enjoys broad support and the government has been widely condemned for allowing the Boko Haram militant group to sweep through villages and towns, killing thousands of civilians.

Some election-related killings, attributed to Boko Haram, have been reported, but no large-scale partisan violence or vote-rigging appears to have taken place.

Nigerian forces, aided by troops from other African countries, have made some recent progress in recapturing territory held by Boko Haram militants, but the group still controls a significant area in the country’s northeast.

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