Iraq cannot recover funds stolen by US firms

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original article

US firms suspected of bilking Iraq funds

Millions missing from program for rebuilding

By Farah Stockman, Boston Globe Staff | April 16, 2006

WASHINGTON — American contractors swindled hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraqi funds, but so far there is no way for Iraq’s government to recoup the money, according to US investigators and civil attorneys tracking fraud claims against contractors.

Courts in the United States are beginning to force contractors to repay reconstruction funds stolen from the American government. But legal roadblocks have prevented Iraq from recovering funds that were seized from the Iraqi government by the US-led coalition and then paid to contractors who failed to do the work.

A US law that allows citizens to recover money from dishonest contractors protects only the US government, not foreign governments.

In addition, an Iraqi law created by the Coalition Provisional Authority days before it ceded sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004 gives American contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraq.

”In effect, it makes Iraq into a ‘free-fraud zone,’ ” said Alan Grayson, a Virginia attorney who is suing the private security firm Custer Battles in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by former employees. A federal jury last month found the Rhode Island-based company liable for $3 million in fraudulent billings in Iraq.

Even the United Nations panel set up to monitor the use of Iraq’s seized assets has no power to prosecute wrongdoers.

”The Iraqi people are out of luck, the way it stands right now,” said Patrick Burns, spokesman for Taxpayers Against Fraud, a watchdog group that helps US citizens file cases such as the Custer Battles action.

Iraqi leaders, paralyzed by political deadlock in forming a new government, have so far made no formal complaint about funds that were paid out to dishonest contractors. But US officials say the need for Iraq to recoup the stolen money has become more urgent as it faces a budget shortfall of billions of dollars.

The problem has become so acute that an interagency working group, which includes officials from the State Department and the Department of Justice, has been set up to try to come up with a mechanism to return the funds, according to two US officials who are involved.

The issue dates to the earliest days after the March 2003 invasion, when US officials thought Iraqi money would cover the costs of reconstruction. As the Coalition Provisional Authority took control just after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it seized Iraq’s oil revenues, money found in bank accounts and in Hussein’s palaces, and the balance from the UN’s oil-for-food program.

The coalition ultimately controlled more than $20.7 billion in Iraqi funds. The money was deposited into an account called the Development Fund for Iraq, or DFI, which was set up, in the words of the US administrator at the time, L. Paul Bremer III, ”for the benefit of the Iraqi people.”

The fund represented the first cash reservoir US officials turned to as they worked to rebuild roads, bridges, and clinics. It carried fewer restrictions than the $18.4 billion in US funds appropriated around that time for reconstruction because those funds could only be used in ways designated by Congress.

But the Coalition Provisional Authority lacked basic controls and accounting procedures to keep track of the billions in Iraqi money it was doling out to contractors, according to a series of audits issued in 2005 and 2006 by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a temporary office set up by Congress to oversee the use of reconstruction funds. One review of the files relating to 198 separate contracts found that 154 contained no evidence that goods or services promised by contractors were ever received, according to an April 2005 audit by the inspector general.

In some cases, contractors were paid twice for the same job. In others cases, they were paid for work that was never done.

In June 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority handed power and control of the DFI back to an Iraqi government. By then, the coalition had spent or disbursed about $14 billion of the Iraqi fund on reconstruction projects and on the administration of the government, according to the audits.

Among the contracts paid for out of the Iraqi fund was Halliburton’s controversial no-bid contract to restore Iraq’s oil infrastructure, worth $2.4 billion. The Pentagon’s auditors found $263 million in excessive or unsubstantiated costs for importing gasoline into Iraq, but the Pentagon said in February that it had agreed to pay a Halliburton subsidiary all but $10 million of the contested charges.

The special inspector general’s investigations have resulted in the arrests of five suspects on criminal charges and is investigating 60 more cases involving alleged fraud and corruption in Iraq involving both US and DFI funds, according to James Mitchell, a spokesman for the inspector general.

In addition, at least seven more cases against contractors have been filed in US civil courts under the federal False Claims Act, according to two private lawyers who have personal knowledge of the suits. The act, which dates to the Civil War, allows citizens to sue on behalf of the government when they suspect fraud in federal contracting. The cases are currently under seal until the Justice Department investigates them to determine whether the government will join the suit.

The cases eventually could help the US Treasury recover hundreds of millions of dollars from corrupt contractors, according to Grayson, the attorney suing Custer Battles, the first such case to reach the courts and become public.

But the False Claims Act has not helped Iraq. Last month, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that it only protects the US government from fraud and that the United States suffered no direct economic loss from fraud involving Iraqi funds.

The result is a victory for American taxpayers, but a loss for Baghdad: In the first phase of the fraud claim involving Custer Battles, the jury ruled in March that the company should pay triple damages to the US Treasury for the $3 million it was paid for delivering a fleet of trucks that didn’t work and old, spray-painted Iraqi cranes that were passed off as new imports. But the company, which has denied the charges in court and in other statements, does not have to repay any of the $12 million that came from the Development Fund for Iraq on the same contract, according to the judge’s ruling.

Grayson said the injustice surrounding wasted Iraqi funds has helped fuel the insurgency.

”The DFI was essentially treated as a ‘slush fund’ for various quasi-military projects, run by US contractors over whom Iraqis had no control,” he said. ”Like a colonial power, the Bush administration took Iraq’s oil money, and wasted it. The Iraqis well know that. That’s one reason why they’re shooting at US soldiers.”

Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, has urged the administration to repay Iraq for the money paid to Custer Battles. ”This was Iraqi money, and it should be returned to the Iraqi people,” he said in a statement.

The Justice Department, which is pursuing criminal cases against contractors, says there is a chance that Iraq eventually could receive some restitution.

In February, Robert J. Stein Jr., a North Carolina man who issued contracts on behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority, pleaded guilty to conspiring with at least three others to steal more than $2 million from the Iraqi fund. The money, earmarked for refurbishing a police academy and library in the town of Hillah, was spent on expensive cars, machine guns, jewelry; hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash was also smuggled into the United States.
As part of a plea deal, Stein has agreed to pay $3.6 million in restitution, but Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said it is too early to say whether Iraq will receive the money as part of that deal.

”It is possible that some of the money could go back to the Development Fund for Iraq,” he said. ”But that hasn’t been determined yet.”

Hilary and Corning helping each other

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http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/12/nyregion/12hillary.html?ex=1145073600&en=836ef17248cda6e2&ei=5087%0A

Company Finds Clinton Useful, and Vice Versa

New York Times

By MIKE McINTIRE and RAYMOND HERNANDEZ
Published: April 12, 2006
Corning Inc., one of upstate New York’s largest and oldest employers, has supported Republican candidates for so long that its chairman once joked that it had not raised money for a Democrat since 1812.


Jason Cox/The Leader
Corning Inc.’s chairman, James Houghton, and Senator Clinton in 2005 at the company’s headquarters. [Houghton is a member of the ExxonMobil board of directors. ExxonMobil and Corning are being boycotted under the ExxonMobil War Boycott.]

A Speech on the Economy, for 2006 or 2008? (April 12, 2006)
But since Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000, Corning and its mainly Republican executives have become one of her largest sources of campaign contributions. And in that time, Mrs. Clinton has become one of the company’s leading champions, delivering for it like no other Democratic lawmaker.

In April 2003, a month after Corning’s political action committee gave $10,000 to her re-election campaign, Mrs. Clinton announced legislation that would provide hundreds of millions in federal aid to reduce diesel pollution, using, among other things, technology pioneered by Corning. It was one of several Congressional initiatives Mrs. Clinton has pushed that benefit the company.

And in April 2004, Mrs. Clinton began a push to persuade the Chinese government to relax tariffs on Corning fiber optics products, inviting the Chinese ambassador to her office and personally asking President Bush for help in the matter. One month after the beginning of that ultimately successful effort, Corning’s chairman, James Houghton, held a fund-raiser at his home that collected tens of thousands of dollars for her re-election campaign.

It is part of a senator’s job description to help a major employer in his or her home state, and it is not unusual for that employer to encourage that help or to reciprocate with campaign contributions. In Mrs. Clinton’s case, her alliance with Corning provides a window into how she has used her singular clout as a former first lady on behalf of new constituents in her adopted home state, and how those efforts in turn have helped her to bolster her already powerful fund-raising machine and win over previously skeptical New Yorkers.

Indeed, her work on behalf of Corning began even before company officials had made a single contribution to her as a senator.

“She’s there when you need her,” said Amo Houghton, a former Republican congressman and the brother of Corning’s chairman.

Mrs. Clinton, who is running for re-election this year, has been cultivating leaders in upstate communities like Corning, in central New York, hoping to exceed her 2000 results, including those in Republican strongholds, to demonstrate that she has appeal beyond her traditional base, Democrats and her associates say.

Corning has proved doubly helpful on that front. The company and its employees contributed $137,000 from the time she was elected in 2000 through the end of 2005. Although it was a small portion of the $33 million the senator raised for her re-election during that time, it was the most from any single source other than MetLife — more even than politically active Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs. In addition, Corning twice paid for her to travel upstate to be briefed on issues important to the company and the region.

Beyond financial support, Corning has also defended Mrs. Clinton against upstate critics. When, for instance, The Buffalo News suggested in 2003 that she was failing to win over local leaders, Corning’s vice chairman, James B. Flaws, sent a letter to the paper listing ways she had helped the company and its region.

“She has delivered and continues to deliver for us,” Mr. Flaws wrote.

The Clinton-Corning alliance is so new and unexpected that John W. Loose, who retired as Corning’s chief executive in 2002, after 38 years, reacted in disbelief when told of the company’s contributions to her campaign after he left.

“No kidding?” said Mr. Loose, who raised money for Mrs. Clinton’s Republican opponent, Rick Lazio, in 2000. “I’m really surprised to hear that. Very surprised. A lot of the executives there were Republicans. There were only a handful of Democrats.”

Corning’s support of Mrs. Clinton stands in contrast to its less enthusiastic backing of other Democrats, including New York’s senior senator, Charles E. Schumer. While contributing $51,000 to Mrs. Clinton in 2004, Corning employees gave $5,000 to Mr. Schumer that year — even though he was running and she was not. And its political action committee gave $10,000 to Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic predecessor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, during the 1990’s.

Like her husband, Mrs. Clinton has been closely scrutinized for her aggressive fund-raising. Her spokesman said that she takes pride in helping a company that is a major employer upstate. “A relationship that began with glass is now a bond as strong as steel,” said the spokesman, Philippe Reines, referring to Corning’s origins as a glass maker.

“Corning, in upstate New York, whom I’m privileged to represent, has come through tough times and thrived,” Mrs. Clinton said in remarks last summer at the Aspen Institute, discussing the challenges American manufacturers face.


Graphic: Corning’s Contributions to Sen. Clinton

Corning, a Fortune 500 company, has 26,000 employees worldwide, and its major presence upstate is one of the bright spots of an economically battered region. The company makes glassware and ceramics used in fiber optics, diesel emission controls and liquid crystal displays.

Its contributions to Mrs. Clinton often tracked her support for the company, records show. Their mutual support started small, but grew in significance, and dollars, over time.

In early 2002, at the company’s urging, Mrs. Clinton helped secure $5 million for a program that would provide federal grants to help school districts overhaul diesel-powered school buses by using a kind of ceramic-filter technology that Corning was beginning to market.

During the 2000 Senate campaign, Corning’s political action committee gave $3,000 to Mrs. Clinton, compared with $9,000 for Mr. Lazio, the Republican. But in March 2003, the company gave $10,000 to Mrs. Clinton. A month later, she announced a measure that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in additional federal money to reduce school bus diesel emissions.

In another initiative, Mrs. Clinton played a key role in persuading Congress to provide millions to state and local governments to upgrade other kinds of diesel-powered vehicles, said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit environmental group that lobbied for the legislation along with Corning and other companies.

“She was really using shoe leather, making member contact, convening meetings and that sort of thing,” Mr. Schneider said.

But it was Mrs. Clinton’s work on the Chinese tariff dispute that helps explain why Corning might have sought her assistance to begin with. Though a junior senator, Mrs. Clinton apparently used her status as former first lady and high-profile senator not only to intercede with Chinese officials, but also to prod President Bush himself to help the company.

The dispute began in early 2004 when the Chinese Commerce Ministry announced a preliminary decision to impose a 16 percent duty on Corning fiber optics products, saying Corning had deliberately undercut Chinese manufacturers.

Corning appealed to Mrs. Clinton for help, and in April 2004 she reached out to the Chinese minister of trade when he visited Washington. In a strongly worded letter, Mrs. Clinton asserted that the issue was “of great importance to me,” that she held Corning in “high esteem” and that she considered the accusations against the company “unfair,” according to a copy of the letter.

That month and the next, Corning executives contributed $46,000 to her campaign committee, campaign finance records show.

Next, Mrs. Clinton invited the Chinese ambassador to her Capitol Hill office, where she again stressed the issue’s significance to her, said a person with direct knowledge of the exchange, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the private nature of the conversation. The ambassador agreed to take that message to his superiors in Beijing, the person said.

Finally, in November, Mrs. Clinton pulled President Bush aside during the opening of her husband’s presidential library in Arkansas to press Corning’s case. “She explained the issue and she asked the president to be personally involved,” the person said.

Mr. Bush told her he would look into the matter, aides to Mrs. Clinton said. The United States trade representative’s office and the Department of Commerce also pressed the Chinese to lift the tariff. By December, the Chinese government had reversed its decision and lifted the duty. Corning officials credited Mrs. Clinton’s work with making a difference.

“Her ability to reach out in Washington and outside Washington — I mean, she’s the former first lady of the United States,” said Timothy J. Regan, the senior vice president of worldwide government affairs at Corning. “No question that her involvement helped move things.”

It is difficult to assess how much Mrs. Clinton influenced the Chinese. Corning took other steps to press its complaint, including hiring Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, an influential Washington lobbying firm, which assigned a former undersecretary of commerce to the case.

A lawyer in China who represented Corning before the Chinese Commerce Ministry, John Yong Ren, declined to comment.

Former President Bill Clinton has made several visits to China since leaving office, taking part in AIDS symposiums and giving paid speeches to Chinese businesses. But Senator Clinton’s aides said her husband was not involved in the Corning matter.

What is indisputable is that China’s decision to rescind the tariff came at a critical juncture for Corning, company officials said. The collapse of the telecommunications boom of the 1990’s caused Corning’s revenue to drop to $3 billion in 2003, from $6.9 billion in 2000, heightening its need for new markets for its pollution control technology and fiber optics products.

That explains why the company has become one of Mrs. Clinton’s biggest supporters, Mr. Regan said.

“When you are down and somebody gives you a hand,” he said, “you have to remember that.”

Ilan Pappe on the Israeli election and the ‘demographic problem’

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http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n08/print/papp01_.html

London Review of Books
April 7, 2006

Ingathering

Ilan Pappe on the Israeli election and the ‘demographic problem’

From left to right, the manifestos of all the Zionist parties during the recent Israeli election campaign contained policies which they claimed would counter the ‘demographic problem’ posed by the Palestinian presence in Israel. Ariel Sharon proposed the pull-out from Gaza as the best solution to it; the leaders of the Labour Party endorsed the wall because they believed it was the best way of limiting the number of Palestinians inside Israel. Extra-parliamentary groups, too, such as the Geneva Accord movement, Peace Now, the Council for Peace and Security, Ami Ayalon’s Census group and the Mizrachi Democratic Rainbow all claim to know how to tackle it.

Apart from the ten members of the Palestinian parties and two eccentric Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews, all the members of the new Knesset (there are 120 in all) arrived promising that their magic formulae would solve the ‘demographic problem’. The means varied from reducing Israeli control over the Occupied Territories – in fact, the plans put forward by Labour, Kadima, Shas (the Sephardic Orthodox party) and Gil (the pensioners’ party) would involve Israeli withdrawal from only 50 per cent of these territories – to more drastic action. Right-wing parties such as Yisrael Beytenu, the Russian ethnic party of Avigdor Liberman, and the religious parties argued for a voluntary transfer of Palestinians to the West Bank. In short, the Zionist answer is to reduce the problem either by giving up territory or by shrinking the ‘problematic’ population group.

None of this is new. The population problem was identified as the major obstacle in the way of Zionist fulfilment in the late 19th century, and David Ben-Gurion said in December 1947 that ‘there can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 per cent.’ Israel, he warned on the same occasion, would have to deal with this ‘severe’ problem with ‘a new approach’. The following year, ethnic cleansing meant that the number of Palestinians dropped below 20 per cent of the Jewish state’s overall population (in the area allocated to Israel by the UN plus the area it occupied in 1948, the Palestinians would originally have made up around 60 per cent of the population). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, in December 2003 Binyamin Netanyahu recycled Ben-Gurion’s magic number – the undesirable 60 per cent. ‘If the Arabs in Israel form 40 per cent of the population,’ Netanyahu said, ‘this is the end of the Jewish state.’ ‘But 20 per cent is also a problem,’ he added. ‘If the relationship with these 20 per cent is problematic, the state is entitled to employ extreme measures.’ He did not elaborate.

Israel boosted its population with two massive Jewish immigrations, each of about a million people, in 1949 and in the 1980s. This kept the Palestinian proportion of the population down and today Palestinians account for nearly 20 per cent of the population of Israel (not counting the Occupied Territories). Ehud Olmert, the leader of Kadima and acting prime minister, thinks that if Israel stays in the Occupied Territories and its inhabitants are included in the Israeli population, Palestinians will outnumber Jews within 15 years. So he advocates hitkansut – meaning ‘convergence’ or, better, ‘ingathering’ – a policy that would leave several populous Palestinian areas outside direct Israeli control. But even if this consolidation takes place, there will still be a very large Palestinian population inside the 88 per cent of Palestine in which Olmert hopes to build the future, stable Jewish state. How large exactly we don’t know: demographers in Israel belonging to the centre or the left provide a low estimate, which makes disengagement seem a reasonable solution, while those on the right tend to exaggerate the figure. But they all seem to agree that the demographic balance will not stay the same, given the higher birth-rate of Palestinians compared to Jews. Thus Olmert may well come to the conclusion that pull-outs are not the solution.

Once the ‘Arabs’ in Israel and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories came to be thought of in the West as ‘Muslims’ it was easy to elicit support for Israel’s demographic policies, at least where it counted: on Capitol Hill. But even in Europe there was no need, after 9/11, to explain why Israel has a ‘demographic problem’. On 2 February 2003 the popular daily Maariv carried a typical headline: ‘A quarter of the children in Israel are Muslims.’ The piece went on to describe this fact as Israel’s next ‘ticking bomb’. The increase in the ‘Muslim’ population – 2.4 per cent a year – was not a problem anymore, but a ‘danger’.

In the run-up to the election, pundits discussed this question using language akin to that employed in Europe and the United States in debates over immigration. Here, however, it is the immigrant community that decides the future of the indigenous population, not vice versa. On 7 February 1948, after driving to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and seeing the first villages that had been emptied of Palestinians on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, a jubilant Ben-Gurion reported to a gathering of Zionist leaders: ‘When I come nowadays to Jerusalem I feel it is a Hebrew city. This was a feeling I only had in farms and in Tel Aviv. Not all Jerusalem is Hebraic but there is already a huge Hebraic bloc – no Arabs in it. One hundred per cent Jewish. If we can persevere,’ Ben-Gurion added, this miracle will happen elsewhere.

But despite their perseverance, a sizable community of Palestinians remained. They are students at my university, where they attend lectures by professors who talk about the grave demographic problem. Palestinian law students – the lucky ones who constitute an informal quota – in the Hebrew University may well come across Ruth Gabison, a former head of the Association for Civil Rights and a candidate for the Supreme Court, who has come out recently with strong views on the subject, views that probably seem to her to reflect a consensus. ‘Israel has the right to control Palestinian natural growth,’ she has declared.

Away from the campuses, these students can’t escape the knowledge that they are seen as a problem. Whether from the Zionist left or the hard right, they hear daily that Jewish society is longing to get rid of them. And they will worry, and rightly so, whenever they hear they have become a ‘danger’. While still only a problem they are protected by a certain pretence to democracy and liberalism. Once they constitute a danger, however, they could be faced with emergency policies based on the British Mandate’s emergency regulations. Houses could be demolished, newspapers shut down and people expelled under such a regime.

The 2006 elections have brought to the Knesset a solid coalition determined to deal with the demographic problem: first and foremost, by disengaging from more of the West Bank; and second, by completing the network of walls around the rest of the Palestinian areas. The border between Israel and the West Bank is 370 kilometres long, but the serpentine wall will be double that length, and will strangle large Palestinian communities. In the Palestinian areas within Israel, segregation is ensured by construction programmes approved when Sharon was minister of national infrastructures: Jewish settlements overlook and encircle large Palestinian areas such as Wadi Ara and Lower Galilee.

On 31 July 2003, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting Palestinians from obtaining citizenship, permanent residency or even temporary residency when they marry Israeli citizens. The initiator of the legislation was a liberal Zionist, Avraham Poraz of the centrist party Shinui. He described it as a ‘defence measure’. Only 25 members of the Knesset opposed it and Poraz declared that those already married and with families ‘will have to go to the West Bank’, regardless of how long they had been living in Israel.

The Arab members of the Knesset were among those who appealed to the Supreme Court against this racist law. When the Supreme Court turned down the appeal, their energy petered out. The Arab members come from three parties: the Communist Party (Hadash), the National Party of Azmi Bishara (Balad) and the United Arab List drawn up by the more pragmatic branch of the Islamic movement. The Supreme Court ruling made clear their irrelevance, in the eyes of both the parliamentary and judicial systems. We’re always told that Palestinians should be pleased to live in the only democracy in the region, to have the right to vote, but that vote brings no power.

In the dead of night on 24 January this year, an elite unit of the border police seized the Israeli Palestinian village of Jaljulya. The troops burst into houses, dragging out 36 women and eventually deporting eight of them. The women were ordered to go to their old homes in the West Bank. Some had been married for years to Palestinians in Jaljulya, some were pregnant, many had children, but the soldiers were demonstrating to the Israeli public that when a demographic problem becomes a danger, the state will act swiftly and without hesitation. One Palestinian member of the Knesset protested, but the action was backed by the government, the courts and the media.

The ten members of the new Knesset from Palestinian parties will not be included in any coalition and will probably be sidelined and forgotten, as they were in the previous parliament (there are two other Arab members and two Druze members from Labour and Kadima). Haaretz sent a journalist to live for a few days in the ‘Arab areas’ in order to write – as an anthropological tourist – on the Palestinians’ reaction to the elections. Apart from this piece of reportage, the Israeli media had nothing to say about how the Palestinians voted. After all, they are the problem, not the solution. And if disengagement doesn’t ‘stop’ the growth in their numbers the Jaljulya operation could show the future.

No wonder many Palestinians now want the international community to intervene. But Israel ignored the ruling of the international court on the wall, and is unlikely to be moved by what it will see as interference in its internal affairs. There is another call coming, still hesitant, although it will grow in volume: a call for the creation of an autonomous parliament for the Palestinians in Israel. In a world that has marginalised this community twice over – both in the overall Palestinian polity and within Jewish society – the 1,300,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel have very little to lose by shunning the Knesset and opting for autonomy. Who knows, they may even convince the Jewish majority that they are ‘only’ a problem, not a danger.

7 April

Bush’s Bad Leak

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http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/16/opinion/16sun1.html

A Bad Leak

NY Times editorial

Published: April 16, 2006

President Bush says he declassified portions of the prewar intelligence assessment on Iraq because he “wanted people to see the truth” about Iraq’s weapons programs and to understand why he kept accusing Saddam Hussein of stockpiling weapons that turned out not to exist. This would be a noble sentiment if it actually bore any relationship to Mr. Bush’s actions in this case, or his overall record.

Mr. Bush did not declassify the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq — in any accepted sense of that word — when he authorized I. Lewis Libby Jr., through Vice President Dick Cheney, to talk about it with reporters. He permitted a leak of cherry-picked portions of the report. The declassification came later.

And this president has never shown the slightest interest in disclosure, except when it suits his political purposes. He has run one of the most secretive administrations in American history, consistently withholding information and vital documents not just from the public, but also from Congress. Just the other day, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the House Judiciary Committee that the names of the lawyers who reviewed Mr. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program were a state secret.

Obviously, we do not object to government officials talking to reporters about important matters that their bosses do not want discussed. It would be impossible to cover any administration, especially one so secretive as this, unless that happened. (Judith Miller, who then worked for The Times, was one of the reporters Mr. Libby chose for this leak, although she never wrote about it.) But the version of the facts that Mr. Libby was authorized to divulge was so distorted that it seems more like disinformation than any sincere attempt to inform the public.

This fits the pattern of Mr. Bush’s original sales pitch on the Iraq war — hyping the intelligence that bolstered his case and suppressing the intelligence that undercut it. In this case, Mr. Libby was authorized to talk about claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa and not more reliable evidence to the contrary.

About a month before, Mr. Bush rushed to announce that American forces had found evidence of a biological weapons program in Iraq — trailers that could have been used to make doomsday devices. We now know, from a report in The Washington Post, that a Pentagon team actually on the ground in Iraq inspecting the trailers had concluded two days earlier that they were nothing of the kind.

The White House says Mr. Bush was not aware of that report, and was relying on an assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. This is hardly the first time we’ve been told that intelligence reports contradicting administration doctrine somehow did not make it to Mr. Bush’s desk. But it does not explain why he and Mr. Cheney went on talking about the trailers for weeks, during which the State Department’s intelligence division — about the only agency that got it right about Iraq — debunked the mobile-labs theory.

Of course, the inaccurate report saying that the trailers were bioweapons labs was made public, immediately, while the accurate one was kept secret until a reporter found out about it.

Since Mr. Bush regularly denounces leakers, the White House has made much of the notion that he did not leak classified information, he declassified it. This explanation strains credulity. Even a president cannot wave a wand and announce that an intelligence report is declassified.

To declassify an intelligence document, officials have to decide whether disclosing the information would jeopardize the sources that provided it or the methods used to gather it. To answer that question, they closely study the origins of the intelligence to be disclosed. Had Mr. Bush done that, he should have seen that the most credible information made it clear that the Niger story was wrong. (In any case, Iraq’s supposed attempt to buy uranium from Niger happened four years before the invasion, and failed. The idea that this amounted to a current, aggressive and continuing campaign to build nuclear weapons in 2002 — as Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney called it — is laughable.)

This messy episode leaves more questions than answers, so it is imperative that two things happen soon. First, the federal prosecutor in the Libby case should release the transcripts of what Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney said when he questioned them. And the Senate Intelligence Committee must report publicly on how Mr. Bush and his team used the flawed intelligence on Iraq. Senator Pat Roberts, the committee chairman, says the panel will meet this month to discuss three of the report’s five sections. That’s a step. And it has taken only two years to get this far

Refiners Enjoying Bigger Profits

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http://www.latimes.com/business/printedition/la-fi-gas15apr15,1,3594419.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

Refiners Enjoying Bigger Profits

Estimates show earnings at the state’s gasoline producers have doubled since January while average pump prices creep toward $3 a gallon.

By Elizabeth Douglass and Tanya Caldwell, LA Times Staff Writers

April 15, 2006

As more Californians face $3-a-gallon gasoline, state refiners are making twice as much money as they did at the beginning of the year, state figures show.

Amid growing worries about summertime fuel supplies, California’s average price for self-serve regular hit $2.91 a gallon Friday and could surpass $3 in the next few weeks, AAA said. Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo already are posting averages above $3 a gallon, the automobile group said.

But don’t blame crude oil. From early January to April 10, the cost of the oil most popular with California refiners rose 16 cents a gallon, while retail pump prices jumped 60 cents, according to the California Energy Commission. As a result, refinery gross profits have doubled in that time.

It should come as no surprise that refiners are making lots of money; after all, Exxon Mobil Corp. posted more profit in 2005 than any corporation in history. The trend, it appears, is continuing.

“Refiners are probably making as much in April as they made in entire second quarters in the past,” said Tom Kloza, chief analyst at the Oil Price Information Service. Fear about summer fuel shortages have driven up prices across the country, he said, and refiners “are absolutely the beneficiaries.”

Joseph Sparano, president of the trade group Western States Petroleum Assn., insisted that rising crude oil prices were the primary culprit behind rising gasoline prices in California and elsewhere.

Some consumers aren’t convinced.

“I think they’re just taking our money,” said Talethia Moore, who put $20 worth of gas in her red Chevy Cobalt at a Chevron station in South Los Angeles on Friday. “People have to work hard for a living and they’re making billions and billions of dollars…. No excuse makes sense to me.”

Crude oil costs account for at least half of the pump price. On Thursday, the U.S. benchmark grade rose 70 cents to $69.32 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, which was closed for Good Friday. The highest closing price was $69.81 a barrel, reached Aug. 30.

“In a short period of time, it’s market factors, not business practices, that are responsible for the changes we see in the price of gasoline,” Sparano said.

Representatives from BP and Chevron Corp., California’s two largest fuel retailers, did not return calls for comment Friday.

Figuring out profits from California operations can be tricky because the refiners don’t reveal them.

The California Energy Commission approximates local refinery profits by taking the average retail price for gasoline sold under major brand names and subtracting the cost of the Alaskan North Slope oil used by refiners, as well as taxes and distribution and marketing costs. The resulting gross profit margin includes some other underlying expenses. Still, it is considered by many energy experts to be a good indicator of how much refiners are earning because such costs don’t change significantly over short periods.

On Jan. 2, the refinery profit margin was 30 cents a gallon, according to the energy commission. On April 10, the most recent figure available, the margin rose to 63 cents a gallon.

California’s current fuel stockpile is only slightly below year-ago levels, and recent production at the state’s refineries has not been interrupted by unplanned shutdowns, the commission’s weekly reports show.

“These numbers prove it’s not the rising cost of crude that’s driving the price at the pump, it’s the opportunism of the oil companies to seize on any change in market conditions to push up the retail prices disproportionally,” said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica group critical of the oil industry.

“This is what happens when you have a free market where oil companies are free to charge whatever they want regardless of what their costs are,” Court said.

John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, said the California commission’s method for measuring profit margin was flawed. Several expenses that are not subtracted from that figure have increased recently, including the cost of buying ethanol and other chemical additives used to produce gasoline, he said.

“It’s clear there may be some cost issues and so on that don’t appear in these so-called simple calculations,” Felmy said.

A clearer profit picture will emerge the week of April 24, when most oil companies report their earnings, he said.

In addition to the higher cost of crude oil, several factors are pushing up gasoline prices, Felmy said. Some large refineries in the Gulf Coast have yet to return to full fuel production, and others were forced to undergo lengthy annual tune-ups because of disruptions caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year.

In addition, large East Coast cities are making an unexpectedly abrupt change to gasoline blends that use ethanol in place of the additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether. The shift has energy futures traders worried about temporary fuel shortages as refiners work to secure enough ethanol and get it to the right markets in time for the summer driving season, which begins Memorial Day.

Ethanol advocates have said their industry will respond to the refiners’ needs, and that they are not to blame for high gas prices. What’s more, California has been using ethanol in its gasoline for two years, and should see little or no ethanol-related problems, oil analyst Kloza said.

That may be little comfort to drivers like Renee Miller, who on Friday paid $2.93 a gallon for gas at a South Los Angeles Arco.

Miller, a Norwalk resident, said she was filling her Nissan Xterra while out on business, helping her hearing-impaired clients find jobs. Miller’s employer reimburses her a set amount for work mileage, “but now that the prices are so high, I’m actually losing money,” she said.

Such costs take a toll, Miller said, because “I’m a single mom and I’m getting married in two months, so I’ve got to watch my money.”

Gasoline demand might dip in reaction to high prices, Kloza said. “The annoyance threshold is going to be exceeded in the next few weeks.”

US business ban on Hamas-led PA

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http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4910860.stm

US business ban on Hamas-led PA

Ismail Haniya’s administration was sworn in last month

The United States has banned its nationals from doing business with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, a Treasury spokesperson says.

The Treasury ruled this week that the militant Islamist group has a vested interest in the transactions of the Palestinian Authority.

That decision made the PA automatically subject to existing US bans on doing business with “terrorist entities”.

The US and EU cut off aid to the PA after Hamas took power on 30 March.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said on Friday the cut in aid would not weaken the Palestinian people’s resolve.

“We will eat salt, but we will not bow our heads for anybody other than God, because we are faithful to the rights of our people and our nation. We will not betray it,” he said.

Mr Haniya was addressing worshippers in Gaza before the start of a series of rallies aimed at demonstrating support for the Hamas-led administration.

Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza rallied in support of their new government.

Exceptions

The US and EU consider Hamas a terrorist group.

“Hamas is a designated terrorist group” under three different sets of regulations, Molly Millerwise of the US Treasury Department said.

“As a result, US persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions with the PA unless authorised by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.”

The US is making exceptions for government entities under the direct control of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate whose Fatah movement is a rival of Hamas.

The ban also does not forbid Americans from doing business with non-governmental organisations or private sector banks, among other exceptions.

Bombing threat

Also on Friday, another Hamas leader warned that if the party’s government was broken by its enemies, Hamas would go back on the offensive.

Younes al-Aftal, a Hamas MP, said there would be Hamas suicide bombings again in the heart of Israel.

This is the first time a prominent Hamas leader has talked in these terms since the Hamas-led Palestinian cabinet was sworn in two weeks ago.

Hamas has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings in Israel since the start of the second intifada in 2000.

It is currently maintaining a ceasefire, but remains committed to the destruction of Israel.

Peres: Ahmadinejad to end up like Iraq’s Saddam

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Haaretz.com 041406
Peres: Ahmadinejad to end up like Iraq’s Saddam

By News Agencies

In a first Israeli response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s
latest warnings against Israel, Kadima no. 2 Shimon Peres said on Saturday
that Tehran’s leader will eventually pay the price for his vigilant
statements and actions.

Speaking to an Israel Radio reporter, Peres said “Ahmadinejad’s statements
remind those of Saddam and he will end up the same way as Hussein has.”

On Friday Ahmadinejad called Israel a “rotten, dried tree” that will be
annihilated by “one storm.”

Peres gave the statement as personal commentary. Israel did not, however,
make an official response to Ahmadinejad’s latest speech.

“Ahmadinejad represents Satan, not God,” the veteran statesman said, adding
that “history knew how to denounce madmen and those who wave their sword,
and all those who acted this way ended their careers accordingly.”

Peres also said that “Iran is a United Nations member state threatening
another UN member state and the international organization will not let this
go unheeded.”

“The Iranian president is uniting the entire world against him. Israel is
following his statements and actions closely, but does not wish to respond
to them,” he said.

Supporting Hamas in Tehran

Days after announcing that Iran had successfully enriched uranium, the
Iranian President Friday fired a series of verbal shots at Israel, saying it
was a “permanent threat” to the Middle East that will “soon” be liberated,
and again questioning the validity of the Nazi Holocaust against Jews in
World War II.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Qods (Jerusalem) conference in
Tehran on supporting the Palestinians, Ahmadinejad said “like it or not, the
Zionist regime is heading toward annihiliation.”

“The Zionist regime is a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one
storm,” he said.

“The existence of the Zionist regime is tantamount to an imposition of an
unending and unrestrained threat so that none of the nations and Islamic
countries of the region and beyond can feel secure from its threat,”
Ahmadinejad said.

World outcry at previous Holocaust comments

The president provoked a world outcry last October when he said Israel
should be “wiped off the map.” On Friday, he repeated his previous line on
the Holocaust, saying: “If such a disaster is true, why should the people of
this region pay the price? Why does the Palestinian nation have to be
suppressed and have its land occupied?”

“There might be doubts in the Holocaust, but there are definitely no doubts
about the holocaust happening in the recent years in Palestine,” Ahmadinejad
said.

The land of Palestine, he said, referring to the British mandated territory
that includes all of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, “will be freed soon.”

He did not say how this would be achieved, but insisted to the audience of
at least 900 people: “Believe that Palestine will be freed soon.”

In February, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had said Ahmadinejad’s
October 2005 comments had been misunderstood and that he had been speaking
about the Israeli “regime,” not the country. Mottaki had said a country
could not be removed from the map.

Generals warn of military potential of nuclear Iran

The president spoke days after two Israeli generals spoke of the military
potential of Iran’s nuclear program. (For more on Iran, read the Iran Time
Saver on Rosner’s Domain)

The chief of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, was
quoted Wednesday as saying Iran could develop a nuclear bomb “within three
years, by the end of the decade.”

The day before Ahmadinejad had announced that Iran had successfully enriched
uranium using a battery of 164 centrifuges, a significant step toward the
large-scale production of enriched uranium required for either fueling
nuclear reactors or making nuclear bombs.

The United States, France and Israel accuse Iran of using a civilian nuclear
program to secretly build an atomic bomb. Iran denies this, saying its
program is confined to generating electricity.

The United Nations Security Council has given Iran until April 28 to cease
enrichment. But Iran has rejected the demand.

Khamenei calls on Islamic world to back Hamas against Israel
Also Friday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on the
Islamic world to support Hamas and its resistance against Israel.

“The Islamic world is obliged to help [Hamas] in all possible ways and
support continuation of this holy path [of resistance against Israel],”
Khamenei said in the opening ceremony of the conference.

One of the main aims of the international conference is to raise funds for
the Palestinian Authority, which has lost much of its international aid
since Hamas formed the new Palestinian government. Hamas refuses to renounce
violence, accept Israel’s right to exist or abide by peace agreements signed
by the previous PA government.

The Ayatollah called on the United States and the West to respect the
democratically-elected government in Palestine and control Israeli
aggression.

“Like the U.S. failed in gaining victory in Iraq, the Americans will also
fail in realizing their aim of a Zionist-dominated Middle East,” said
Khamenei, who constitutionally has the final say on all state affairs in
Iran.

Iran is a fierce supporter of Hamas and had termed the group’s victory in
last January’s parliamentary elections as “Palestinians’ democratic choice
for resistance.”

###

Thanks to David Keppel for sending this to us.

Activists at Bush Ranch Out of Jail

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Activists at Bush Ranch Out of Jail
http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/?q=node/10180
By David Swanson

10:45 a.m. CT Saturday – I just spoke with Barbara Cummings, the most powerful activist in San Diego. She was standing in front of the Crawford Peace House, in Crawford, Texas, as six jerks on horses, calling themselves the Horse Brigade, rode back and forth out front shouting nasty comments, including their opposition to Barbara’s Impeach Bush shirt.

Barbara and 13 others were released from Waco County Jail at 7 p.m. CT last night. They’d been in there for seven and a half hours, while 22 others from Camp Casey protested outside and generated lots of supporting honks from the cars. There are hundreds at Camp Casey, outside Bush’s ranch, for Easter – enough to apparently persuade Bush to celebrate bunnies, eggs, and the resurrection of his savior at Camp David instead of at his house.

The 14 arrested included 8 veterans, one of them a disabled Iraqi vet, and 6 grandmothers. “It was amazing,” said Barbara, “to see veterans and grandmothers arrested, while George Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are running loose killing people.

Eight of the 14, including Daniel Ellsberg, had been arrested last Thanksgiving and charged with obstructing a highway and with felonious trespassing. They staged a demonstration at the court house the day before yesterday demanding that those charges be brought to a trial or dropped. This time, the 14 were charged only with obstructing a highway.

They were forced to strip naked, communally, women in one room, men in another, and made to shower and scrub for lice. Then they were dressed in reusable jail underwear and striped jail suits. I guess we should be glad that Rumsfeld wasn’t there with any kinky fetishes or dogs.
http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/?q=node/10175

To get out, they had to post $1,000 bond each. A court appearance is set for May 24, but Barbara didn’t think there was much chance it wouldn’t be endlessly postponed. For one thing, the charge is obstructing a highway, and nobody was in a highway. The charge is a class B misdemeanor.

Reports on yesterday’s arrests:
http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/?q=node/10124

Reports from location with video:
http://www.truthout.org/easterincrawford.shtml

Israel’s slavery conditions criticized

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http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/705920.html

Once we were slaves, now we’re slavers

By Ruth Sinai

In June 2002, M.R., an incapacitated Israeli man from Migdal Haemek, traveled to the city of Kolomyya, in Ukraine. There he met a widow of 45 and offered her a job working for him in Israel. She accepted, he sent her a plane ticket and she arrived in the country. Her work was to look after him and his mother ? he uses a wheelchair, she is elderly ? including bathing them and changing diapers. She also had to clean the house, do the laundry and cook.

“When I started the job, M.R. told me that I had to work a year without pay to repay the many expenses he had in bringing me to Israel,” the women said in a statement that she made on April 2 to attorney Anat Gonen from Kav La’oved, the Workers Hotline for the Protection of Worker’s Rights. Thus, during her first year of employment, she received no salary, apart from NIS 100-200 that the handicapped man’s mother gave her occasionally. “In addition, I was allowed to go out twice a week for a few hours in order to work at cleaning, and the money I earned [from that work] I sent to my family in Ukraine.”

At the end of the year, the woman asked M.R. to start paying her. However, he told her he was in the midst of a lawsuit against his insurance company and that after he won, he would receive a great deal of money and would pay her retroactively. “Because he made it clear to me that if I stopped working for him I would have to go back to Ukraine, I agreed, having no choice but to go on working without getting a salary,” she explained in her statement.

The abuse was not confined to withholding of payment. According to her statement, M.R. was verbally abusive toward her and humiliated her. In one case he bit her wrist. When she threatened to go to the police, he himself called the police ? to complain about her. The policeman who came to the house heard them both out, asked them to work things out, and left. Afterward it turned out that previous complaints against the employer existed, including the use of violence against policemen.

The woman did not know where to turn. She had not arrived in Israel through a manpower company and did not know anyone. When the situation became utterly intolerable, she turned to a neighbor, who got her the phone number of Yaakov Lev, a Russian-speaking volunteer from Kav La’oved.

Lev took her to the Immigration Police, to file a complaint of exploitation, false incarceration, nonpayment of wages and other offenses, and he found her a job in Haifa. Last week Lev sent a letter to M.R., demanding that he pay the caregiver NIS 150,000 for her three years of work. “He kept threatening her that the moment she stopped working, she would be deported. It was only fear that made her stay there,” Lev says.

International sanctions

People like M.R. ? and there are many of them, it turns out ? are giving Israel a bad name as a country in which trafficking in human beings for purposes of servitude exists. This stigma, if it receives official validation, is liable to make Israel a member of a very unpleasant club, and also result in international sanctions. The Justice Ministry’s struggle against the phenomenon is being led by Rachel Gershuni, head of the ministry’s penal section. Half a year ago she described in the Knesset the conditions that usually characterize servitude: “Work during most of the day, severance from external centers of support, refusal to return a passport, fraudulent behavior, use of force or other means of pressure, false incarceration, lack of medical care, substandard living conditions, being forced to work during illness and low payment for work.

“A tool that is often used by people who traffic in human beings is debt bondage. This is a pattern of behavior in which the slave is made to compensate his employer for the expenses he incurred in bringing him [to Israel] and paying for his upkeep. To this end, he must forgo his salary or receive a pittance, with the length of the compensatory period and the value of the services rendered arbitrarily determined by the employer. The victims of this trade in people are particularly vulnerable because of their unfamiliarity with the target country. Even if they arrive legally, they do not know the local language and culture, and this deters them from realizing their rights.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that trafficking in human beings involves between 600,000 and 800,000 people annually throughout the world for purposes of work, prostitution and harvesting of body organs. In contrast to slavery in the past, when employers bought people for a great deal of money and treated them well so that they could recoup the investment, the glut of poor people available in the Third World has made the modern slave a cheap investment that can easily be replaced.
“There is no need to buy him,” Gershuni told the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers. “It is enough to control him as long as benefit is derived from him.”

According to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union in Berkeley, California, trafficking for purposes of slavery in households is in second place in terms of the number of people involved, after trafficking for prostitution. After identifying the problem several years ago, the United States enacted legislation to combat it. Until 2004, indictments were handed down against 77 people for coercive employment or commerce in human beings. Convictions were obtained in most of the cases. In 2002, for example, a California court sentenced the common-law wife of the Thai ambassador to Sweden to eight years in prison for having brought with her to the United States a household worker, whose passport she confiscated, then forcing her to work 20 hours a day, six days a week.

However, as befits the world’s sheriff, the United States has taken the matter beyond the domestic sphere. In an attempt to eradicate the phenomenon throughout the world, the State Department publishes an annual report that ranks the efforts made by the world’s countries to combat human trafficking. Since 2003 the report has referred not only to trafficking for prostitution, but also for bondage. To meet the minimal standards set by the United States for this report, a country must investigate, bring to justice and convict such traffickers and also take preventive measures against the phenomenon, including public education.

Not doing enough

Israel, the United States maintains, is not doing enough to combat the phenomenon. After being at the lowest level for one year ? i.e., being listed as one of the countries that is not doing anything at all to eradicate human trafficking ? Israel has, since 2002, been upgraded to the Tier 2 level of countries that are taking action against it, but not enough. Last year, the report added a “watch list,” referring to countries that are about to be downgraded. In September 2005, Gershuni met with representatives of the State Department ahead of the publication of the annual “Trafficking in Persons Report” ?(available at www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2005/?)

Gershuni: “It was explained to me that a battle had been waged over whether Israel should not be downgraded, because of what was perceived as lack of seriousness in dealing with the foreign workers. I was also told that a Tier 2 country that is placed on the ?special watch list’ is liable to find itself at the lowest level, which brings in its wake economic sanctions within a short time.”
The 2005 report stated, in condemnation of Israel, that some of the foreign workers in the country suffer from nonpayment of wages, threats, coercion, physical and sexual abuse, debt bondage and restrictions on freedom of movement, including confiscation of passports. The report also noted that Israel does not have legislation against trafficking in persons for purposes of servitude. At the same time, it was noted in Israel’s favor that there is a bill pending in the Knesset, which for the first time stipulates that trafficking in persons for purposes of servitude will be an offense, punishable by 16 years’ imprisonment.

In fact, two bills were submitted to the Knesset last year, one by MK Zahava Gal-On ?(Meretz-Yahad?), who chaired the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee on the Trading of Women, and one submitted by the government. The bills were passed on first reading andhe Justice Ministry will be asked to declare them continuing legislation so that the enactment of the law can be completed by the just-elected 17th Knesset.

The Justice Ministry says that other legislation exists under which traffickers in human beings for labor exploitation can be tried, but that it is important for a specific offense to be stipulated, just as trafficking for purposes of prostitution is a specific crime. However, the state moves slowly. It took a decade after women began to be smuggled into Israel to work as prostitutes until the state started to tackle the problem seriously ? the original bill, for example, was submitted by former Labor Party MK Yael Dayan, not by the government ? and this occurred in large part after the United States began to publish its annual report and Israel was listed as a Tier 3 country, which faced possible sanctions.

In the wake of the criticism leveled at Israel in last year’s report, an inter-ministerial committee was formed to discuss the measures Israel has to take against trafficking for servitude and bondage. So far the committee has held three meetings. “Overall, the position of the state is that trafficking in persons for purposes of labor has not yet reached the dimensions of a phenomenon,” Gershuni told the Knesset committee. However, she added, there have been recent cases in which it was alleged that people were brought here to work in domestic households “and were kept in conditions that amount to trafficking. It is true, apparently, that these cases are still the exception and not the rule, but they constitute a red light and oblige us to do our best so that the phenomenon does not grow and develop.”

Morning ?til night

What, then, are the cases that threaten to place Israel on the blacklist? M.G., a Filipina, arrived in Israel in April 2004 through a manpower company after paying $3,900. At first she was sent to work as a caregiver for an elderly man in Hod Hasharon, but left after a few weeks of working from morning to night, cleaning the house of the man’s son ahead of Pesach ? a six-room villa with four bathrooms.

She asked the manpower company to find her a different employer, but quickly discovered that this was a mistake. The new employer, a woman, B.S., from Rehovot, did not want to spend money on food, and gave the caregiver only leftovers that she brought home from a club for the elderly.

“I went to sleep hungry,” the caregiver told a volunteer from Moked ? the Hotline for Migrant Workers ?(HMW?). “A Filipina friend sometimes brought me food, until the lady got angry. When I wanted to do laundry, she allowed me to use only a quarter of a bucket of water, and my friends had to do my laundry for me. I had to shut off the light in my room at 8 P.M., even though the lights were still on in the rest of the house. One day I didn’t feel well and wanted to go to the hospital. The lady would not agree to take me even to a doctor and told me that if I did not feel well I just had to sleep.”

In the wake of this incident, M.G. informed her employer’s son that she was leaving. Because she had no other employer, she was arrested ? but no action was taken against the abusive employer. M.G. was released with the assistance of the company that brought her over. She now has a good job with a woman in an old-age home.
Y., from Moldova, paid $4,000 to come to Israel and take care of an elderly man. When she got to the house, in Kfar Sava, she discovered that, contrary to what she had been told in Moldova, she would have to look after a couple, each of whom was 90 years old. Her passport was taken from her on the day she arrived. She received NIS 300 a week for working 24 hours a day, six days a week.

“I was not allowed to leave the house. The door was locked. I was hardly given any food. I would eat when they were not looking. I was not allowed to call anyone. The man told me that if I bought a phone card I would be able to call from a public phone, accompanied by him. But they would not let me go out to buy a card,” she related. After about six weeks she fled and was subsequently arrested and deported, without receiving a salary. She will probably not even be able to cover the loan she took to come to Israel.

Currently being heard in a local labor court is the suit of a 35-year-old Filipina who has been in Israel for almost five years. Fifty months after she started to work in the country, her original employer was hospitalized. Under Interior Ministry regulations a foreign worker is allowed to work in Israel up to 54 months, and the woman knew she would have difficulty finding a legal employer for her remaining time in the country. Finally she found someone who was willing to hire her under one condition ? that she have sexual relations with him. According to the suit and the complaint filed with the police, the relatives of the elderly man in question also stated that this was the exclusive condition for her legal employment.

Seeing no other choice, she agreed. But according to attorney Rachel Idelevich, from Kav La’oved, who is representing her, after a short time she was no longer able to bear the humiliation and asked her employer to let her be. He refused, and her requests to members of the family were similarly rebuffed. The worker suffered a mental breakdown, left the elderly employer and turned to Kav La’oved. The association is now trying to get the permit issued to the man to employ a foreign worker rescinded, so that future caregivers will not suffer the same ordeal.

Bringing Madam her tea

In most cases the victims of modern-day slavery are workers, and especially female workers, who came to Israel the usual way, through manpower companies, but found themselves in the hands of an employer from hell. However, there are also underground routes, which are nearly impossible to control.

Justina Fernandez was brought to Israel from Mumbai ?(Bombay?) in October 2000 by Sanjay and Patricia Shaha, an Indian diamond merchant and his wife, who have lived in the country for the past 15 years. According to the complaint submitted by Fernandez tthe labor court last year, she was paid a total of only $6,900 for four years and nine months of work ? which averages out to about $200 a month, even though she worked in the family’s home in upscale Ramat Aviv seven days a week, morning to night. “I have to bring Madam her tea in bed at 6:30 A.M.,” Fernandez told Haaretz. “When there are guests for dinner I work until 2 or 3 in the morning cleaning up.”

According to the charge sheet, Fernandez was rarely allowed to leave the house, apart from an occasional visit to a mall and once a year to attend the Christmas service at church. In her last year of work she was occasionally allowed to visit Christian holy places. In the interview with her, which was held at a shelter for women in emergency situations, to which she fled last year, Fernandez related that her employer used to frighten her by saying that it was dangerous to go out because buses blow up and because she was liable to meet people who would have a bad influence on her and tempt her to commit forbidden acts. “Madam told me that the Israeli girls I would meet would be my ruin,” Fernandez said.

Despite the harsh conditions and the minuscule salary, which she received once a year, when she traveled to India to visit her family and her daughter, Fernandez did not try to leave her employers. She had nowhere to go and did not know that the laws in Israel apply to her as well, in contrast to the situation in India for foreigners. The last straw was her employers’ refusal to allow her to go to India to attend her nine-year-old daughter’s communion, a ceremony which bore deep meaning for Fernandez.

“My daughter cried on the phone all the time for me to come. My heart burned. I felt like I was in prison,” she said. “My daughter cried on the phone because she wanted me to come. I did not understand how Madam did not understand ? she is also a mother.”

The only person Fernandez had met locally was a priest from Ghana in a church that she occasionally visited in Jaffa. He put her in touch with the HMW. For three weeks Fernandez tried to coordinate a meeting with the organization’s director, Sigal Rosen, when her employers would be out of the house and she would be able to escape and return to India. They set up a few dates, but Fernandez always had to cancel. So as not to arouse her employers’ suspicions, she used the mobile phone of one of the building’s workers. On July 12, 2005, the couple went out to a restaurant. Fernandez packed her belongings in three garbage bags and went downstairs in the elevator as though going to throw out the garbage, in case anyone saw her, and then got into Rosen’s car, which was waiting outside.

Fernandez filed a suit for NIS 250,000 against the Shaha family and a complaint with the Immigration Police for exploitation, false incarceration, nonpayment of wages and other charges. In their interrogation the couple claimed that Fernandez was free to go out at any time, and that they had paid her and given her vacation days according to Israeli law. In their statement they added that Fernandez’s only goal was to extort money from them, and therefore “she fled from her place of work a few months before its termination, in a flagrant breach of discipline.”

Fernandez stated in her interrogation that her employers kept her passport and gave it to her only when they took her to catch the plane for India on the three occasions that she flew there. In India the passport was taken by a relative of the Shaha family and returned to her when she was about to return to Israel. Asked about this by the interrogators, Sanjay Shaha said: “She gave us the passport to ensure that she was coming back.” He said that she knew where the passport was kept and was free to take it. To which Fernandez retorts that if she had known, she would have taken it when she fled the apartment.
Contradictions crop up

Certain contradictions cropped up in Shaha’s testimony. For example, he told the police that the passport was kept in a drawer with all the household documents, but the statement of defense said it was kept in a safe. In any event, the police were not persuaded by this and the interrogator wrote: “Concerning the suspicion of confiscation of passports, the respondents [the Shahas] are implicating themselves.” Israeli courts have already noted that passport confiscation is associated with trafficking in persons, because it deprives people of their freedom. Despite this, and even though the couple implicated themselves in an offense for which the penalty is a year in prison, the police recommended that the case be closed “because it is of no public interest.”

The police were not impressed by Fernandez’s claim that she was forced to work against her will ? a state of affairs which, under the law, is considered coerced labor and also carries a punishment of a year’s imprisonment. In the interrogation Fernandez was asked, “Were you forced to stay in the country in the event that you wanted to leave?” She replied: “They said that I must remain until the visa runs out. Even if I complain to the police and go to the embassy, I must stay to work for them.”

The employer claimed he had paid her legally, but contradicted himself in part when he said that her salary “was not a pittance by any means, especially not in terms of domestic service work as it is customary in India.” He also admitted that he had not drawn up a written contract with Fernandez, contrary to the Foreign Workers Law. At the same time, he told the police interrogator that he would be happy to accede to her request to pay Fernandez her salary for her last four months of work. He promised her that he would pay Fernandez “with the addition of a big tip,” as the interrogator wrote in her summation. It goes without saying that the money was not paid.

‘The situation is complex’
Commander Ziva Agami-Cohen, who heads the crime-fighting unit in the Immigration Police, was behind the decision to close the case. “Fernandez claimed that she was not allowed to go out, but her account was contradicted. They claim something else entirely. A reasonable prospect for conviction is required, and it did not exist in this case. For five years she kept her testimony to herself ? why? She went back and forth to India. The situation is complex. Even if there were a law against trafficking in human beings for purposes of household labor, a situation like this would demand an explanation. She did not do anything active against the exploitation, the incarceration. With all my empathy for her, they also made a credible impression in the interrogation, and there is not enough evidence. The State Prosecutor’s Office also agreed that the story, as it is, is insufficient.”
Indeed, the State Prosecutor’s Office accepted the police recommendation and ordered the case closed, and also rejected an appeal against the decision by the HMW. The spokesman for the Justice Ministry stated that the case was reexamined in the wake of the appeal, and “after a thorough examination of the totality of the investigative material and the allegations that were put forward in the past, the state prosecution reached the conclusion that in the light of evidentiary difficulties in the case, there is no place for changing the police decision to close the case.”

The HMW insists that the case is of public interest and that there is enough evidence to place the family on trial. According to the organization, the police did nothing to verify the accounts of each side and to obtain evidence. The file contains only the transcript of the interrogations and two receipts, of NIS 2,700 each, which Shaha says he paid Fernandez in India, even though the name of the recipient of the money does not appear on them.
“They did not speak to the workers in the building, or to me, or to the priest,” Rosen says. Asked why Fernandez waited so long before making her complaint, Rosen says that Fernandez did not think there was anything to complain about. “She thought that this is how things were supposed to be. It was only when she was denied permission to see her daughter that she decided to leave. And it was only after she heard from us about the minimum wage and other rights that she decided to complain.”

At the beginning of this month a landmark petition was filed with the High Court of Justice against the state’s decision to close the case, “which raises a serious suspicion of trafficking in human beings and offenses of exploitation, coerced labor, confiscation of passport, threats … The petitioner was exploited and humiliated, incarcerated and threatened, and she spent her best years in a foreign country, in a closed house, far from her family and her little daughter. Is there any formula for quantifying the damage that was done her?”

This petition was filed by the HMW and by the Center for Clinical Education in the College of Management by attorney Nomi Levenkron, one of the driving forces behind Israel’s struggle against trafficking in women for purposes of prostitution. “The suspicion is growing that even the authorities themselves, and not only the employers, are not clear about the nature of modern slavery,” Levenkron writes in the introduction to the petition.

She notes, for example, that no local employer has ever been brought to trial for subjecting a worker to coerced labor ? even though the law-enforcement agencies are aware of many cases of this kind. Further evidence of the fact that the system misunderstands the nature of bondage, she notes, is the opinion that because Fernandez was able to fly to India for a vacation, she was a free person. Her employers held both her money and her passport in order to ensure her obedience and she was not a free individual, Levenkron writes. Moreover, past judgments have already recognized the fact that women who were brought to Israel to work in prostitution are victims of human trafficking, even though they were free to wander the streets and even returned to their countries and afterward came back to Israel.

Cooks for diamond merchants

Closing the cases against employers of foreign workers is a typical reaction, says Rom Levkowitz, HMW’s spokesman. “The same mantra of ?no public interest’ keeps repeating itself. The moment it is not Israeli citizens who are involved, the approach is that the case has no implications for the Israeli society. That is the message that is being conveyed. They prefer simply to deport the complainants,” he says.

The state not only makes things easy for people suspected of violating the law concerning foreign workers, it also makes it easy for them to bring workers into the country under circumstances that invite lawlessness. Last year, for example, the government decided that every Indian diamond merchant can employ a cook from India to supply his and his family’s distinctive culinary needs. These cooks are not included in the quota of foreign workers that the government allocates in the realms of industry, agriculture, construction and social services.

“That decision was made after it was found that the Indian diamond merchants in Israel are contributing significantly to employment and to the state’s foreign trade, and that permitting them to employ a cook is important to prevent an adverse impact on this population’s way of life during their stay in Israel,” attorney Shoshana Strauss, from the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry, wrote in reply to a query by the HMW.

The organization’s query was made in the wake of the Fernandez affair and the question arose as to how the Shaha family was able to employ her legally. From Strauss’ letter it is apparent that in January 2005, and again in July 2005, the government adopted decisions with the goal of determining who is allowed to employ foreign workers who are not part of the existing quotas. The decisions, Strauss says, were intended to formalize various arrangements, which had existed previously in the form of procedures ? some of which had been unclear and informal.

One such decision states that a permit is to be given to “diamond merchants, including one worker for each diamond merchant, and one cook from the diamond merchant’s country of origin, in order to prepare food for the diamond merchant and his family in accordance with the precepts of their religion.” The language of the resolution is not aimed specifically at Indians, but Strauss says that this is the intention. The ministry decided to issue 110 permits for Indian diamond merchants.

The merchants submit their request for employment permits through the supervisor of diamond merchants in the Industry and Trade Ministry, and are required to sign a commitment to uphold Israel’s labor laws. In her letter to the HMW, Strauss promised to investigate the Fernandez case, but added that it cannot be inferred from it that all Indian diamond merchants keep their workers in conditions of servitude. The organization rejects this viewpoint and notes that in India, the wealthy tend to keep service workers in harsh conditions.

Fernandez has been in a shelter for women in emergency situations in the north of the country for eight months. She is forbidden to work and is in danger of being deported. In a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, six months ago, she asked to be recognized as a victim of trafficking ? a status which makes it possible to work for a year in order to save up money and be rehabilitated. To date no reply has been received from the Prime Minister’s Office. Last week Shaha offered her a compromise in court: to accept NIS 70,000 instead of the NIS 250,000 she is asking for. Fernandez rejected the proposal.

Madrid International Seminar on the Assassination of Iraqi Academics and Health Professionals

Traprock Homepage

http://www.brusselstribunal.org/SeminarMadrid.htm

New Special Message:

Dear friends,

as you know there will be an international seminar in Madrid on 22-23 April 2006 about the assassination of Iraqi academics.

All information about this event can be found at
http://www.brusselstribunal.org/SeminarMadrid.htm

We would be very grateful if you could write a solidarity message, an opinion piece, an article, a poem, a thought, whatever you think could be a contribution to the seminar.

We know you’re all very busy people, but the Iraqis really need our support, especially when the “intellectual head” of Iraq is beheaded by occupying forces, death squads, Iraqi police etc..

We really hope we can count on your skills as analysts, writers, artists…..

And we know this will be much appreciated by the Iraqi people, that is currently humiliated, subjugated and slaughtered in the name of America’s corporate interests.

We thank you very much.

For the BRussells Tribunal committee.

****

Madrid International Seminar on the Assassination of Iraqi Academics and Health Professionals

April 22 and 23, 2006

US policy in Iraq: A War Launched to Erase both the Culture and Future of the Iraqi people

• Saturday 22 April 2006: Public Session
• Sunday 23 April 2006: International Meeting on Iraq Solidarity

The Association of Iraqi Academics estimates that more than 180 academics, from a wide range of academic and scientific fields of study from all over Iraq, have been assassinated since the US invasion in 2003. Many hundreds more have been forced into exile. Most were high-level academic staff members. The Spanish Campaign Against the Occupation and for the Sovereignty of Iraq (CEOSI) has confirmed 162 names of targeted academics -http://nodo50.org/iraq/. The BRussells Tribunal has a confirmed list of 220 killed Iraqi academics (http://www.brusselstribunal.org/academicsList.htm).

In addition, according to official Iraqi sources, 311 teachers of both sexes have been killed in Iraq during the last four months alone (The Independent, 29 March, 2006).

Equally, staff of the National Iraqi Medical System — a model of civic courage during 15 years of sanctions, war and occupation — are being targeted in a campaign of extortion, threats and murder. In violation of the foundations of international humanitarian law, Iraqi hospitals and clinics are being attacked and systematically raided by US occupation forces.

Occupation is responsible for these killings. Every week more evidence emerges of a deliberate criminal campaign conducted by death squads and encouraged by those who want to erase all secular and qualified layers of Iraqi society: academics, scientists, professionals and intellectuals; women and men who would be the foundation of the rebuilding of a democratic and non-sectarian society in a free and sovereign Iraq following the end of occupation.

Within the framework of the conclusions of the World Tribunal on Iraq, CEOSI, The BRussells Tribunal and the New York-based International Action Center (IAC), will convene an international seminar on the assassination of Iraqi academics and health professionals in Madrid, Saturday 22 April 2006.

On Sunday 23 April will follow an international meeting of both European and US organizations with the purpose of encouraging international solidarity with Iraq.

Iraqi guests will participate in the public session, including:
_. Eman A Khamas, journalist and writer, former director of Occupation Watch
_. Dr Ali Abdulah, professor of molecular genetics, University of Baghdad
_. Dr Sami Wasfi FRCS, expert in cardiothoracic surgery. Dr Wasfi was the target of a failed assassination attempt
_. Dr Ghazwan Al-Mukhtar, engineer, leading voice in the anti-sanctions movement

The international campaign will be introduced by Dirk Adriaensens (BRussells Tribunal and organizer of the World Tribunal on Iraq, Belgium), John Catalinotto (IAC, USA) and Ian Douglas (BRussells Tribunal, UK).
In addition, we are pleased to highlight the presence of two of the most eminent Spanish experts on the Arab world: Professor Pedro Martínez Montávez (Occupation and Sectarianism in Iraq) and Joaquín Córdoba Zoilo, lecturer at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (The Plundering of World Heritage in Iraq).
The meeting will be opened by the Chancellor of Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Mr Ángel Gabilondo, and will be closed by Ms Rosa Regás, Director of The National Library, and by Mr Pedro Martinez Lillo, Vice Chancellor for University Cooperation. Ms Cármen Ruiz Rivas, University General Director at the Spanish Education Ministry, has confirmed her participation at the Opening Session.

Organizers:
Spanish Campaign Against the Occupation and for the Sovereignty of Iraq (CEOSI)
The BRussells Tribunal and International Action Center

With the cooperation of Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM)
And support of
Escuela Julián Besteiro and The National Library

Place
Escuela Julián Besterio, Calle Azcona, 53
How to get there
Subway/Metro: “Parque de Las Avenidas” (Line 7), “Diego León”
(Lines 4, 5 and 6) and “Ventas” (Line 2)
Buses: From “Callao” (Nos. 21, 53 and 74), from “Manuel Becerra” (No. 48)
Opening (Saturday): 10:30 am
Entrance free / Simultaneous translation
Further information
www.iraqsolidaridad.org / iraq@nodo50.org