Thursday, July 02, 2015

Benghazi, Where Libya's Uprising Began, Now A Shattered City

A street is filled with debris and abandoned houses in the city of Benghazi, Libya. Destruction has permeated the North African country since the civil war ousted Moammar Gadhafi four years ago. For Benghazi, the past year was the worst. (AP)


BENGHAZI, LIBYA (AP) — The old courthouse in central Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the birthplace of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, is a shelled-out ruin — a testimony to the destruction and chaos that permeate this North African country four years after the civil war that ousted the longtime dictator.
The building is steeped in symbolism. It was here that the rallying cry first came against Gadhafi's 42-year rule. It was here that pro-democracy protesters and rebels first raised the tri-colored Libyan flag, replacing Gadhafi's green banner.
Now, the courthouse is ruin and rubble, like much of the rest of Benghazi. Today, Libya is bitterly divided between an elected parliament and government that are cornered in the country's east, with little power on the ground, and an Islamist militia-backed government in the west. Hundreds of militias are aligned with either side or on their own, battling for power and turf.
The U.N.-backed talks between rival factions have not yet managed to strike a power-sharing deal. Meanwhile, Libya's Islamic State affiliate is fighting on different fronts, losing ground in its eastern stronghold of Darna while expanding along the country's central northern coastline.
For Benghazi, the past year was the worst. Near-daily street fighting has pitted militias made up of a myriad of al-Qaida-linked militants, Islamic State extremists and former anti-Gadhafi rebels against soldiers loyal to the internationally recognized government and their militia allies.
Once known for its mix of architectural styles left behind by Arab, Ottoman and Italian rule, this city — shaped like a crescent moon, hugging the Mediterranean Sea on one side and sheltered by the Green Mountain on the other — has lost the flair of times past.
Many landmarks have been destroyed, including much of the Old City, with its Moorish arches and Italian facades. The Benghazi University, its archives and department buildings have been hollowed-out, occupied in turn by militiamen who put snipers on rooftops and turned the campus into a warzone.
The last destruction — albeit not on this scale — that city elders remember was during World War II, when Benghazi was captured by the British. But the city was quickly rebuilt after the war, in part thanks to the country's new-found oil wealth.
Now charred and wrecked cars, piles of twisted metal and debris act as front-line demarcations between warring factions. In many neighborhoods, Libyan soldiers have blown up entire buildings to clear snipers' nests or in search of underground tunnels used for smuggling weapons.
Schools have closed, few hospitals remain open, and wheat and fuel shortages force residents to line up for hours every day outside bakeries and gas stations. Many neighborhoods have been emptied out by fleeing residents, only to be looted and torched by marauding militias.
More than a fifth of Benghazi's 630,000-strong population has been forced out of their homes. Those with money fled abroad. The rest sought refuge in other Libyan towns and cities, or crowded into Benghazi's makeshift camps and schools turned into shelters.
The overall number of displaced within Libya has almost doubled from an estimated 230,000 last September to more than 434,000 amid escalating fighting this year, according to the latest U.N. report. Benghazi resident Hamid al-Idrissi says he and his family fled their war-torn Gawarsha neighborhood under heavy shelling. His extended family had a total of 45 houses there, built on a vast swath of land owned by his late grandfather, he said.
"Houses were first looted, then burned down. We lost everything," al-Idrissi told The Associated Press as he and his relatives huddled inside a school turned into a shelter. Civilians still in the city live against the backdrop of gunshots and ambulance sirens that fill the night. In May, more than 27 civilians were killed, including 12 members of one family who were preparing for a wedding party when a rocket hit their house. The groom and five children were among the dead.
The city's residents also fear abductions at the hands of militiamen from the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, an umbrella group of hard-line militias that includes Ansar al-Shariah, which the U.S. blames for the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Benghazi's descent into all-out war started in May 2014, when Libyan renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter, once Gadhafi's army chief who later joined the opposition, launched an offensive against the militias blamed for a series of assassinations of the city's army officers, policemen, judges, and journalists. He soon formally joined ranks with Libya's elected government and since then, Hifter's forces have taken back parts of Benghazi.
The fighting has split many Benghazi families, with relatives, even brothers, often joining opposite camps. One of Saed Abdel-Hadi's sons joined Libya's Islamic State affiliate after returning from Syria and was killed in clashes. Another son joined the army, which is battling IS militants.
"When my other son joined the army, the extremists threatened to kill me," he said, adding that he fled with rest of the family and now lives in a friend's garage. Even those with only a distant connection to Islamic militias or the army are targeted in retaliatory attacks.
One of Muftah al-Shagaubi's cousins joined an extremist group a while ago. Months later, al-Shagaubi lost his home as did 20 of his relatives when Hifter's forces looted, burned and blew up the buildings so they could never come back, he said.
"I have lived all my life here and now we have to leave ... because nothing is left for me in Libya," he said, adding that he was preparing to head to Turkey in the coming weeks. Essam al-Hamali, a member of the Benghazi Crisis Committee, said there are 140,000 displaced individuals in the city alone.
"Most of these families left their homes in a hurry, taking whatever they could grab," he said. "Some only had the clothes they were wearing when the fighting began." Over the past five months, his committee received a one-time voucher of under $100 per person for 481 families living in one Benghazi school.
In March, it got about 7,000 food parcels from international donors through the Libyan Aid Agency — less than 1 percent of what is needed. It was promised $20 million to $40 million in aid but the government only delivered $5 million.
"We have declared Benghazi a disaster zone," al-Hamali said. "But it seems that no one cares."

Monday, June 29, 2015

Seattle Art Exhibit Puts Spotlight On Race, Identity

Masks are displayed as part of the the show “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art” at the Seattle Art Museum on Sunday, June 28, 2015, in Seattle. Race, identity and the masks people wear are the themes explored in the new exhibit of contemporary, multimedia art, which showcases masks from the museum’s collection alongside contemporary art, much of it created just for this show by African artists and those of African descent. The show will be traveling to Los Angeles and New York after Seattle. (AP)


SEATTLE (AP) — Race, identity and the masks people wear are the themes explored in a new exhibit of contemporary, multimedia art at the Seattle Art Museum.
The themes feel especially relevant with the recent opening of the show "Disguise: Masks & Global African Art" coming one day after the deadly shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and a week after the leader of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, was accused of lying about her race.
But curator Erika Dayla Massaquoi believes this is the kind of exhibit that would have had people talking about race and identity even without the news. The show isn't going to hit people over the head with the topics of race and identity, but Massaquoi believes, "People will intuitively get it." She worked with the museum's curator of African and Oceanic art, Pamela McClusky, to create the new exhibit.
It showcases masks from the museum's collection alongside contemporary art, much of it created just for this show by African artists and those of African descent. The show will be traveling to Los Angeles and New York after Seattle.
The exhibit has a heavy emphasis on digital, multimedia and video art. Visitors walk right through some of the installations, giving it an interactive feel. The space is so filled with sights and sounds that some may find it a little overwhelming, while others will enjoy the way the different forms of art interact.
The first big gallery is a mix of styles and genres: Digital screens show electronically modernized versions of the ancient masks from the museum's collection, flanked by a herd of fake deer wearing masks, which are in turn surrounded by videos, photographs and other three-dimensional art.
Massaquoi calls that the juxtaposition of genres a blurring and says it forces people to shift their focus back and forth and have their frames of reference challenged. Some of the most interesting work in the show involve performance pieces, either in person or recorded on video.
Music permeates the space. At the end, visitors are invited to create their own soundtrack for the show. Before they get on the elevator to exit the museum, they also can virtually "try on" some masks by taking pictures in mirrors with masks attached.
The show is not intended as a fun-filled children's museum experience, although there's plenty here to spark imaginations of all ages.
If You Go...
DISGUISE: MASKS & GLOBAL AFRICAN ART: Through Sept. 7 at Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle, http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/ or 206-654-3100. Open daily except Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Adults, $19.50, teens and students, $12.50, children 12 and under, free. Exhibit is scheduled to be at the Fowler Museum at UCLA from Oct. 18, 2015 to March 13, 2016, and the Brooklyn Museum from April 29 to Sept. 18, 2016.

Burundians Vote In Parliamentary Elections Marred By Unrests

Burundian people line up to vote in parliamentary elections in Ngozi, Burundi, Monday, June 29, 2015. Burundians are voting in parliamentary elections marked by an opposition boycott and the threat of violence as police battle anti-government protesters in the capital. (AP)


BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI (AP) — Burundians voted Monday in parliamentary elections marked by an opposition boycott and the threat of violence in the capital.
The polls closed at 5 p.m. local time and "the elections went well," said Prospere Ntahorwamiye, a spokesman for the electoral commission. He said counting would start immediately and the results would probably be announced on Tuesday.
There was heavy security across the city. In the Musaga neighborhood, which has seen violent protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term, few civilians were seen at the polls as mostly police and soldiers lined up to vote. No one was injured when a grenade exploded in the middle of the main road in Musaga, sending residents scampering for safety, said witness Pacifque Irabona.
About 3.8 million people had been expected to vote, according to the electoral commission, but it appears a boycott by 17 opposition groups kept the turnout low, especially in Bujumbura. The voting took place despite calls by the international community for a postponement until there is a peaceful environment for credible elections.
Despite international pressure, Nkurunziza's government insisted an indefinite postponement would create a dangerous political vacuum that might cause even more chaos. Bujumbura has suffered unrest since the ruling party announced on April 26 that Nkurunziza would be its candidate in presidential elections scheduled for July 15.
Nkurunziza's supporters say he is eligible for a third term because he was chosen by lawmakers — and not popularly elected — for his first term, and the constitutional court has ruled in the president's favor.
The street protests boiled over in mid-May, leading to an attempted military coup that was put down quickly.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Supreme Court Declares Nationwide Right To Same Sex Marriage

Graphic shows Supreme Court decision in gay marriage and other cases; 2c x 4 inches; 96.3 mm x 101 mm;


WASHINGTON (AP) — Same-sex couples won the right to marry nationwide Friday as a divided Supreme Court handed a crowning victory to the gay rights movement, setting off a jubilant cascade of long-delayed weddings in states where they had been forbidden.
"No longer may this liberty be denied," said Justice Anthony Kennedy. The vote was narrow — 5-4 — but Kennedy's majority opinion was clear and firm: "The court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry."
The ruling will put an end to same-sex marriage bans in the 14 states that still maintain them, and provide an exclamation point for breathtaking changes in the nation's social norms in recent years. As recently as last October, just over one-third of the states permitted gay marriages.
Kennedy's reading of the ruling elicited tears in the courtroom, euphoria outside and the immediate issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in at least eight states. In Dallas, Kenneth Denson said he and Gabriel Mendez had been legally married in 2013 in California but "we're Texans; we want to get married in Texas."
In praise of the decision, President Barack Obama called it "justice that arrives like a thunderbolt." Four of the court's justices weren't cheering. The dissenters accused their colleagues of usurping power that belongs to the states and to voters, and short-circuiting a national debate about same-sex marriage.
"This court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent. Roberts read a summary of his dissent from the bench, the first time he has done so in nearly 10 years as chief justice.
"If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today's decision," Roberts said. "But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it."
Justice Antonin Scalia said he was not concerned so much about same-sex marriage as "this court's threat to American democracy." He termed the decision a "judicial putsch." Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
Several religious organizations criticized the decision. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was "profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage."
Kennedy said nothing in the court's ruling would force religions to condone, much less perform, weddings to which they object. And he said the couples seeking the right to marry should not have to wait for the political branches of government to act.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex couples to marry on the same basis as heterosexuals, he said "The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The nation's courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter," Kennedy wrote in his fourth major opinion in support of gay rights since 1996. It came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions.
"No union is more profound than marriage," Kennedy wrote, joined by the court's four more liberal justices. The stories of the people asking for the right to marry "reveal that they seek not to denigrate marriage but rather to live their lives, or honor their spouses' memory, joined by its bond," Kennedy said.
As he read his opinion, spectators in the courtroom wiped away tears when the import of the decision became clear. One of those in the audience was James Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court fight.
Outside, Obergefell held up a photo of his late spouse, John Arthur, and said the ruling establishes that "our love is equal." He added, "This is for you, John." Obama placed a congratulatory phone call to Obergefell, which he took amid a throng of reporters outside the courthouse.
Speaking a few minutes later at the White House, Obama praised the decision as an affirmation of the principle that "all Americans are created equal." The crowd in front of the courthouse at the top of Capitol Hill grew in the minutes following the ruling. The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., sang the "Star-Spangled Banner." Motorists honked their horns in support as they passed by the crowd, which included a smattering of same-sex marriage opponents.
The ruling will not take effect immediately because the court gives the losing side roughly three weeks to ask for reconsideration. But county clerks in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas began issuing licenses to same-sex couples within hours of the decision.
The cases before the court involved laws from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Those states have not allowed same-sex couples to marry within their borders, and they also have refused to recognize valid marriages from elsewhere.
Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law that denied a range of government benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor formed the majority with Kennedy on Friday, the same lineup as two years ago.
The earlier decision in United States v. Windsor did not address the validity of state marriage bans, but courts across the country, with few exceptions, said its logic compelled them to invalidate state laws that prohibited gay and lesbian couples from marrying.
There are an estimated 390,000 married same-sex couples in the United States, according to UCLA's Williams Institute, which tracks the demographics of gay and lesbian Americans. Another 70,000 couples living in states that do not currently permit them to wed would get married in the next three years, the institute says. Roughly 1 million same-sex couples, married and unmarried, live together in the United States, the institute says.
The Obama administration backed the right of same-sex couples to marry. The Justice Department's decision to stop defending the federal anti-marriage law in 2011 was an important moment for gay rights, and Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage in 2012.
The states affected by Friday's ruling are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, most of Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Sam Hananel and Glynn Hill contributed to this report.

With Court Defeat, GOP Health Law Effort Now Aimed At '16

Students cheer as they hold up signs stating that numbers of people in different states who would lose healthcare coverage, with the words "lose healthcare" now over written with "still covered" stickers, after the Supreme Court decided that the without the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may provide nationwide tax subsidies, Thursday June 25, 2015, outside of the Supreme Court in Washington. (AP)


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court's resounding rejection of a conservative attempt to gut President Barack Obama's health care overhaul won't stop Republicans from attacking the law they detest. But now, their efforts will be chiefly about teeing up the issue for the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
The court's decision left GOP lawmakers stunned and uncertain about some of their next steps. Most agreed they would continue trying to annul the entire law and erase individual pieces of it, like its taxes on medical devices. Yet many also conceded they have little leverage to force Obama to scale back — let alone kill — one of his most treasured legislative achievements.
"Obamacare is fundamentally broken," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said repeal efforts would continue. But he declined to guarantee a vote on a replacement plan this year and said, "It's very difficult to deal with it when you have a president that fundamentally disagrees with us. And so the struggle will continue."
"We'll continue to pick away at the law," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a leader of Senate GOP efforts to craft a bill responding to a court victory that never came. "But ultimately our goal is to repeal and replace, and that's not going to be possible until after the 2016 elections," when Republicans hope for a GOP president.
That leaves Republicans mostly using efforts to void or dramatically weaken the health care overhaul to contrast their views with Obama's for voters. "It's going to be one of the most important, if not the most important, debating points for 2016," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
Yet though few would admit it, the court's ruling caused many Republicans to exhale with relief. By leaving intact federal subsidies that help millions afford health care, the ruling lets Republicans bash Obama's law in their 2016 campaigns without having to quickly help those who would have lost assistance. Taking away those benefits could have created many angry voters.
"There isn't some sort of, that sword of Damocles hanging over our heads that people are going to lose their care in 30 days or something," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who heads House GOP campaign efforts.
Republicans have promised to repeal and replace Obama's law since its 2010 enactment, but have yet to rally behind a plan doing that. A bill temporarily continuing the subsidies this year would have faced a difficult path to passage, thanks to conservative reluctance to abet Obama's health law in any way.
Had the GOP-backed lawsuit by conservatives succeeded, the 34 states likeliest to lose subsidies included many that will be pivotal in next year's elections. That included Florida, a key presidential state where a national high of 1.3 million people could have lost assistance, plus Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, where GOP senators could face tight re-election battles and worried about constituents losing aid.
"The court has saved Republicans from themselves," said former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who once led the House Republican political organization. Underscoring that the court decision left intact the issue's high-wattage political appeal, it took just minutes for both sides to use the ruling for political fundraising. GOP hopeful Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, emailed for money to stop "the overreaches of the last six years," while Senate Democrats warned that Republicans have "pledged to destroy Obamacare."
The decision was a relief to the health care industry, which feared chaos in the insurance market, and business groups hoping Congress would now turn to making specific changes in the law to ease employers' costs.
In Thursday's ruling, the justices by 6-3 left intact subsidies that help 8.7 million people buy health insurance — most of whom analysts say couldn't otherwise afford coverage. Conservative plaintiffs said the law's wording limited that aid to states running their own insurance marketplaces — not the three-dozen states using the federal website HealthCare.org. The law's defenders said killing those subsidies would destabilize health insurance by increasingly leaving only sicker, costlier people with coverage — raising everyone's rates.
"Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, using the law's formal name. Roberts' deciding vote found the law constitutional in 2012.
"We should start calling this law SCOTUScare," said dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia, using the court's acronym. Savoring his triumph at the White House, Obama noted that his law has had five years to take hold and said: "This is not about the Affordable Care Act as legislation, or Obamacare as a political football. This is health care in America."
Even so, Republicans had little reason to back off, especially those concerned about primaries from conservative challengers. An April Associated Press-GfK Poll showed that 71 percent of Republicans oppose the law, compared to 33 percent of independents and 14 percent of Democrats.
"We've got to put something on the president's desk, not just a repeal but what are we going to do, what's our alternative," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. In the latest potential wedge between conservatives and Boehner, the speaker said he had not decided whether to use streamlined procedures that could avoid a Senate filibuster. Conservatives want to use those rules, but that device can be used only rarely and some Republicans want to save it for something Obama might sign, like deficit reduction.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Burundi: 100 Students Seek Refuge At US Embassy In Capital

Student protesters seeking refuge crawl under the gates of the U.S. Embassy in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi Thursday, June 25, 2015. The U.S Embassy in Burundi says about 100 university students are in the embassy's parking lot seeking refuge, after police persuaded the students to move from an adjacent construction site where they had camped out after the government closed their university due to the political turmoil. (AP)


BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — About 100 university students in Burundi are in the U.S. embassy's parking lot seeking refuge amid the country's political turmoil, an embassy statement confirmed Thursday.
The students had been camping at a construction site adjacent to the embassy grounds after their university was closed on April 30 due to political turmoil. Police persuaded them to leave the site and some went to the embassy's parking lot, the statement said. Four people received minor injuries during the incident, the embassy said.
The students said they fear aggression after violent demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza's efforts to run for a third term in elections in July. Landry Ndikuriyo, a history major at the National University of Burundi, said the police threatened the use of force to evict them from the building site causing a melee as students scampered for safety.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said some of the students were starting to leave and that all the embassy workers were safe. "There was no violent action against the embassy. This wasn't directed at the United States," Kirby told reporters. "There was never any penetration of the actual embassy compound, and none of our State Department employees were under any physical threat whatsoever."
At least 77 people have died in street protests against Nkurunziza's bid for a third term in the July 15 presidential elections, according to rights activists. Also Thursday, Burundi's second vice president said he fled the country fearing for his life after opposing the president's controversial effort to extend his time in power that sparked off violent protests in the capital in recent weeks.
Gervais Rufyikiri, who went to Belgium last week, said in an interview on Radio France International that he has not officially resigned. He is the most senior government official to publicly oppose Nkurunziza's efforts to stay in power. Dozens of opposition and civil society activists, government officials and journalists have gone into exile after opposing the president's candidacy for another term.
Critics say Nkurunziza's push for another term violates the two-term limit for presidents set by the constitution. The street protests started April 26, after the announcement of Nkurunziza's candidacy. The demonstrations triggered an attempted coup in mid-May that was quickly put down.

Obama Says Health Law Now 'Woven Into Fabric Of America'

President Barack Obama walks with Vice President Joe Biden back to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2015, after speaking in the Rose Garden after the Supreme Court upheld the subsidies for customers in states that do not operate their own exchanges under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. (AP)


WASHINGTON (AP) — His health care legacy secure, President Barack Obama cast Thursday's Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare as a historic and emphatic declaration that the law has now been "woven into the fabric of America."
"This is reality," Obama said in a celebratory statement in the Rose Garden. "We can see how it is working." Obama called the court's ruling a victory for hard-working Americans, ticking off specific benefits to parents, seniors, women, businesses, workers and more, then drawing an over-arching conclusion: "All of America has protections it didn't have before," he said.
"It has changed and, in some cases, saved American lives." But Obama's remarks also showed that he viewed the ruling as a victory for his own presidency, recalling the setbacks and opposition he'd had to overcome along the way.
That drew a knowing chuckle from Vice President Joe Biden, standing at Obama's side. "The point is, this is not an abstract thing anymore," Obama said. "This is not a set of political talking points. This is reality."
It was the second time Obama's health care law had survived Supreme Court scrutiny; the court also upheld key elements in 2012. The law also repeatedly has survived repeal attempts by Republican opponents in Congress.
"For all the misinformation campaigns, all the Doomsday predictions, all the talk of death panels and job disruption, for all the repeal attempts, this law is now helping tens of millions of Americans," Obama said, "and they have told me that it has changed their lives for the better."
Thursday's court ruling was Obama's second big win of the week as the second-term president tries to cement major aspects of his legacy. His actions at times have been hindered by opposition from a Republican-controlled Congress. On Wednesday, though, Congress reversed course to advance the president's trade agenda after it had served up an embarrassing defeat just weeks earlier. And in that vote, the president worked in concert with GOP leaders to overcome significant opposition from within his own party.
Obama said there was still work to be done on health care, promising to keep working to extend coverage to more Americans and get more states to participate in an expansion of Medicaid. He voiced hope that he'd see the political battles over health care abate "rather than keep refighting battles that have been settled again, and again and again."
Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac

Supreme Court Upholds Nationwide Health Care Law Subsidies

Jessica Ellis, right, with "yay 4 ACA" sign, and other supporters of the Affordable Care Act, react with cheers as the opinion for health care is reported outside of the Supreme Court in Washington,Thursday June 25, 2015. The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the nationwide tax subsidies under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, in a ruling that preserves health insurance for millions of Americans (AP)



WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the nationwide tax subsidies underpinning President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, rejecting a major challenge to the landmark law in a ruling that preserves health insurance for millions of Americans.
The justices said in a 6-3 ruling that the subsidies that 8.7 million people currently receive to make insurance affordable do not depend on where they live, as opponents contended. The outcome was the second major victory for Obama in politically charged Supreme Court tests of his most significant domestic achievement. And it came the same day the court gave him an unexpected victory by preserving a key tool the administration uses to fight housing bias.
Obama greeted news of the decision by declaring the health care law "is here to stay." He said the law is no longer about politics, but the benefits millions of people are receiving. Declining to concede, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Republicans, who have voted more than 50 times to undo the law, will "continue our efforts to repeal the law and replace it with patient-centered solutions that meet the needs of seniors, small business owners, and middle-class families."
At the court, Chief Justice John Roberts again voted with his liberal colleagues in support of the law. Roberts also was the key vote to uphold it in 2012. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a dissenter in 2012, was part of the majority on Thursday.
"Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them," Roberts declared in the majority opinion. Limiting the subsidies only to individuals in states with their own exchanges could well push insurance markets in the other states "into a death spiral," Roberts wrote.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent he summarized from the bench, strongly disagreed. "We should start calling this law SCOTUScare," he said, using an acronym for the Supreme Court and suggesting his colleagues' ownership by virtue of their twice stepping in to save the law from what he considered worthy challenges.
His comment drew a smile from Roberts, his seatmate and the object of Scala's ire. Scalia said that Roberts' 2012 decision that upheld the law and his opinion on Thursday "will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites."
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined the dissent, as they did in 2012. Nationally, 10.2 million people have signed up for health insurance under the Obama health overhaul. That includes the 8.7 million people who are receiving an average subsidy of $272 a month to help pay their insurance premiums.
Of those receiving subsidies, 6.4 million were at risk of losing that aid because they live in states that did not set up their own health insurance exchanges. The health insurance industry breathed a big sigh of relief, and a national organization representing state regulators from both political parties said the court's decision will mean stable markets for consumers.
"This decision allows (state officials) to move forward with a level of confidence that their markets will not see significant disruption due to a paradigm shift," said Ben Nelson, CEO of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and a former Democratic senator from Nebraska.
Shares of publicly traded hospital operators including HCA Holdings Inc. and Tenet Healthcare Corp. soared after the ruling relieved those companies of the prospect of having to deal with an influx of uninsured people. Investors had worried that many patients would drop their coverage if they no longer had tax credits to help pay.
The challenge devised by die-hard opponents of the law relied on four words — "established by the state" — in the more than 900-page law. The law's opponents argued that the vast majority of people who now get help paying for their insurance premiums are ineligible for their federal tax credits. That is because roughly three dozen states opted against creating their own health insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, and instead rely on the federal healthcare.gov to help people find coverage if they don't get insurance through their jobs or the government.
In the challengers' view, the phrase "established by the state" demonstrated that subsidies were to be available only to people in states that set up their own exchanges. The administration, congressional Democrats and 22 states responded that it would make no sense to construct the law the way its opponents suggested. The idea behind the law's structure was to decrease the number of uninsured. The law prevents insurers from denying coverage because of "pre-existing" health conditions. It requires almost everyone to be insured and provides financial help to consumers who otherwise would spend too much of their paycheck on their premiums.
The point of the last piece, the subsidies, is to keep enough people in the pool of insured to avoid triggering a disastrous decline in enrollment, a growing proportion of less healthy people and premium increases by insurers.
Several portions of the law indicate that consumers can claim tax credits no matter where they live. No member of Congress said that subsidies would be limited, and several states said in a separate brief to the court that they had no inkling they had to set up their own exchange for their residents to get tax credits.
The 2012 case took place in the midst of Obama's re-election campaign, when Obama touted the largest expansion of the social safety net since the advent of Medicare nearly a half-century earlier. But at the time, the benefits of the Affordable Care Act were mostly in the future. Many of its provisions had yet to take effect.
In 2015, the landscape has changed, although the partisan and ideological divisions remain for a law that passed Congress in 2010 with no Republican votes. The case is King v. Burwell, 14-114.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Connie Cass and Jessica Gresko in Washington and Business Writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis contributed to this report.

Burundi's 2nd Vice President Flees Amid Political Tensions

Gervais Rufyikiri, Second Vice-President of the Republic of Burundi, addresses a summit on the Millennium Development Goals at United Nations headquarters. Rufyikiri said Thursday, June 25, 2015 that he has fled the country fearing for his life after opposing the president's controversial bid for a third term that has sparked off violent protests in the capital in recent weeks. (AP)


BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI (AP) — Burundi's second vice president said he fled the country fearing for his life after opposing the president's controversial bid for a third term that has sparked off violent protests in the capital in recent weeks.
Gervais Rufyikiri, who went to Belgium last week, said in an interview on Radio France International aired Thursday that he has not officially resigned. He is the most senior government official to publicly oppose President Pierre Nkurunziza's efforts to extend his stay in power. Rufyikiri has now joined dozens of opposition and civil society activists, government officials and journalists who have gone into exile after opposing the president's candidacy for another term in office.
In a Twitter posting, the presidential adviser for information and media Willy Nyamitwe confirmed Rufyikiri had fled. "Goodbye and good riddance Rufyikiri is the refrain of the song of my heart," Nyamitwe said.
At least 77 people have died in street protests against Nkurunziza's bid for a third term in the July 15 presidential elections, according to rights activists. Critics say Nkurunziza's push for another term violates the two-term limit for presidents set by the constitution. Nkurunziza maintains that he deserves a third term in office because he was elected by parliament and not by popular vote for his first term.
The street protests that started after April 26th announcement of Nkurunziza's candidacy triggered an attempted coup in mid-May that was quickly put down.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Obama Clears the Way For Hostages' Families To Pay Ransom

President Barack Obama speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 24, 2015, about the completion of the Hostage Policy Review. The president is clearing the way for families of U.S. hostages to pay ransom to terror groups without fear of prosecution, as the White House seeks to address criticism from those whose loved ones have been killed in captivity. (AP)


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the U.S. government had let down the families of Americans held hostage by terrorists, and he outlined new policies that could make it easier for those families to pay ransom to help free their loved ones.
"These families have already suffered enough and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government," Obama said as he detailed the results of a six-month review of U.S. hostage policy.
The review's conclusions aim to streamline and improve communications with families, who have sharply criticized the government for providing them with confusing and contradictory information. Some families have complained about threats of criminal prosecution if they seek to pay ransom to terrorists — threats Obama said would end.
"The last thing we should ever do is add to a family's pain with threats like that," Obama said. The president's pledge essentially clears the way for families to take actions the U.S. government has long said put Americans abroad at greater risk. While no formal changes were being made to a law prohibiting material support for terrorists, the Justice Department indicated it would essentially ignore the law in most situations involving families.
Obama expressed his concerns that paying ransoms makes Americans greater targets for kidnapping and increases funding for terrorists. He also said the U.S. government would continue to abide by the "no concessions" policy, but made clear that government officials can have contact with hostage-takers.
Critics of the White House review argue that allowing families to do what the government will not could lead to those same troubling consequences. "We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas."
The president spoke shortly after meeting privately with several hostages' families and some former hostages. While more than 80 Americans have been taken hostage since the Sept. 11 attacks, the issue has gained fresh attention in recent months following the deaths of several Americans held by the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and others.
Despite the ban on the U.S. government making concessions to terrorists, the Obama administration did negotiate with the Taliban last year to win the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured after walking away from this post in Afghanistan. Five Guantanamo Bay detainees were exchanged as a condition of his release.
White House officials say those negotiations were permissible because Obama sees a special responsibility to leave no American service member behind on the battlefield. Elaine Weinstein, whose husband Warren Weinstein was accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike in April while being held hostage by al-Qaida, argued against the government making such distinctions between U.S. citizens.
Four other Americans have been killed by IS since last summer: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. After the release of gruesome videos showing the beheadings of some hostages, Obama approved an airstrike campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Luke Somers, an American held in Yemen, was also killed during a failed U.S. rescue attempt. In a step aimed at streamlining communications with families, the White House also announced the creation of a "Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell" that will coordinate recovery efforts among various government agencies. Some families had pushed for the new office to be based at the White House, but it will be at the FBI.
The president said it was "totally unacceptable" that hostages' families had felt lost in the bureaucracy and he said the fusion cell would be an important step in rectifying that problem. White House invited the families of 82 Americans held hostage since 2001 to participate in the review, and 24 agreed to do so. The National Counterterrorism Center, which oversaw the review, also consulted with hostage experts from the U.S. and other countries.
Obama said that in the future, the U.S. would treat families of hostages held by terrorists as partners in the effort to secure their loved ones' release. "We're not going to abandon you," Obama said. "We're going to stand by you."
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Bradley Klapper and Erica Werner in Washington and David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Maryland, contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

Farrakhan Plans Rally For Million Man March 20th Anniversary

National of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan speaks at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington to announce plans for the Millions for Justice march to be held in Washington on Oct. 10, during a news conference Wednesday, June 24, 2015. He said he intends to hold the rally Oct. 10 on the National Mall, the same place where the original Million Man March took place in 1995. (AP)


WASHINGTON (AP) — Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said Wednesday he plans to hold a Millions for Justice march in the nation's capital this fall, 20 years after the Million Man March.
During a speech at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Washington, Farrakhan said he intends to hold the rally Oct. 10 on the National Mall, scene of the 1995 march. "This is the time our people must see our unity," Farrakhan said. "Let's make 10/10/15 a meeting place for those who want justice, for those who know what justice is."
Organizers said they aim to stage a more diverse and inclusive event than the one in 1995, which was billed as a men-only event. Former NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis, who helped organize the original Million Man March, said he is optimistic that this year's turnout will be "in excess of a million." He said the event's success would be measured more by the political and socioeconomical impact it has on communities.
"What ultimately will be a success is seeing improvements in the communities where these people are going to come from," Chavis said. "We want to make sure our public policy demands are aligned with those challenges."
Farrakhan said the rally is intended to galvanize a more strategic movement for equality as supporters unite under the social media hashtag JusticeOrElse. "Walk with the young people, the warriors of God, as we say to America, 'You owe us,'" Farrakhan said.
The Million Man March was held in Washington on Oct. 16, 1995. Its goal, organizers said, was to encourage black men to make firmer commitments to family values and community uplift. It is among the largest political gatherings in American history, although there were disputes over the size of the heavily black and male crowd it drew. Crowd estimates ranged from 400,000 to nearly 1.1 million.
Farrakhan, 82, also used the march announcement to call for fair treatment and an end to injustice in the wake of the massacre of nine people at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week.
"Yes, all lives matter, but the only reason you're here is because black lives are being slaughtered," Farrakhan said. As for efforts to remove the Confederate flag in the wake of that tragedy, Farrakhan said the gesture does little to remove the stain of injustice.
"The media is (still) twisting the narrative of murderers," Farrakhan added, referring to perceptions that the media tends to portray white perpetrators more humanely than those of other races or ethnicities.

Feds Call For End Of LongTerm Detention Of Migrant Families

Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says federal officials are making "substantial changes" to end the long-term detention of migrant families who are being held mainly at two large facilities in Texas. (AP)


HOUSTON, TEXAS (AP) — Federal officials plan to end the long-term detention of hundreds of migrant families who are being held mainly at two large facilities in Texas after illegally entering the country, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Wednesday.
However, the change in policy did little to end criticism of the facilities from immigration advocates and some lawmakers or stop ongoing efforts seeking to permanently close them. Johnson said he has approved a plan that would offer appropriate and reasonable bond amounts for families at the centers who can present a credible case that they fear persecution in their home countries.
"I have reached the conclusion that we must make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children," Johnson said in a statement. "In short, once a family has established eligibility for asylum or other relief under our laws, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued."
It was not known how quickly the new plan would be put in place. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to an email seeking clarification. After tens of thousands of migrant families, most from Central America, crossed the Rio Grande into Texas last summer, the government poured millions of dollars into two large detention centers meant to hold women and children. The centers are in Karnes City and Dilley, both located south of San Antonio. A third facility is located in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
At the end of last month, there were 1,835 individuals being held at the three facilities, according to immigration officials. Johnson said the detention of families "will be short-term in most cases" but still allow enough time for officials to confirm addresses and sponsor information and educate families about their responsibilities, including attending future immigration court hearings.
But Johnson advocated for the continued use of the centers, saying the facilities "will allow for prompt removal of individuals who have not stated a claim for relief under our laws." Immigration attorneys and advocates said they were disappointed the federal government still believes the detention of immigrant families is necessary and expressed doubt the announced changes would result in the release of many families.
"I'm extremely disappointed the secretary just doesn't seem to get that family detention is wrong and is not necessary," said Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney who has represented families held at the centers in Karnes City and Dilley.
Johnson's announcement comes after a delegation of eight congressional Democrats visited the two detention facilities in Texas earlier this week. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, one of the members of Congress who visited the Karnes City facility, said the detention centers need to be closed.
"I continue to be deeply concerned that children in these facilities lack basic health and educational resources ... Detaining children puts them at risk of medical and developmental problems in the short term and later in life," Hoyer said in a statement.
Some 130 House Democrats and 33 senators have called on the government to halt family detention, while a federal judge in California has tentatively ruled that the policy violates parts of an 18-year-old court settlement that says immigrant children cannot be held in secure facilities.
In a statement this week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the centers are "an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries."
Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, said he doubted the new policy would translate into reasonable bond amounts allowing families to be freed. He said his organization had learned of cases this week in which bonds of $10,000 were being assigned, amounts which no immigrant at these facilities can pay.
Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, criticized the change in policy, saying it will only encourage more families to illegally enter the U.S. "By refusing to detain unlawful immigrants until their claims are proven legitimate, the Obama Administration is practically guaranteeing that they will disappear into our communities and never be removed from the United States," he said in a statement.
This story has been corrected to show there were 1,835 individuals being held at the three detention facilities as of the end of last month.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70