THE FIGHT AGAINST ALEC HEATS UP: Just over a month after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a broad coalition of groups, including the National Urban League, the NAACP, ColorOfChange, the AFL-CIO and SEIU, the National Council of Churches, Common Cause, People For the American Way and more, stood together in Washington. They were gathered at the headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council to deliver a letter calling on ALEC “to fully disclose” all NRA funding and “pledge to desist from supporting and promoting lethal ‘Shoot First’ legislation.” The protesters’ message was blunt. Signs read: Don’t Shoot Me—I’m a Student Don’t Shoot Me—I’m a Grandfather Don’t Shoot Me—I’m a Pastor
The rally was organized in alliance with the Center for Media and Democracy, which last year worked with The Nation on a groundbreaking project, ALEC Exposed, that revealed the behind-the-scenes machinations of the corporate-sponsored “bill mill.” It’s this machinery that has put variations of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law on the books of states across the country. The Florida law, which blocks prosecution of gunmen who shoot people they imagine to be threatening, has been one of the barriers to justice in the Trayvon Martin case. As former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, head of the Urban League, said at the rally, it “should give everyone pause when an inside-the-Beltway group can write and promote laws around the country that give a free pass to criminal behavior and trample on our civil rights.”
The Trayvon Martin tragedy has sparked new clarity about the need to push back against ALEC and its corporate sponsors. This has invigorated a civil rights coalition that will be crucial if there is to be any hope for breaking the grip of one-size-fits-all lawmaking and renewing democracy and sound governance in the states. JOHN NICHOLS
WikiLeaking Covert Ops?: Leaked internal e-mails from the private intelligence company Stratfor suggest that the US government enlisted the services of James Smith, a former CIA operative and ex–Blackwater executive, to support Syrian opposition forces fighting to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The e-mails were released by WikiLeaks in February. Smith confirmed to The Nation that he has been in Syria recently.
According to one e-mail, Smith and Walid Phares, a top campaign official for Mitt Romney, received “air cover from [Republican] Congresswoman [Sue] Myrick to engage Syrian opposition in Turkey…on a fact finding mission for Congress.” The e-mail adds: “The true mission is how they can help in regime change.” Smith confirms that his communications were hacked but says that Stratfor’s description of his mission was “inaccurate.”
Smith says he provides personal security for high-risk clients abroad and trains local forces, including those of the opposition in Syria and Libya. “I’ve been traveling in and out of northern Iraq and Syria a lot since December,” he says. In Libya, according to an e-mail he sent to a Stratfor executive,
he was working “at the request of a usg
[US government] committee and the rebs [rebels].” A few news reports on the hacked e-mails claim they show that Smith was present at Muammar el-Qaddafi’s execution. While Smith did provide Stratfor with information on Qaddafi’s death, he wrote to The Nation, “I was in the country a number of times last year but I was not there to kill Moammar Gadhafi. Lol!” JEREMY SCAHILL
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ONE EXONERATED MAN’S MISSION: In 1990, when Jeffrey Deskovic was 16, he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. A high school classmate, Angela Correa, had been raped and murdered in Peekskill, New York. Relying mostly on local rumors about the awkward teenager, the Peekskill Police Department decided Deskovic was the killer. After seven and a half hours of coercive questioning, Deskovic told his interrogators what they wanted to hear. He was convicted and given a fifteen-years-to-life sentence, despite a DNA test showing that semen found on the victim did not match his DNA. After sixteen years behind bars, Deskovic, with the help of the Innocence Project, was finally exonerated in 2006.
Since winning his freedom at 33, Deskovic has been devoted to reforming the system that failed him so tragically. He has spoken at colleges, testified at legislative hearings, rallied against the death penalty and made the case for reforms in the pages of the Westchester Guardian. He has also won millions in settlement money from New York State and Westchester County.
On March 16, Deskovic launched The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, com- mitting $1.5 million of his own to the organ- ization. In addition to educating the public and fighting for criminal justice reforms, its goal is to help wrongfully convicted prisoners win their freedom. His office has taken a handful of New York cases so far. One involves the Peekskill Police Department.
“My dream,” he told The Nation, “is to go from being exonerated to exon erating others.” LILIANA SEGURA
THE SAUDI STATE’S REPUTATION: On April 2, Saudi authorities barred two human rights activists, Mohammad al-Qahtani and Fowzan al-Harbi, from visiting the country’s most famous prisoner, Mohammad al-Bjady, who is in the first month of a hunger strike. Bjady has been held at Al-Hayer Prison since March 21, 2011, when he was arrested in the capital city of Riyadh for showing support to protesting families demanding the release of their imprisoned relatives. Among the charges against him was “tarnishing the reputation of the state.” In March, as the one-year anniversary of Bjady’s imprisonment approached, Saudi activists and bloggers, liberals and Islamists alike, started a campaign to highlight his plight.
According to the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which Bjady co-founded, nearly 100 activists joined a two-day hunger strike as “a symbol for all Saudi detainees who are suffering arbitrary detention and torture without the right to fair trials.” The Interior Ministry has denied the existence of political prisoners, including Bjady’s case. Meanwhile, Saudi human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair, founder of Human Rights Monitor in Saudi Arabia, estimates that the number of political prisoners in the country who face arbitrary detention without charge or the right to attorney stands at around 30,000. EBTIHAL MUBARAK