Thursday, October 16, 2008

Foreclosure on Voter Rights

The Republican party chairman in Macomb County, Michigan, probably should have considered his wording when he admitted in an interview that his organization was actively compiling a list of foreclosed homes in order to void voter registration.

According to the newspaper Michigan Messenger, Chairman James Carabelli reportedly stated, “We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses.”

The Michigan Republican party is requesting that the independent newspaper remove the story because they claim the quotes are “fabricated,” despite the reporter’s assertion that they are legitimate. Regardless of what mere words may mean, actions would indicate that whether or not Carabelli admitted to using foreclosures, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Previous Republican tactics point to a recurring pattern of a strategy called “voter caging,” aimed at denying voting rights to citizens. In the registration process, the voters originally register under their home addresses. However, after foreclosure the addresses are deemed incorrect, challenging the status of the voters as residents. The plan is aimed at weeding out voters that are not deemed “true residents.”

However, many residents remain in their homes months after foreclosure is filed, while some are able to renegotiate and remain in their own homes. It is difficult to overlook the fact that the districts that are being targeted for improper registration are often Democratic-leaning, and in the case of Macomb County, mostly African-American.

However, this is not a new tactic. In fact, the Republican party has employed it for the past 50 years, culminating in the 2004 elections, in which half a million individuals had their voting rights challenged. The first Republican attempt to target purported “voter fraud” was in 1958 in order to exploit Reconstruction-era laws and exclude African-Americans. This tactic has been enabled by Republican-controlled legislatures in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which passed legislation making it easier for volunteers to have the discretion to challenge, question and deny voting rights.

However, the spread of the myth of widespread voter fraud has caused the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold an Indiana law requiring voters to present a state-issued I.D.—something that blacks, youths and low-income individuals often do not have. A similar I.D. law in Ohio will probably cause chaos on Election Day as residents arrive with I.D.s containing the addresses of foreclosed homes.

In 1981 and 1986, Democrats sued the voter-caging campaigns in New Jersey with a court ruling in their favor. The ruling stipulated that national parties could not enact voter challenges without the approval of the court. However, the ruling opened a loophole. It did not prevent state officials from taking the same measures. Now the Obama campaign, in conjunction with the Democratic National Committee, is filing a lawsuit in the Michigan Federal Court against the Republican National Committee’s planned caging activities. The charges build upon the argument that homeowners in Michigan still have the opportunity to redeem their homes even after sales have gone through.

Under Michigan law, voters can still use their foreclosed addresses up to 60 days within the election. Even so, foreclosure notices are issued up to one year and four months before the resident is required to leave the home. The Democrats are also arguing that foreclosures pertain to ownership, not residence, which is the subject of dispute. In the meantime, the Obama campaign is requesting an injunction from the federal court to block foreclosure filings that can be used in developing cases for voter challenges.

Thus, the already tedious process of registration and voting has become more complicated, inconvenient and disrespectful for some people. For homeowners dealing with foreclosures in a failing economy, their wish to vote for a candidate to change their economic situation may even be void.

In a nation that claims the government works for the people, it does not always seem that way. Upholding the law is one thing, but taking away an inherent right to vote is another.

Patriot Act Sprouts in Sweden

While Sweden’s national television channels stream an unusual amount of terrorism-themed films and series this summer, the Swedish parliament passed a controversial anti-terrorism law—strikingly similar in character to America’s Patriot Act. The law legalizes government wire-tapping of international calls, faxes and emails without a court order. In the post-9/11 era, it is increasingly difficult to overlook the exportation of American laws, the modified concept of “democracy” and even the sanctions on civil liberties.

While most of Europe recedes from its post-World War II alliance with the United States in light of the Bush Administration’s conduct in the Iraq War and the War on Terror, Sweden, a nation famed for its consistent neutrality in most international political matters, is now adopting American policy.

The propositions of the “FRA-law” (the Swedish acronym for the Swedish National Defense Radio Establishment) have made it the most contentious topic in the Swedish media, with almost every popular media outlet expressing its discontent with the law, dually echoing the popular sentiment of the Swedish people.

As politicians gathered in parliament on June 18 for the awaited vote on the law, protestors gathered outside parliament and cities across Sweden handing out George Orwell’s book “1984.” Some protesters held up posters that read “Big Brother is watching you” and “No military in my living room,” which illustrates the common fear that Sweden will become one of the few non-dictatorships to take such serious codified steps toward curbing civil liberties in the name of security. But as the streets of Stockholm filled with the voices and posters of citizens unhappy with the prospects of what many would call a move toward a democratic police state, the law passed within the walls of the parliament building with the narrow margin of 143 to 138.

As the Swedes vehemently protest the enactment of the FRA-law, the legal implications of its ratification, the methodological details and the potential abuses of the law still remain in the shadows. The law seems to play into the concept of inter-governmental “transparency” and secret information sharing with a lack of oversight that is characteristic of the post-9/11 era. FRA General Director Ingvar Ã…kesson managed to shed some light on the situation, stopping short of calling it a democratic elite party of information sharing. He explained that information passing Sweden’s borders could be sold to other interested democracies.

However, selling such information comes at the cost of other factors, including the loss of foreign investment and domestic jobs. Others claim that such monitoring occurs in other nations without explicit laws to legalize the process and argue that the codification of such procedures would make the law clear for citizens and explicitly legal in practice. The difference then between Sweden and other wiretapping states is that the proposition of legalizing wiretapping has awakened a discussion that clearly shows a dislike for the law, as well as its implications for the Swedish economy—a discussion other nations lacked due to the absence of an open, public debate.

As one of the foremost connected nations in Europe, Sweden is a transit point for much of Finish, Russian and Norwegian Internet traffic. Because of this, the law affects a wider public than merely the Swedish people. As by nature of wiretapping “international” communication that passes through Sweden’s borders is accessed, which is an integral feature that many foreign businesses and investors find unattractive. Furthermore, while the law claims to specifically target communication that crosses Sweden’s borders in order to monitor international communication, when it comes to the Internet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between communication within Sweden and communication crossing the “borders.”

As telecommunications and Internet providers begin to withdraw from the Swedish market to protect their customers from monitoring, the remaining Swedish providers will be forced to conform to the new law. The cost burden of monitoring calls and sending information to FRA headquarters falls on telecommunications companies, a cost that competing foreign companies stationed outside of Sweden will not have to pay.

The question then becomes how far Swedes are willing to give up their personal and economic freedoms in the context of developing information sharing and security—a process that will likely have more value for other nations than for Swedish security. This is a topic that the United States has grappled with and it is an issue that challenges the very pillars of democracy—civil liberties. In America the debate over the Patriot Act is based on the Constitution, the discussion in Sweden has evolved into a foreign, domestic, economic and civil liberty dispute that involves international businesses and individuals worldwide.

Even though parliament formally made its decision, Swedish citizens remain hostile toward the imposition of the law. Yet the government, which has heretofore brushed off the foreign and domestic uproar as a mere misunderstanding of the law, will now have to face the heat of a dissatisfied, vocal nation and the very real threat of an economic communications infrastructure that faces foreign divestment.

Coulter Crushes Credibility

If conservatives had any fewer brains, they’d be brain dead. With calls for nuking Iran and killing Iraqi civilians to get the job done, Ann Coulter is not exempt. In her address to the UC Irvine community on May 22 in the Student Center, it was difficult to distinguish between criticism and vicious slander. Her constant references to Senator Barack Obama as “Barouk Hussein Obama” could not even be considered comic relief.

However, she did acknowledge that conservatives are severely lacking in the leadership area—but is this because of the lack of qualified candidates for the Republican nomination or because conservatives are less suited for the highest office in the U.S. government, as shown by our Republican president?

Now that the bitter battle between the Democratic nominees is coming to a close, it’s time for the Republicans to discredit their “soft” opponents. Coulter repeatedly hailed the current administration for preventing acts of terror through the War on Terror.

I think her credibility was lost right there. The supposed “success” of the tactics used by the current administration has come at the cost of basic human rights allotted to American citizens at the constitutional level. Furthermore, the administration has humiliated individuals held at Guantanamo Bay without formal charges and due trial, a fact that Coulter denies.

Instead, Coulter compared Guantanamo to a hotel with footbaths and toilets. When she heard of Qurans being flushed down toilets at Guantanamo, she was surprised at the luxury of Guantanamo having toilets rather than latrines.

Coulter accused liberals of adopting a “do-nothing” strategy. “Obama is now proposing he’ll sit down and have talks with Iran and Syria. First of all, we have the ability to talk to Iran. [President George W.] Bush has a telephone,” she said.

Although Coulter missed the point completely, I doubt that Senator John McCain would be able to use one at his age. Since McCain will pursue the same policy as the current administration, he may continue to deepen the problems in the Middle East by promoting unequal settlement rather than reconciliation.

Coulter then compared the terrorists in Iraq to Democrats, “The heart of the insurgency in Iraq is composed of people who hate the great Satan, who overnight in bags and are willing to travel to kill Americans. They’re like Democrats with more gumption,” she said.

Let me remind you that this insurgency is a direct result of the invasion of Iraq by a Republican administration. But the battering of Iraq is not enough for Coulter, just as Obama’s plans for communication with Iran are not the solution in her opinion.

Coulter argued we should learn from history. “We didn’t crush the Germans sufficiently the first time—that was the lesson of history. You don’t want them to like you; you want them to fear you. … Nothing produces gentle behavior like enormous physical pain,” she said.

Indeed, Germany was crushed by the First World War and the Versailles Treaty. This “crushing” made its population susceptible to the extreme ideas of the Nazi leadership.

What about the solutions for “rogue nations,” such as Iran? “If we’re going to nuke Iran first and then chit-chat, then I can applaud that,” she said. Coulter’s claim met with applause from the audience, making any sane audience member question what the rest of the public was cheering for.

This was especially true when she called the drawn-out Iraq War “a little too humanitarian,” saying that overthrowing a dictator (which was not the primary goal of the war) was worth the sacrifice of innocent lives. As she invoked her crushing-Germany analogy again, there was more applause from the audience.

While the content of Coulter’s speech indicated her misunderstanding of global problems and inability to comprehend the meaning of diplomacy, the fact that there was an assembly of individuals applauding her calls for nuclear confrontations and increased violence in the Middle East was a rude awakening—the public’s obvious misunderstanding of current American foreign policy cannot be overlooked.

Congress Reworks Drug Laws

After decades of unequal treatment under an outdated drug law, the U.S. Sentencing Committee has decreased the vast disparity between the sentencing of crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession. However, providing trial attorneys for the 20,000 crack convicts seeking shorter sentences has proven easier for some than others.

The disparity was codified into the Anti-Drug Abuse Act during the 1986 drug war hysteria. The disproportion was derived from the erroneous belief that crack cocaine was more addictive and caused more violent crime than its powder counterpart. The result was a 100-to-1 ratio in sentencing, which was only recently reduced to 20 to1.

The shorter sentences have been criticized by the White House, which claims that the retroactive releases will cause an influx of “violent criminals” onto the streets—despite the fact that a majority of those who are eligible are non-violent. The comments reflect a mistrust of the judicial system by the executive branch, perhaps stemming from the misconception that criminals are simply released from their cells without a review of their cases.

With the intention of incarcerating major drug dealers, crack cocaine is the only drug for which mere possession can amount to a mandatory minimum sentence. However, two-thirds of those incarcerated are considered low-level dealers, while less than two percent are categorized as high-level dealers.

Additionally, 82 percent of the individuals sentenced on crack cocaine charges are African-American. When the law was enacted, powder cocaine was more expensive than crack cocaine; thus, most powder cocaine users were wealthy, white individuals.

Coupled with the negation of many of the myths about crack cocaine, the stark differences in the sentencing statistics of African-American and Caucasian cocaine users may reveal a racial injustice in the sentencing system. According to a recent report sponsored by the Department of Justice, minority youth are six times more likely to be sent to jail for the same crime than their white counterparts.

U.S. District Court Judge David Carter, a UC Irvine lecturer on the legal implications of the drug trade, said, “People have started to recognize the disparity by race, and it’s a difficult thing to explain because the numbers are so disproportionately high.”

While the world attempts to remedy the sharp difference in sentence length, some of those behind bars remain uninformed about the rules.

As Judge Carter explained, “We worry that some of the defendants wouldn’t know enough to apply … [or] wouldn’t have representation,” or wouldn’t be appointed attorneys.

While the right to an attorney is incontestable, some federal judges, who are the only authorities for granting attorneys, are arguing that the retrials should be straightforward. Therefore, some consider the appointment of an attorney to be costly and unnecessary.

The introduction of an attorney can quickly become a high-stakes undertaking, which some judges see as superfluous. However, for poor convicts with little legal education, this decision is a set-back that pits the litigants against skilled prosecutors with long, detailed briefs and a superior knowledge of legal reasoning and procedure.

“I believe that each defendant is entitled to an attorney, but I can’t speak for somebody down in the Fifth Circuit. … I know that [California’s Central District] is taking a very strong position and making sure each one of them is represented,” Judge Carter said.

While the rules have changed to reduce what many interpret as an injustice, the application of the law is now in question. While the legislature stands on the side of the incarcerated abusers of crack cocaine, the responsibility for ensuring that the reduced sentencing is offered equally rests in the hands of the judges.

Despite the fact that the right to an attorney and the right to a fair trial are constitutional, the government’s right to be represented by a counsel as an impartial mediator of justice should be equal to an individual’s right to receive one.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Uzbekistan Uses Location as Leverage

"Saying everything is O.K. in Uzbekistan is like saying it's peaceful in Baghdad," said Vasila Innoyatova, a human rights worker in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is attempting to cover for gunning down its own citizens exactly three years ago. The government is now allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to survey its prisons, and has also released human rights advocates that were previously locked up. Changes also involve revisions of the judicial system; this includes eliminating the death penalty and including habeas corpus. Yet there is still denial of rights, the use of torture, and repression of government dissenters.

But western governments are arguing that Uzbekistan may have the political upper hand. When Washington harshly criticized the nation, the country immediately removed the United States from the military base, which was strategic in terms of the war in Afghanistan. Now, the Uzbeks are allowing limited access to a German base at Termez and NATO is allowed to use a railroad for endeavors in Afghanistan. But possible sanctions from the US are now threatening the agreements. The nation is essentially challenging the influence of the Washington, which feels threatened by the leniency of the West in dealing with Uzbekistan, particularly because of its strategic location. But other problems come up—can the US exercise jurisdiction when many of the offenses that Uzbekistan has been criticized for (indefinite detentions, torture, etc), and what the end result will be of sanctions given Uzbekistan’s ability to close of Western powers from strategic locations near Afghanistan. Wisest would be to use another European power to negotiate with Uzbekistan and intervene, rather than the over-stretched American hegemony with it's tarnished reputation.

Grandpa Wen is Hip

Facebook is now home to a figure nicknamed “Granpa Wen,” the Chinese Premier who has become the symbol of grief and relief as he has traveled to many disaster sights after China’s earthquake on May 12th left so many dead and displaced.

Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Council Press Office both claim they were unaware of the creation of Wen Jiabao’s page, which now has 14,000 supporters after only two weeks, in contrast to President Bush’s 11,700 and Senator Obama’s whopping 862,000 supporters.

Despite the usual appearance of Wen as being cold and distant, his appearance at the Sichuan province, which was severely affected by the earthquake, a rail road station that was disrupted after a storm in January leaving , among other places, has gained the leader a place in the hearts of the Chinese as well as his own facebook site—a tribute to his popularity among younger generations.

SG Ban Acknowledges Myanmar's "Cooperation"

It was with the main goal of speeding up humanitarian relief in Myanmar that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Myanmar’s junta leaders. Myanmar’s corruption on various levels escaped critique; discussions of the detainment of a pro-democracy leader, improper voting procedures during the latest election, and human rights abuses were not mentioned. This was a bargaining tactic that the Secretary General was ready to play as he ultimately concluded the talks with dozens of visas for UN relief workers.

It was with the with the two to three million displaced and now homeless individuals in Myanmar that Ban had in mind when he avoided talks on politics that he felt would only make the leader of Myanmar unwilling to communicate or accept aid. While some believe that this was an opportunity to put pressure on the government, others say it was a smart more. The Secretary General also left before the second round of voting on a constituional referendum that would give the military junta further control over he government and its people in order to avoid the image that he was in any way supportive. Although Ban expressed his disappointment at not being able to address other problems, he did ackowledge the “new spirit of cooperation.” It is indeed a rare showing of what is now considered “cooperation,” with at least some humanitarian aid trickling in. In my own opinion, it is absolutely necessary to cater to the needs of people, especially in such a dire situation. The government has been a source of problems for years, but it's time for the international community to be committed to the "now" when the people of Myanmar continue to suffer.