In Other News
Central America's rainforests are being destroyed by drug traffickers who cut roads and airstirps on officially protected lands, according to a paper in the journal Science. The phenomenon, called "narco-deforestation," is occurring across large swaths of Guatemala and Honduras, and perhaps elsewhere. Erik Nielsen, an assistant professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability at Northern Arizona University, said: "Not only are societies being ripped apart, but forests are being ripped apart." He added that cattle ranches are being established on cleared land as fronts to launder drug money.
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel toured Asia earlier this month ahead of Obama's coming visit, and at an April 10 stop in Ulan Bator signed a "joint vision" statement with his Mongolian counterpart Dashdemberel Bat-Erdene, calling for expanding military cooperation through joint training and assistance. "A strong US-Mongolia defense relationship is important as part of the American rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region," Hagel told a joint press conference. Bat-Erdene ruled out the possibility of hosting US forces, citing a Mongolian law that bars foreign military bases from the country. But the agreement is clearly aimed at extending US military encirclement of China. Days earlier, Hagel had lectured his hosts in Baijing over China's establishment of an air defense zone in the East China Sea. He also made a flat warning about the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, telling reporters: "We affirmed that since [the Senkaku Islands] are under Japan's administrative control, they fall under Article 5 of our Mutual Security Treaty." (AFP, April 10; Time, April 8)
A Saudi Arabian court on April 21 sentenced three people to death for their roles in attacks on expatriate resident compounds in Riyadh in May 2003, bringing the total death sentences to eight. Another 77 people have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to 35 years by the court, which was created to handle terrorism cases. The 2003 attacks, in which blasts at three residential compounds in Riyadh left 35 people dead, were part of a three-year campaign by al-Qaeda aimed at destabilizing Saudi Arabia. The identities of the 85 defendants have not been disclosed, though the Sabq news website has reported that five men sentenced to death a day earlier had been found guilty of assembling the car bombs used to attack the compounds. They have 30 days to appeal their sentences, all of which were handed down for charges of taking part or abetting in the attacks.
The central Chilean port city of Valparaíso remained under military control as of April 15, three days after forest fires began sweeping into some of the city's working-class neighborhoods, leaving at least 15 people dead and destroying 2,900 homes. Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said the government hoped to have the fires under control by April 16, but the national forestry agency indicated that it might take the 5,000 firefighters and other personnel in the city as long as 20 days to extinguish the fires completely. Some 12,500 are now without homes in Valparaíso; this disaster follows an 8.2-magnitude earthquake in northern Chile that killed five people on April 1 and made 2,635 homes uninhabitable.
Honduran journalist Carlos Hilario Mejía Orellana was stabbed to death the night of April 11 at his home in the city of Progreso, in the northern department of Yoro. Mejía was the marketing executive for Radio Progreso, a community radio station established by Jesuits, and was also a member of the Jesuits' Reflection, Investigation and Communications Team (ERIC). Police investigators suggested that he was killed by someone close to him in a "crime of passion," but the radio station's director, the Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, called the murder "a direct attack not only on the life of our colleague, but a frontal attack on the work produced by Radio Progreso." The station, which provided favorable coverage of resistance to the June 2009 military coup that overthrew then-president José Manuel ("Mel") Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009), has been the target of threats over the years. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, or CIDH in Spanish), called on the Honduran government in 2009—and again in 2010 and 2011—to provide protection for 16 Radio Progreso staffers, including Mejía.
A US immigration judge has ruled that former Salvadoran defense minister José Guillermo García Merino (1979-1983) is eligible for deportation from the US because of "clear and convincing evidence" that he "assisted or otherwise participated" in 11 acts of violence during the 1980s, including the March 1980 murder of San Salvador archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Gen. García also helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who raped and killed four US churchwomen in December 1980 and “knew or should have known” about the military’s December 1981 massacre of more than 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote, according to the 66-page decision by Immigration Judge Michael Horn in Miami. The judge ruled against García on Feb. 26, but the decision was only made public on April 11 as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the New York Times. García’s lawyer said the general would appeal.
On April 2 Pierre Espérance, the executive director of the Haitian nonprofit National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), received a letter at the organization's Port-au-Prince office warning him not to issue "false reports destabilizing for the country." "In 99 we missed you, this time you won't escape it, stop speaking," the letter's authors wrote, referring to a 1999 attack in which Espérance suffered bullet wounds to the shoulder and knee while driving in Port-au-Prince. Recent reports by the RNDDH have dealt with such subjects as the slow pace of the prosecution of former "president for life" Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier (1971-1986) and alleged ties between drug traffickers and the government of President Michel Martelly ("Sweet Micky").
Workers at six out of ten factories in Dongguan owned by Taiwanese multinational Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings have been on strike since April 14 after discovering the company has not been paying its 70,000 employees legally required levels of social security and housing contributions. At least 10,000 Yue Yuen workers took to the streets the day the strike began. Yue Yuen produces shoes for sportswear brands including Nike, Adidas and Asics. The strike is emblematic of a new wave of labor struggles in Guangdong, where Dongguan is located, and other industrial regions of China. Samsung, Lenovo, Nokia and Wal-Mart are among the companies hit by stoppages in recent weeks. Strikes are up by almost one-third in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same period last year, according to research by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. The group's findings also reveal "a more forceful response from the local authorities," with a four-fold increase in police interventions and a sharp rise in arrests. This trend is confirmed by recent trials of worker activists and strike organizers. (Bloomberg, April 19; China Worker, April 17; China Labour Bulletin, April 14)
Nigerian militant network Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the April 14 bombing of a bus station in Nyanya, a suburb of the capital Abuja, that killed 75 people. In a video message, Boko Haram commander Abubakar Shekau says he ordered the attack, but says nothing about the mass abduction of more than 100 teenage girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, most of whom are still missing. In the video, Shekau describes the bombing as a "tiny incident," and warns of many more to come. In words directed by name at President Goodluck Jonathan, Shekau says: "Jonathan, you are now too small for us. We can only deal with your grand masters like Obama the president of America. Even they cannot do anything to us. We are more than them."
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on April 21 alleged that armed rebels engaged in ethnically targeted killings during a raid on the northern city of Bentiu last week, resulting in more than 200 civilian deaths and 400 injuries. Rebels loyal to deposed vice president Riek Marchar reportedly sought to capture Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, in order to seize the city's significant oil fields and installations. The UN reported that the massacres took place at a mosque, a hospital and an abandoned UN compound.
In a slightly surreal case, Kyodo news agency reports April 20 that a Shanghai Maritime Court ordered the seizure of a vessel owned by Japanese shipping giant Mitsui OSK Lines at a port in Zhejiang province for failing to pay compensation in "a wartime contractual dispute." It seems that in 1936, Mitsui's predecessor, Daido Shipping Co, rented two ships on a one-year contract from China's Zhongwei Shipping Co. The ships were commandeered by the Imperial Japanese Navy, and later sank at sea. The suit was brought against Mitsui by grandsons of the founder of Zhongwei Shipping, and has been batted around in China's courts for years. In 2012, the Supreme People's Court rejected Mitsui's petition for retrial, affirming the Maritime Court's finding that the company must pay. The decision to seize the ships now seems pretty clearly retaliation for Japanese cabinet minister Keiji Furuya's visit to the Yasukuni shrine days earlier. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself sent a "ritual offering" to the shrine ahead of Japan's spring festival, which starts this week. All of this is happening (again less than coincidentally) exactly as Japan has started construction of a military radar station on Yonaguni Island—just 150 kilometers from the disputed gas-rich Senkaku archipelago, claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands. (Reuters, Singapore Today, Xinhua, BBC News)
Brazilian Military Police backed by Marine troops occupied the massive Maré favela next to Rio de Janeiro's Galeao international airport on March 31, allegedly without firing a shot. The aim was to secure one of the city's most violent districts, long under control of drug gangs, ahead of the World Cup, to be held in Brazil in June. Shock troops of the elite Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) and Marines in armored vehicles and helicopters secured the Maré area, where 130,000 people live in poverty on the north side of Rio. Police said they seized guns and 450 kilos of marijuana, and arrested two suspected dealers. But residents said most gang leaders slipped out the favelaahead of the occupation. The operation had been expected; in preceding days Police Pacification Units (UPPs) had been installed in 174 of Rio's favelas— home to around 600,000 people. (InSerbia, April 1; MercoPress, March 31)
A new anti-terrorism bill presented in the Brazilian National Congress on April 19—two months ahead of the 2014 World Cup—has raised concern among human rights groups who allege the law threatens free speech and peaceful assembly. Brazilian lawmakers argue the legislation is required to fill a missing piece in the Brazilian legal system as the country's international exposure grows. The anti-terrorism bill would impose a 15-30 year prison sentence for "causing or inciting widespread terror by threatening or trying to threaten the life, the physical integrity or the health or liberty of a person." The broad language of the bill is a major point of concern for human rights groups, but the drafters of the law stated they will amend the language to clear up ambiguities. Two human rights groups are leading the challenge against the bill: Brazil's Institute of Human Rights Defenders and Amnesty International. The rights groups believe any change in language will not alter the new police power embedded in the law, and the measure may criminalize freedom of expression.
Dozens of Christian pilgrims suffered from excessive tear-gas inhalation on Good Friday, April 18, after Israeli troops fired gas canisters as they performed religious rites at the Tomb of Lazarus in al-Eizariya in East Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers reportedly refused to stop firing tear gas canisters despite the presence of pilgrims after clashes had broken out between local youths and Israeli forces in the area. Witnesses told Ma'an News Agency that a tour guide who was escorting the pilgrims asked an Israeli officer to stop firing tear gas canisters until pilgrims left, but the officer continued to fire. The pilgrims had to take shelter in a souvenir shop before they could complete their prayers. The owner of the souvenir shop also tried to convince the Israeli officer to stop firing tear gas so that the pilgrims could leave, but instead the officer "asked a soldier to fire tear gas canisters at the church and at the pilgrims," witnesses added. An Israeli military spokeswoman did not have any information regarding the incident. The village of al-Eizariya houses the Tomb of Lazarus who, according to the Bible, was miraculously brought back to life by Jesus days after he was buried.
The offices of the Cali Municipal Workers Synidicate (Sintraemcali), located in the center of the Colombian industrial city, was attacked with hurled incendiary bombs April 16, causing damage to the facade and plumbing of the building. Sintraemcali called the bombing a "terrorist attack," and pledged to file a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The attack came five days after a judge in Bogotá ordered the president of the republic, Juan Manuel Santos, to issue a formal pardon to members of Sintraemcali, the Colombian University Workers Syndicate (Sintraunicol) and the Bogotá Telecommunications Workers Synidate (Sintratelefonos), who had been accused by former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez of being linked to terrorist groups and constituting a "Brotherhood of Terrorism." (Radio Caracol, Etorno Inteligente, April 16)