Jewish death row prisoner in Kentucky sues for exclusion from kosher meal program


A Reform Jewish death row prisoner in Kentucky is suing the penitentiary where he is incarcerated for kicking him out of the state’s kosher food program.

In a lawsuit filed last week in federal court, William Harry Meece claimed he was being unfairly penalized for eating rotisserie chicken that had not been certified kosher, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

Meece said in his lawsuit that as a Reform Jew, he can eat meat that is not certified kosher and that his observance consists of avoiding pork and shellfish and not mixing meat and dairy. The chicken in question was from Sam’s Club and had been purchased from the prison canteen.

Since 2008, Kentucky has required prisoners who receive kosher meals to agree not to “purchase, possess or consume any food items that are not permitted under my religious diet.”

Rabbi David Ariel-Joel of The Temple, one of two Reform synagogues in Louisville, told the Courier-Journal he is supporting Meece in the conflict.

“Jews don’t keep kosher in one way, but in many ways,” Ariel-Joel told the newspaper.

Lisa Lamb, a spokeswoman for Kentucky’s Department of Corrections, told the Courier-Journal she could not comment on pending litigation.

Because kosher meals cost 72 percent more than standard meals and the state is concerned about prisoners falsely claiming they are Jewish in order to receive what they consider better quality meals, the state is eager to limit the number of inmates who qualify, the Courier-Journal reported.

Rabbi Aryeh Blaut, director of Jewish Prison Services International, which provides resources for Jewish inmates, said Kentucky’s policy is not unusual and is reasonable.

“If you are accepted on to the kosher meal program, you must be consistent,” he told the Courier-Journal.

Meece, 43, was sentenced to death in 2006 for killing three members of a Kentucky family – Joseph and Elizabeth Wellnitz and their son Dennis.

Meece has insisted he is innocent and claimed his confession was coerced.

In 2013, Meece lost another suit related to his religious observance in which he requested to pray in the prison’s chapel on Shabbat with other Jewish prisoners. The Kentucky Court of Appeals denied his bid after Meece was deemed too dangerous to be permitted to join the general prison population.

French high court reaffirms prison sentence for Holocaust-denying professor


France’s highest court affirmed a one-year prison sentence for a professor who questioned the Holocaust’s veracity.

The Court of Cassation rejected the appeal last week of Vincent Reynouard, who has since fled the country and is presumed escaped. It was the last of several appeals by Reynouard to the sentence imposed last year by a Caen court over a 2014 video in which he said the Holocaust may not have happened and called state commemorations of the deportation of French Jews ”manipulation of memory,” France 3 reported.

Reynouard has lost his license to teach in the public education system over repeated Holocaust denials.

The court’s ruling came amid protests over a Paris university readmitting a student who had been expelled for anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Earlier this month, the Sciences Po University agreed to readmit a student, Amira Jumaa, who is under disciplinary review for writing hateful remarks about Jews on Facebook last year. Jumaa, a citizen of Kuwait, also was fired over the posts by the French consulate in New York, where she was working in an internship.

Sciences Po allowed Jumaa to continue to study at the institution while its disciplinary board, which had suspended Jumaa last year, decides on her appeal of the sanctions.

The Sciences Po chapter of the Union of Jewish Students of France, or UEJF, protested the move in a statement posted on the group’s Facebook page titled “No to readmitting an anti-Semitic student.”

Jumaa was suspended after writing “You don’t belong anywhere in this world — that’s why you guys are scums and rats and discriminated against wherever you are. Do not blame it on the poor Palestinians.”

In response to being accused of racism, Jumaa wrote: “First of all you dispersed rat, i am not an immigrant from France. I am from Kuwait so my country can buy you and your parents and put you in ovens.”

Ehud Olmert has prison term cut in bribery conviction


Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had his prison term cut to 18 months from six years for his part in the Holyland corruption case.

The Supreme Court, as part of Olmert’s appeal during a hearing Tuesday morning, cut the term ordered by the Tel Aviv District Court in May 2014.

Olmert is the first Israeli prime minister to be sentenced to jail time. He is scheduled to enter prison on Feb. 15.

The Holyland affair, what is being called the largest corruption scandal in Israel, involved the payment of bribes to government officials by the developers of a luxury high-rise apartment complex in Jerusalem.

The justices acquitted Olmert of receiving the larger of the two bribes, about $130,000, but upheld his conviction for accepting a bribe of about $15,400.

In a statement after the verdict, Olmert maintained that he had never accepted any bribes, but said he respected the decision of the Supreme Court justices. He also acknowledged how difficult the case has been on his family.

Olmert resigned as prime minister in September 2008 after police investigators recommended that he be indicted in multiple corruption scandals.

In May, Olmert was sentenced to eight months in prison after being convicted for accepting cash-filled envelopes from an American-Jewish businessman, Morris Talansky, and using it for personal and not political expenses. The case is under appeal to the Supreme Court.

Also at Tuesday’s hearing, the appeal of former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, Olmert’s successor who had been sentenced to six years in prison for directing bribe money to a Jerusalem charity, was rejected, but his prison sentence was modified to six months of community service due to his ill health.

The court also partially accepted the appeals of four others found guilty in the case and reduced their prison sentences, but let stand the sentences of two others.

Cartoon: For Pollard, the more things change – the more they stay the same


Israel’s Medical Association warns against proposed prisoner force-feeding bill


Israel's cabinet approved on Sunday a proposed law that would enable authorities to force-feed Palestinian prisoners who are on hunger strike, a practice opposed by the country's medical association.

Israel has long been concerned that hunger strikes by Palestinians in its jails could end in death and trigger waves of protests in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But Israel's Medical Association, which considers force- feeding a form of torture and medically risky, has urged Israeli doctors not to abide by the law if it is passed.

Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who sponsored the bill, said the cabinet's support for the legislation would allow him to re-submit it to parliament for two final votes in the near future. It already passed a preliminary vote in the legislature before Israel's parliamentary election in March.

“Hunger strikes by imprisoned terrorists have become a weapon with which they are trying to threaten the State of Israel,” Erdan wrote on Facebook. “The cabinet's decision today sends a clear message: we will not blink in the face of any threat.”

Qadoura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Club that advocates on behalf of Palestinians in Israeli jails, called the legislation racist and a violation of international law. Under existing Israeli law, patients cannot be treated against their will, although an ethics committee can be asked to intervene.

Demanding an end to his detention without trial, a Palestinian prisoner, Khader Adnan of the Islamic Jihad militant group, has been on a hunger strike in jail for the past 41 days, refusing solid food and drinking only water.

Adnan went on hunger strike for 66 days during a previous detention period in 2012, the longest such Palestinian protest. It ended when Israeli authorities promised to release him.

He was jailed again in July 2014 under so-called “administrative detention”.

Israel's use of a decades-old policy of detaining some Palestinians without formal charge has drawn international criticism. Israel says the procedure is necessary to avoid exposing confidential information in trials.

Arsonist in kosher Paris supermarket blaze gets 4 years in jail


The four-year prison sentence given to the man who torched a kosher supermarket in suburban Paris “sent an important message,” the chief rabbi of France said.

The Correctional Tribunal of Pontoise near Paris on Oct. 26 sentenced a 27-year-old ambulance driver for setting fire to the Naouri kosher supermarket in Sarcelles, a heavily Jewish suburb of the French capital, on July 20.

Identified in the French media as Abbas C., the driver was given a longer term than the 26 months sought by the prosecutor.

“This sentence reflects the determination of the judiciary to fight anti-Semitic crimes,” Rabbi Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, told JTA on Tuesday.

Korsia added that the French government under President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls also was “vigilant and firm” in dealing with anti-Semitism.

Besides arson, Abbas C. was convicted of assaulting police officers, whom he pelted with stones, and the aggravated theft of a television set from a shop whose display window was smashed by rioters on the day of the fire.

The riots had broken out in Sarcelles and elsewhere in Paris that month against Israel’s actions in Gaza during this summer’s 50-day operation against Hamas in the coastal strip. In some of the disturbances, Jewish individuals and Jewish-owned businesses were targeted, along with nine synagogues throughout France.

Demonstrators in several of the riots turned against police officers, whom they targeted with stones, metal bars and other projectiles. Several of the culprits have been sentenced to jail time.

The demonstrations took place despite a temporary ban on political protests about Israel.

Israeli gets jail time in Sweden for terrorism threats


An Israeli citizen who threatened to commit terrorism in Sweden after his asylum request there was denied has been sentenced to two years in prison.

Amram Ivri, 43, was sent to jail and made to pay $14,080 in fines and legal fees Friday for actions he committed last month, the news site exponerat.net reported. The Stockholm District Court also handed a deportation order banning him from, re-entering Sweden until 2024 after his release.

On June 19, Ivri holed up at a local nonprofit working with refugees and threatened to blow himself up with explosives because Sweden’s Migration Board, which handles asylum applications, had denied his request. A belt he said was packed with explosives turned out to be a dummy.

“The fact that the man claimed to be part of a terrorist attack and displayed a bomb belt is particularly reckless,” Tomas Zander, a judge who oversaw the case, said.

Media reports on the sentence did not say whether Ivri — whose name means “Hebrew” in that language was Jewish or why he was seeking asylum in Sweden.

Besides threatening to blow up the offices of the Civil Rights Defenders organization, he also threatened to set off two additional bombs at the offices of two large Swedish parties: the Social Democrats and the Moderates.

During the bomb scare, police blocked large parts of Stockholm to traffic as negotiators tried to talk Ivri, who had at least one hostage inside the building, into surrendering himself. He finally left the building after five hours.

Ivri used to be a citizen of Armenia, the news site reported, though he claims that he relinquished his Armenian passport years ago in Moscow.

Protesting African migrants sent back to Israeli detention center


Israeli police on Tuesday sent back to custody about 150 African migrants who had abandoned a desert detention center in protest against a new law allowing them to be kept there indefinitely.

Aided by rights groups, the migrants had travelled to Jerusalem to demonstrate outside the Israeli parliament, which last week passed a law allowing authorities to hold illegal migrants in an “open facility” until they leave the country.

The Israeli government says that most of the 50,000 African migrants, mostly Sudanese and Eritrean, who have since 2006 crossed over the Egyptian border into its territory, are illegal job-seekers who threaten the Jewish state's social makeup.

But rights groups and liberal lawmakers say many are asylum-seekers fleeing hardship and persecution in their homelands.

“We came from a war-place and we want our dignity. We want to save our lives. We are not criminals,” one migrant, who did not give his name, said at the protest.

Police and immigration officers broke up the migrants' demonstration and loaded them on to buses headed for prison. A police spokesman said there were some minor scuffles at the scene, but no one was hurt.

An Israeli immigration official said the migrants would be held in prison for up to 90 days, for breaking the terms of custody in the newly-built open facility that they had abandoned late on Sunday.

The center, in a remote southern Israeli desert, allows the 400 migrants who were moved there from a nearby prison last week, to leave during the day and return at night.

The newly-passed law says they may be held there pending voluntary repatriation, implementation of deportation orders or resolution of their asylum requests.

“The law is the law and it surely applies to the illegal job-seeking infiltrators. The infiltrators who were moved to the special facility can stay there or go back to their own countries,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Rights group have appealed the new law, which replaced previous legislation, annulled by the Supreme Court last September.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Angus MacSwan

New Israeli detention center falls flat


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

After three days of walking in the cold and snow, many of them on hunger strike, 150 African asylum seekers were forced onto buses and taken back to the new detention center in the Negev desert. The detainees say they want Israel to grant them refugee status and allow them to stay permanently – Israel says they are illegal migrants and should return to their countries as soon as possible.

Last weekend, Israel opened a new “open” detention center called Holot. The migrants were free to come and go during the day, although they had to be present at night. They are also not allowed to work.

The migrants say this new detention center is no better than the jail at Saharonim and the government should legalize their status.

Shouting “Freedom yes, prison no!” and holding signs in Hebrew that read “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” the 150 cold and hungry Sudanese and Eritreans entered Jerusalem and the remains of the worst snow storm in decades. They were joined by 100 other asylum seekers from Tel Aviv, where many African migrants live, many of them illegally.

When asked why they were marching on parliament, Mubarak, who calls himself a refugee from Sudan who asked not to give his last name, told The Media Line that it is “because we have spent two years in prison, because we need our freedom.”

Mubarak fled Sudan in 2012 because of war, leaving behind his nine brothers and sisters. He crossed the Sinai desert and entered Israel illegally. Since then, he has been imprisoned for much of his time in Israel.

“I miss them very much. If I didn't see them for one hour I would miss them, and I haven’t seen them for almost two years,” Mubarak said.

Israeli officials say the new Holot facility is meant to make life easier for the illegal migrants until they can return to their home countries. Last year Israel deported some 4000 asylum seekers back to south Sudan after the country received independence. The refugees say it is dangerous for them to return and most want to stay permanently in Israel. Israel has granted refugee status to fewer than 200 people since 1948.

“If these people were only seeking to work, they could have gotten to Be'er Sheva and disappeared,” Knesset member Dov Khenin of Hadash told The Media Line. “Instead, they decided to come here united to Jerusalem to deliver a different message, which is that they are asylum seekers and they deserve rights.”

The group of 150 asylum seekers left Holot for Jerusalem on Sunday after a storm brought snow and sub-zero temperatures across much of the country. Some had been on a hunger strike for three days prior to the march. They walked 100 miles wearing only light jackets, jeans and tennis shoes. Some wore sandals, and many suffered from blisters on their feet. At least one was hospitalized for cold-related symptoms.

Israel has been struggling to handle 50,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in the country since 2006, most of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan. Fleeing internal crises, many of the migrants crossed into Israel illegally via the Egyptian border. According to the UN, Israel is not allowed to deport the migrants.

In response to the influx, the Israeli government completed a permanent wall along its southern border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in 2013 at a cost of over $270 million. After the wall was built, the number of immigrants entering Israel plummeted from almost 10,000 in the first six months of 2012 to fewer than 50 in the second half.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken a hard line with the asylum seekers. “The law is the law, and it also applies to illegal infiltrators seeking work,” he said. “The infiltrators who were brought to the special detention center can live in it or can return to their countries.”

Asylum seekers, activists and politicians deride the Holot facility as nothing more than a prison where “freedom” is limited.

“Below the surface the harsh treatment is meant to broadcast a message to deter others from coming, which is unfortunate for Israel which is a state of refugees itself,” Oren Yiftachel, a professor of geography and urban studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva told The Media Line. “Being a Jewish nation we should welcome all the refugees not as citizens but as a haven until they can be in a safe place to live.”

In its early days Israel saw a massive influx of Jewish refugees from all over Europe into the small Jewish state both before and after its founding. Michael Kaminer, an Israeli citizen who came out to support the asylum seekers, said that Israel should be more sympathetic to the plight of the African asylum seekers.

“We are a nation of refugees. A few of my family members died in the Holocaust, so my family would tell me what it was like to be a refugee. These people ran from murder. Us as Jews should understand this tragedy because of our past.”

Mubarak, looking tired and weak from the protest and the long walk from the Negev, said that he cannot go back to Sudan given the current situation. He said he would like to stay in Israel for now because it is safe.

“Walking for eight hours a day is not easy, to live in a desert is not easy, to live in a prison for two years is not easy, and to not have freedom is not easy.”

Egyptian court orders Mubarak’s release


Ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak will leave jail as early as Thursday after a court ruling that jolted a divided nation already in turmoil seven weeks after the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

Mubarak will then be put under house arrest, the prime minister's office said in a statement. The decision was authorised under Egypt's Emergency Law recently enacted under a security crackdown on Islamists, it added.

Citing a security source, the state news agency said that Mubarak would “likely” be transported to one of the state's vital installations or one of two military hospitals where he will be guarded under heavy security.

By keeping Mubarak under house arrest, Egyptian leaders may be trying to show they will not be too lenient with him to avoid angering the many Egyptians who held mass protests that led to the end of his iron rule in 2011.

Two groups of activists have already called for sit-ins in Cairo to protest his expected release.

Convening on Wednesday at the Cairo jail where Mubarak is held, the court ordered the release of the military man who ruled Egypt for 30 years until he was overthrown during the uprisings that swept the Arab world in early 2011.

Asked when his client would go free, Mubarak's lawyer, Fareed al-Deeb, told Reuters, “Maybe tomorrow”.

Mubarak, 85, was sentenced to life in prison last year for failing to prevent the killing of demonstrators. But a court accepted his appeal earlier this year and ordered a retrial.

The ailing ex-president probably has no political future, but some Egyptians were indignant at the court ruling, which state prosecutor Ahmed el-Bahrawi said could not be appealed.

“The army has brought back Mubarak's regime, the same regime,” said Guma Abdel Alim outside a bicycle shop in central Cairo. “Those who were elected by the people are now in prison.”

He was referring to a wide-scale security sweep on Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood that has netted many of its leaders.

Shopworker Rubi Abdel Azim said Mubarak had been the worst ruler in Egypt's history, but a passerby in a worn-out shirt disagreed. “He was the greatest president,” said Nagi Hassan.

Political turbulence has kept Egypt on edge for months. At least 900 people, including 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in a crackdown on Mursi supporters in the past week, making it the country's bloodiest internal episode in decades.

Mubarak's release could add to tensions in a country where the Muslim Brotherhood has accused the army of trying to bring back the old government.

“Today there was a decision to release him. Naturally that will cause a backlash in large segments in the Egyptian street,” said analyst Adel Soliman.

'LOUSY REGIME'

The Brotherhood has said it would never abandon efforts to restore Mursi to power, although a fierce state security crackdown appears to have hurt the group. In the past week, it has struggled to get people on the streets to protest.

Mursi's supporters called on Egyptians to hold “Friday of Martyrs” protests against the military takeover that ousted him.

A grouping calling itself the National Coalition to Support Legitimacy, which has been demanding Mursi's reinstatement, said in a statement, “We will remain steadfast on the road to defeating the military coup.”

The United States and the European Union are both reviewing aid to Cairo in light of the bloodshed, but Saudi Arabia, a foe of the Brotherhood, has promised to make up any shortfall.

The European Union stopped short of agreeing immediate cuts in financial or military assistance to Cairo, as the bloc's foreign ministers held emergency talks on Wednesday to find ways to help end violence in Egypt.

The decision acknowledges Europe's limited economic muscle in forcing Egypt's army-backed rulers and Mursi's supporters into a peaceful compromise.

It also reflects a concern that abruptly cutting aid could shut off dialogue with Cairo's military rulers and damage Europe's ability to mediate in any future negotiations to end the strife.

Egypt has said repeatedly it does not want foreign powers to interfere in its standoff with the Brotherhood.

“Egypt can never accept an interference in its sovereignty or the independence of its decisions or an interference in its internal affairs,” Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said in a statement issued after the EU talks.

“The only standard that rules Egypt's decisions is the supreme interest of the country and its national security.”

There was no immediate reaction to the ruling on Mubarak from the Brotherhood, whose leaders are mostly behind bars.

Mubarak is still being retried on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters during the revolt against him, but he has already served the maximum pretrial detention in that case.

The court ruling removed the last legal ground for his imprisonment in connection with a corruption case, following a similar decision in another corruption case on Monday. Mubarak will not be allowed to leave Egypt and his assets remain frozen.

Mubarak's two sons, Gamal and Alaa, along with former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, are still in prison, and Adly's lawyer said the ruling on Mubarak had no bearing on their cases.

Some of the liberal and secular politicians who backed the army's ousting of Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected president, on July 3, said they regretted Mubarak's release but that the judiciary's decision should be respected.

“His regime was lousy and he destroyed the country,” said Mohamed Abolghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, to which the army-appointed interim prime minister belongs.

Noting Mubarak's age and the jail time he has served, he said, “We should focus on building the country, establishing democracy and finishing the problem of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The government knows that if Mubarak is freed, there will be public outrage, but a court decision is a court decision.”

Khaled Dawoud, spokesman of the liberal Dostour Party, said the trials of the ex-president and his associates had all been flawed because the judiciary was ill-equipped to deal with cases related to Mubarak's rule, resulting in a series of acquittals.

“It was a faulty process from the beginning,” he said.

The relatively muted response from Mubarak's non-Islamist opponents may reflect a reluctance to rock the boat following the army's removal of Mursi, which they had endorsed.

The generals say they were responding to the will of the people after vast demonstrations organised by liberals and leftists demanding Mursi's ouster. They have installed an interim administration to oversee a road map back to democracy.

'TARNISHED IMAGE'

The authorities now portray their quarrel with the Brotherhood, Egypt's best-organised political force, as a fight against terrorism and are jailing its leaders. They detained the group's “general guide”, Mohamed Badie, in Cairo on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which along with Kuwait have promised Egypt $12 billion in aid since Mursi's ouster, have frowned on Mubarak's detention all along. Arab diplomats said the conservative Gulf monarchies had lobbied for the release of a man they once valued as a strong regional ally.

Mubarak's jailing and trial, when he appeared in a courtroom cage, also affronted some Egyptian officers. One colonel, who asked not to be named, said the treatment of the former supreme military commander had “tarnished the army's image”.

Lobna Moneib, spokeswoman of the leftist Popular Current movement, said the court ruling posed a problem. “We think he is guilty and have called for him to be tried by revolutionary courts,” she said, advocating such trials for all Mubarak-era officials as well as for Mursi and his Brotherhood colleagues.

The United States, a close ally of Egypt since Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, said on Tuesday that the crackdown on protesters could influence U.S. aid. It denied reports it had already suspended assistance.

At issue is the future of about $1.23 billion in U.S. military assistance and $241 million in economic aid to Egypt.

Western nations were uneasy during Mursi's year in power, when he rammed through an Islamist-tinged constitution.

Washington has not denounced the army takeover as a “coup”, which under U.S. law would force a suspension of aid. The ensuing bloodshed, however, has dismayed the West.

U.S. Senator John McCain, a former Republican presidential nominee, said on Wednesday, “The slaughter of hundreds of Egyptians in the street is appalling to all of us.”

He said U.S. aid should be conditioned on a change in the constitution and scheduling of elections as soon as possible. “The present government is representative of no one,” he said.

The arrest of Badie, the Brotherhood's leader, is part of a wave of detentions among the upper echelons of the organisation.

Murad Ali, a media adviser to the Brotherhood's political party, and Safwat Hegazy, a fiery preacher, were arrested while trying to flee the country, state media reported on Wednesday.

The Brotherhood said the crackdown would prove futile.

“The putschists think that arresting the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and marring their image in the media will make Egyptians bow and give in to the coup,” it said.

“They have killed thousands, wounded thousands, arrested thousands but the (people) are continuing in their peaceful revolution, rejecting the coup and military rule.”

Additional reporting by Cairo bureau, Justyna Pawlak and John O'Donnell in Brussels, Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, and Elaine Lies in Tokyo; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Michael Georgy, Will Waterman, Alastair Macdonald and Peter Cooney

Life plus 1,000 years: Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro sentenced


An Ohio judge on Thursday sentenced Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro to life in prison for abducting, raping and holding captive three women for as long as 11 years, and murder for forcing one of the women to abort her pregnancy.

Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo imposed the prison sentence after an emotional court hearing at which one of Castro's victims, Michelle Knight, 32, said the former school bus driver put her through a life of hell.

“I served 11 years of hell. Now your hell is just beginning,” Knight said of Castro in a statement read to the court.

Castro pleaded guilty last week to hundreds of criminal charges to avoid the possibility of the death penalty.

Wearing leg shackles and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, Castro listened to her testimony without expression.

[Related: Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper]

Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23 and Knight, all went missing from the west side of Cleveland between 2002 and 2004. They were discovered on May 6 after neighbors heard Berry's cries for help from Castro's home.

Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro admitted at the hearing on Thursday that he was a sick man but said he is not the monster described by prosecutors.

Castro delivered a rambling statement to the court that he makes no excuses for his behavior, which he said was “wrong.”

Reporting by Kim Palmer; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Gunna Dickson

Thousands attend funeral of Palestinian who died in Israeli prison


Thousands of Palestinians attended the West Bank funeral of a Palestinian prisoner who died in an Israeli prison days after being arrested for participating in attacks on Israelis.

Arafat Jaradat, 30, was buried with military honors Monday in a village near Hebron, according to reports. He died Saturday of a heart attack in the Megiddo jail in northern Israel.

Following an autopsy on Sunday, Palestinian officials said that Jaradat was tortured before his death and died from that torture. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, fellow Megiddo prisoners said Jaradat fell ill after being tortured.

News of his death prompted the announcement of a three-day hunger strike by Palestinians in Israeli prisons, and clashes intensified throughout the West Bank.

The funeral follows days of escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, which has seen tensions mount recently over the status of Palestinian prisoners, some held without trial for years under administrative detention. Some of the prisoners have been on extended hunger strikes.

Following the autopsy, Israel's Health Ministry said in a statement that no signs of trauma apart from those pertaining to resuscitation attempts were found on the body, and that no evidence of disease were found. The coroner is waiting for microscopic and toxicology reports in order to determine the cause of death, according to the statement.

“The initial findings cannot determine the cause of death,” the statement said.

The autopsy at Israel's Abu Kabir Center for Forensic Medicine was conducted in the presence of a Palestinian pathologist and family members.

Israeli authorities said Jaradat was known to suffer from back pains and other maladies arising from previous clashes with Israeli troops, Haaretz said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem said it has limited official travel to the West Bank by U.S. government personnel and suspended personal travel to Bethlehem due to the demonstrations over Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

The consulate statement issued Monday also advised U.S. citizens to “defer non-essential travel to and within the West Bank and to exercise an extra measure of caution during this period.”

Spy suicide scandal focuses attention on Israel’s foreign Jews


The jailhouse suicide of an Australian immigrant who may have betrayed Israel's Mossad has focused attention on the agency's recruitment of foreign-born Jews who could spy under cover of their native passports.

After a three-year blackout was broken by an Australian TV expose, Israel on Wednesday acknowledged that a dual national had committed suicide in prison where he had been kept isolated in the name of state security.

Authorities made no effort to deny reports the man was 34-year-old Ben Zygier, a Melbourne Jew who moved to Israel, became a citizen, joined its military and Mossad, only to be arrested in early 2010 on suspicion of betraying secrets after Canberra began investigating trips he took to Middle East trouble-spots.

Such travel would be impossible for an Israeli but not for an Australian, especially if – according to one media account – Zygier used a passport reissued under a new, Anglicised name.

Israel has made little secret of seeing its influxes of foreign Jews, often from Muslim countries, as intelligence assets given their language skills and cultural savvy. Many immigrants recall being tapped by Mossad recruiters or asked to loan out their original passports, presumably a cover for spies.

But Israeli officials insist that Jews abroad are never used by Mossad against the interests of their countries – a lesson from the enlistment in the 1980s of U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, whose discovery provoked lasting outrage in Washington.

While some intelligence veterans say employing foreign-born Jews is consistent with the universally elastic ethics of espionage, it has dangers. Vetting foreign volunteers is difficult, opening Israel up to security leaks less likely with homegrown spies. Some experts say Israel also needs to be wary of miring allies in its shadow wars and stirring suspicions about the allegiances of Jews abroad.

THREAT TO A LOT OF PEOPLE

Warren Reed, a retired officer with Australia's overseas intelligence service ASIS, said the Zygier affair could endanger compatriots who might now be mistaken for Mossad spies while travelling in areas hostile to Israelis.

“This poses a threat to a lot of people, especially journalists who move around frequently,” Reed told Reuters.

While all intelligence agencies work with assumed or filched identities, Reed argued, Mossad creates a bigger probability of reprisals by “by being more severe in its actions, given Israel's security predicament”.

These actions are reputed to include assassinations, such as of a Palestinian weapons procurer in Dubai in 2010, in which the suspected Israeli hit-team used forged Australian and European passports.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida quoted unidentified Western sources on Thursday as saying Zygier took part in the Dubai operation and offered information on the killing of Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in return for the emirate's protection.

In another twist, Australia's Fairfax Media said Australian security officials suspected Zygier may have been about to disclose Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports, either to the Canberra government or to the media before his arrest.

LOYALTIES

Israel has not confirmed publicly that Zygier was a Mossad operative. But Avigdor Feldman, a criminal attorney who met Zygier in his isolated jail cell a day or two before his death, appeared to let slip that he was indeed a spy.

“The Mossad liaison I was in touch with informed me that, unfortunately, my client was no longer alive,” Feldman told Israel's Kol Barama radio station.

Nick Pratt, a retired U.S. Marines colonel and CIA officer now with the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, took a forgiving view of Mossad passport tactics.

“Israel is a unique country. They live in a bad neighbourhood and they will do anything they can to preserve and protect that country, and quite frankly I have absolutely no problem with that,” he said.

Citing his own experience of foreign nationals being brought in as CIA officers and then deployed to their areas of origin, Pratt said the priority was to ensure that their loyalty was exclusively to the recruiting country.

“Intelligence agencies break the law – but other people's laws,” he said.

Both Reed and Pratt said disclosures of Jewish diaspora involvement in Israeli espionage could stoke anti-Semitism and allegations of dual loyalty – an opinion shared by Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer who writes on intelligence issues.

“This is a problem that has always been there, and will remain,” Shimron said. “I don't know what to say, other than that the rule is: Never turn a Jew against his host country.”

While Zygier's family declined all public comment on his case, friends of the dead man recalled his Zionist upbringing and pride in Israel, where he was married and had children.

The idea that someone like Zygier had violated Mossad's code of silence, perhaps even imperilling lives, provoked soul-searching in Israel. “Did the Mossad operative commit treason?” asked the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth on its front page.

Shimron said this was a possibility, given Israel's past cases of double-agents and moles, among them Jewish immigrants.

“There's always the chance of bad apples in a batch of recruits. The trick is to weed them out in good time,” he said.

Reed suggested Mossad was likelier to miss warning signs in candidates from abroad, where Israel would find it harder to carry out comprehensive background checks and psychological screening, especially if there were a rush to find recruits to fend off proliferating Middle East menaces.

“If they don't have the time and inclination to carefully build up a picture of the person, including the first 20 years of his or her life, they never really find out what's in their heart,” Reed said.

“I would imagine that this paradox is a real problem for Israeli intelligence, and possibly people there are saying now, 'I warned you!'”

Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff

Life of an IDF ‘Refusenik’


Life in Israeli military prison, it turns out, is a lot like life in the Israeli military.

“We get up at 5 every morning and we have a morning roll call,” says 19-year-old Natan Blanc, a chronic prisoner at Prison Six, along the northern coast of Israel. He has spent almost two months at the military prison since refusing to join the army on Nov. 19, partly because of his horror at Israel’s recent actions against Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense.

“We are yelled at a lot, and we always have to notice that our shirt is tucked in, our hat is on, we have to be shaved, etc.,” Blanc wrote in an e-mail. “There is a constant threat that we will get more days in prison if we don’t behave ourselves.”

Conscientious objectors who refuse to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for political reasons are not allowed to be interviewed by the press while incarcerated, says an IDF spokeswoman who refuses to give her name. But Blanc — the latest in a long line of “refuseniks” who have chosen to protest the IDF’s military actions by dodging mandatory service — does what he can to answer this reporter’s questions in his few hours of freedom between stints at Prison Six.

Blanc is caught in a strange loophole in Israeli law: Each time he reports to the IDF recruitment center, he declares his refusal to serve. And each time he refuses to serve, he is arrested and sentenced to roughly 10 to 20 days in military prison. Yet each time he is released, he is summoned back to the IDF recruitment center within a couple of days, where he redeclares his refusal — and so the cycle spins.

“The government in Israel isn’t even trying to end this conflict [with Palestine],” Blanc explains upon arriving to the IDF recruitment center — for the fourth time — on a drizzly Sunday in January. “They’re not willing to give up on any land or anything to get peace, and I don’t think we will get peace without compromises.” Specks of hazel add warmth to his ice-blue eyes.

While the 19-year-old is receiving blog shout-outs from activists around the world, an avalanche of supportive messages in his inbox and dozens of protesters demonstrating in his honor on the hilltop overlooking Prison Six, he says that many fellow countrymen remain hostile to his decision. “There is a lot of anger in Israel against people who don’t ‘share the load’ and ‘contribute to the military effort,’ ” Blanc explains.

As he presents his draft notice to the IDF guards outside the recruitment center, Blanc appears shy, but not nervous — he’s done this before. 

The center is situated on a desolate army base about one half-hour east of Tel Aviv — a harsh plot of sparse trees, broken-down gates and dirt inroads, with the constant buzz of an army loudspeaker giving orders to Israeli youth in Hebrew. Reporting for duty here is something of a rite of passage for young citizens, who today march past Blanc and through the front gates with their papers in hand and their gaze toward the floor.

To passers-by, Blanc looks just like any other army kid: He’s on the brink of his 20s, with a close-shaven head and a backpack twice as thick as his torso.

But this teenager’s bag is packed for prison, not the territories. 

His father, David Blanc, a math professor at the University of Haifa and the mirror image of his son a few decades on, has driven Natan to the recruitment center from their home in Haifa this morning. The first drop-off in November was emotional, David says, but his son’s big statement has become somewhat of a routine. Two months in, the repeated gesture feels a little anticlimactic — 19-year-old Blanc says he’ll be waiting inside the center for hours before he gets taken into custody and hauled back to Prison Six — but at the same time rhythmic, and resolved. Every couple of weeks, when the young protester is released from jail and told to re-report for duty, he gets another opportunity to look IDF officials in the eye and tell them he doesn’t agree with their aggressive handling of the Palestinian territories.

Blanc wrote in his initial public statement that “after four years full of terror … it is clear that the Netanyahu government, like that of his predecessor Olmert, is not interested in finding a solution to the existing situation, but rather in preserving it.”

By sticking to this stance, the activist has signed himself up for the IDF’s infamously long and messy court cycle for conscientious objectors — one that has been criticized by rights organizations such as Israel’s New Profile as arbitrary, unpredictable and probably illegal under international law.

“The IDF’s policy was always to try somehow to find a solution, because there were very few conscientious objectors,” says Mordechai Bar-On, former chief education officer for the IDF. “They were jailed, and released, and jailed again, and then they somehow let them go.”

Blanc, too, has observed that typically, “The cycle of refusing, being sentenced and being assigned to another unit goes on for a few months. Then one of two things happens. Either the army gets tired of it and releases [the protesters] from service, or they get tired of it, and they fake a medical issue or a mental issue in order to get out of the army.”

There are many well-known ways to avoid serving in the IDF that do not end in prison time. Orthodox Jews, up to this point, have been excused from military service; many non-Orthodox Jews have claimed religious conflicts as well. Other draftees who don’t wish to bear arms are allowed to work IDF desk jobs instead. And although the IDF won’t reveal the methodology used by its Conscientious Objection Committee, the committee does indeed dismiss some proclaimed “pacifists” from duty — but usually only the ones who define themselves as vague peacenik types without any specific objections to the IDF’s actions, according to Israel Ministry of Justice documents published by the U.N. Refugee Agency.

One of the most popular excuses, though, is mental instability. Convincingly fake a psychological disorder, many young folks say, and you’re almost guaranteed an out.

In fact, that’s what Moriel Rothman, another conscientious objector who was released days before Blanc was admitted, resorted to after almost one month in jail and two rounds of this absurd dance with the IDF’s court system.

For Blanc, that’s not the point.

“It’s very difficult for me to refuse to follow the law,” the 19-year-old admits over the phone on his one day at home between prison spells. “But there’s something basically wrong about being in this kind of war.” He says he will not lie to army officials for a pass out of prison.

According to Tel Aviv University history professor Gadi Algazi (who was himself sentenced to one year behind bars for the same act of protest), anywhere from 600 to 1,000 refuseniks have shunned their IDF duty since the movement began in the early 1970s. Blanc is the only refusenik currently serving time at Prison Six for turning down IDF service in all capacities due to his political beliefs.

Blanc, for his part, first started considering the alternative path during Israel’s bloody Operation Cast Lead in 2008. He remembers sitting in front of the TV, watching the death toll in Gaza tick upward in real time. “The numbers of the people who died kept rising in the news,” he says. “And every time they went up, my friend said, ‘Look, now it’s more.’ He kept saying, ‘Very good, that’s the way.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to become like this?’ ”

His father, who describes himself as politically liberal, says he watched Natan “suddenly see the way they just start wars for no reason. In the books is one thing, but when you see it happening, it can change you.”

Beneath an article about Blanc published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, some online commenters have admired his bravery. But others call him nothing more than a draft dodger, and one writes: “If this traitor refuses to fight Arab occupation of Jewish land then he should rot in jail … .”

Blanc says he will gladly do so to further his cause.

“As representatives of the people,” he wrote in his public statement, “members of the cabinet have no duty to present their vision for the futures of the country, and they can continue with this bloody cycle, with no end in sight. But we, as citizens and human beings, have a moral duty to refuse to participate in this cynical game.”

Israeli Supreme Court shortens whistleblower’s prison term


Israel's Supreme Court on Monday shortened by a year the 4-1/2-year prison term of a soldier who gave a journalist classified military documents, some relating to operations against Palestinian militants.

Ruling on Anat Kamm's appeal against the length of her sentence, the court said it was disproportionate to the penalty of four months of community service imposed on Uri Blau, a reporter for Haaretz, an Israeli left-wing daily.

Some of the 700 classified documents copied by Kamm, a clerk in a general's headquarters during her 2005-2007 army service, were the basis for reports by Blau that some assassinations of Palestinian militants authorized by senior officers may have violated Israeli law.

In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled the military had the right to assassinate members of Palestinian groups that Israel classifies as terrorist organizations. But the court said planners must have “strong and convincing” information that a killing is necessary and always try to avoid harming bystanders.

Although Blau's reports were submitted to the military censor, who approved their publication, he was accused of illegally possessing classified documents and agreed to a plea bargain in July.

Kamm, who cited ideological motives for her actions, admitted in a plea bargain to charges of espionage, collection and possession of secret information and passing it onwards. She began serving her sentence in November 2011.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Editorial Cartoon: California’s death penalty by the numbers


Death penalty

Cuba says Gross in ‘normal’ health, willing to negotiate his release


A Cuban Foreign Ministry official rejected claims by the wife of Alan Gross that the jailed American contractor was in ill health and said Cuba was willing to negotiate his release with U.S. officials.

“The state of health of Mr. Gross continues being normal and he regularly does intense physical exercises,” Foreign Ministry official Josefina Vidal said in a statement Wednesday.

Vidal added that Cuba reiterates its willingness “to find a solution in the case of Mr. Gross and continues to await an answer,” The Associated Press reported.

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community.

“While his spirit remains strong, I fear he is not going to survive this terrible ordeal,” Judy Gross said in a statement released by the family's lawyers Tuesday, just after she returned from a four-day trip to Cuba.

Gross reportedly has lost more than 100 pounds since his arrest and his family says he is suffering from degenerative arthritis. His mother is dying and one of his daughters is battling cancer.

Cuban officials have suggested previously a prisoner swap in which Gross would be exchanged for five Cuban spies, four of whom have been jailed in the United States on spying charges for 14 years. One of the convicted spies was allowed to return to Cuba last year to serve out his three-year probation period.

Pollard supporters call Clinton’s remarks a ‘slap in the face’


Supporters of Jonathan Pollard called Hillary Clinton’s remarks rejecting his possible clemency “a resounding slap in the face” to Israel’s leaders and its people.

“With respect to Mr. Pollard, he was convicted of spying in 1987, he was sentenced to life in prison, he is serving that sentence, and I do not have any expectations that that is going to change,” Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, said Monday night during a news conference in Jerusalem in answer to a reporter’s question about Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel.

The Committee to Bring Jonathan Pollard Home and Justice for Jonathan Pollard said in a statement issued Tuesday that Clinton’s remarks “stunned her Israeli hosts and marred the warm reception she received from the Israeli public.” The statement noted Pollard’s “unprecedented 27 years in prison.”

Pollard supporters expressed anger in the statement that Clinton offered no explanation “as to why the U.S. wants to keep the aging and very ill Pollard in
prison forever” and called for an official response to numerous formal requests for clemency for Pollard from Clinton’s boss, President Obama. 

Clinton, while campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 2000, said that she had concerns about “due process issues regarding Jonathan Pollard’s sentence.”

Pollard has been at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina since his arrest in 1986. A succession of presidents has refused to grant clemency to Pollard since he was sentenced to life in 1987.

The calls to release Pollard, who is said to be in ill health, have intensified in recent months, with pleas from lawmakers and former top officials of both parties.

Israeli officers get 30 months for dumping Palestinian prisoner


Two Israeli police officers convicted of leaving a Palestinian car thief to die were sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Assaf Yekutieli and Baruch Peretz were convicted in May by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court of being responsible for the death of Abu Jariban when they dumped him on the side of the road two weeks after he was seriously injured in a car accident while driving a stolen vehicle. Jariban, of the Gaza Strip, was in Israel illegally when he was injured.

Jariban’s condition seemingly had stabilized and he was released from a hospital into the custody of the officers, who left him after discovering that there was no room for him at an Israel Prison Service’s medical facility. He was found dead two days later; the causes were exposure and dehydration.

The court said the sentence was more severe than those given in similar cases because of the officers’ appalling behavior.

Attorneys for Yekutieli and Peretz said they would appeal the ruling.

‘Fly-in’ activists draw swastika in holding cell


Two activists who arrived in Israel as part of the pro-Palestinian “fly-in” protest drew a large swastika on the wall of their holding cell.

The activists, who were deported Monday, were from France and Spain.

The swastika was drawn two days before the country marks Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

A picture of the swastika will be distributed to the foreign media by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the Immigration Authority told Ynet.

Israel detained 79 activists at Ben Gurion Airport and prevented them from entering the country. Twenty-one of the activists have been returned to their point of origin. More than 50 French activists have refused to be returned home. Deportation measures are in effect to forcibly remove them from the country.

Nevada inmates to receive kosher meals after lawsuit is settled


The Nevada Department of Corrections, responding to an inmate’s lawsuit, agreed to provide Orthodox Jewish inmates with kosher-certified meals.

Corrections department officials said this week that the department would obtain rabbinic kosher certification of food prepared for those who joined the lawsuit filed by Howard Ackerman “and demonstrate an ability to maintain such certification,” the Los Vegas Review-Journal reported. A hearing on the lawsuit had been set for April 18.

Ackerman’s lawsuit filed in January claimied the newly instituted “common fare” menu was not kosher and thus violated his First Amendment right of religious freedom.

An injunction ordered by a federal judge in Nevada prevented the department from serving the new menu to Ackerman and included the nearly 300 other inmates who were receiving a kosher diet in the injunction.

Ackerman, 51, is an Orthodox Jew who is serving a life sentence for kidnapping.

Palestinian woman on hunger strike in prison


A Palestinian woman, released by Israel in a prisoner swap last year but re-arrested earlier this month and held without charge, is on a hunger strike to protest at her treatment, officials said on Monday.

Hana Shalabi started refusing to eat 12 days ago, her lawyer and a Palestinian prisoner’s organization said, becoming the second Palestinian detainee to go on a hunger strike in quick succession.

Israel struck a deal last week with Khader Adnan, who is a member of the militant Islamic Jihad movement, persuading him to end his 66-day fast after assuring him that he would be released in April from his detention without trial.

Shalabi, 30, is also a member of Islamic Jihad, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

She was seized from her home in the West Bank on Feb. 16 and has complained of repeated mistreatment. Her lawyer said she has been put in solitary confinement as punishment for the hunger strike.

“She told me that she was beaten in front of her family at the time of her arrest, in prison during interrogation and again when she refused to succumb to a full body search by male soldiers,” lawyer Fawaz Shaloudi told Reuters.

A spokeswoman for Israel’s Prisons Service, disputing the allegations, said Shalabi had been on hunger strike for only eight days.

“The isolation was part of routine procedure to deal with hunger strikers and she was put in a cell on her own, but it was not solitary confinement punishment. Today she was returned to a cell with another inmate,” spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said.

“There has been no mistreatment in prison. She was not searched by a male prison guard and she is getting visits. Indeed, she has not complained of mistreatment while in the custody of the Prisons Service,” Weizman added.

Shalabi was held by Israel for 25 months under so-called administrative detention before she was released last October as part of a prisoner swap in which some 1,000 Palestinians were freed in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held incommunicado by militants in Gaza for five years.

Israeli human rights groups have condemned detention without trial. Israeli authorities say the procedure is used in some security-related cases and helps to protect confidential sources from exposure in court.

Qaddoura Fares, the chairman of the main Palestinian prisoner’s organization, said 310 Palestinians are in administrative detention. He said that since the Shalit deal, 15 Palestinians have been rearrested and six are still in jail.

Reporting By Jihan Abdalla and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Palestinian prisoner ends 66-day hunger strike


A Palestinian held in an Israeli jail without charge agreed to end his 66-day hunger strike.

Khader Adnan, 33, ended the hunger strike Tuesday after the State Prosecutor’s Office agreed that it would not renew his administrative detention, which is set to end on April 17.

Adnan has been held in administrative detention since his arrest on Dec. 17, 2010, on the basis of “secret evidence” that he is a threat to regional security. A prisoner can be held in administrative detention, without charges being brought, for up to four months.

He reportedly is a member of Islamic Jihad.

The deal was announced early Tuesday afternoon before Adnan’s scheduled appeal before Israel’s Supreme Court. The hearing was cancelled at the last minute.

Doctors had warned Israeli officials that Adnan could die at any moment, according to reports. He was taking liquid infusions of salts, glucose and minerals. It reportedly was the longest hunger strike ever undertaken by a Palestinian prisoner in Israel.

Adnan was set to be transferred to a hospital in the West Bank to recover from the hunger strike.

Palestinian on hunger strike in Israeli prison denied release


A Palestinian man in the 59th day of a hunger strike was denied release from an Israeli prison, where he is being held without charge.

Khader Adnan has been held in an Israeli prison since his arrest by Israeli soldiers on Dec. 17. He can be held in administrative detention, without charges being brought, for four months. The administrative detention went into effect on Jan. 8.

A military court judge on Monday denied Adnan’s appeal to be released or have his detention reduced. Adnan is a member of Islamic Jihad.

Adnan is on a hunger strike, only drinking water, to protest his detention without charge, as well as humiliating treatment in prison, according to reports.

He reportedly is too weak to stand up on his own, though he is shackled to a hospital bed.

Israeli tourist released from Chile jail


An Israeli tourist charged by Chile with accidentally starting a massive forest fire in a popular national park was fined and released.

Rotem Singer, 23, was ordered by a court in Puerto Natales to pay a $10,000 fine to the government of Chile and perform two years of community service for the Jewish National Fund. JNF and its Israeli branch Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael will help raise money to plant 50,000 new trees in the Torres del Paine national park.

Singer, of the central Israeli city of Nes Tziona, was arrested Dec. 31 and released on bail. He was ordered to remain in the region while the case was investigated. He is accused of setting fire to toilet paper in order to dispose of the trash and of not putting out the fire well enough.

Some 48 wildfires burned more than 32,000 acres of forest in the national park in late December and early January, and destroyed at least 100 homes.

Under the agreement, Singer was not implicated in the fire. Ynet reported that Singer will continue on his post-army backpack trip.

Turkey’s jails filling up with journalists


Aziz Tekin, a correspondent for the Kurdish-language newspaper Azadiya Welat, had the misfortune of becoming a news item himself over the weekend when he became the 105th journalist in Turkey to be put behind bars.

That places Turkey – a country usually hailed as an exemplar of democracy and Islam – ahead of such repressive regimes as Iran and China with the largest number jailed journalists in the world according to the Platform of Solidarity with Imprisoned Journalists.

Others take issue with exactly how many of the detainees are being held purely for doing their jobs, but they don’t deny that scores of media professionals are being detained and face laws and a judicial system that makes it easy to put and keep them behind bars.

“The press is quite pluralistic and rather free, but it remains dangerous for a journalist who writes a critical article against the government, especially on the Kurdish issue or criticizing the judiciary. The risk of getting arrested is really high,” Johann Bihr, head of the Europe desk at the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, told The Media Line.

The number of detentions has increased “exponentially” in recent months, he said. Turkey fell 10 places on Reporters’ International Press Freedom Index to 148 among 179 countries. 

In December, some 30 journalists were rounded up in raids across the country targeting the Kurdish separatist movement. A day before Tekin was hauled in, a court in Istanbul refused to release 13 journalists including Ahmet Sık and Nedim Sener of the Oda TV news portal.

The wave of arrests prompted the U.S. author Paul Auster, whose books are popular in Turkey, to declare he is boycotting the country. “I refuse to come to Turkey because of imprisoned journalists and writers. How many are jailed now? Over 100?” Auster told the Istanbul daily Hurriyet this week.

The arrests come against a background of a changing power dynamic in Turkish politics. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the first Islamist movement ever to rule in Turkey, is marking a decade in power, presiding over a booming economy while it gently inserts more religion into public life and its backers into key institutions like the courts and the military.

The army, which once dominated Turkish politics and served as a guardian of the country’s secularism, is in retreat.

Erkan Saka, who teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s communications school and blogs at Erkan’s Field Diary, said the arrests are part of that realignment, which is now encompassing the secular, establishment media. “Under normal conditions, mainstream media has values in parallel to establishment, but now establishment itself is changing,” he said.

The arrests almost always involve journalists linked to Kurdish separatism or a shadowy anti-government conspiracy called Ergenekon that officials have been investigating in what they say was a wide-ranging plot by the army and other members of the old elite to overthrow the AKP.

Critics say the judiciary, which is directly responsibility for the arrests, makes little effort to distinguish between people covering controversial issues and the people and movements they are covering. Thus last December, the scores people rounded up for alleged links with a Kurdish separatist movement included journalists and Kurdish activists alike.

“All their interrogations have focused on the articles they have written and trips they have made—why did you attend a conference by left-wing or pro-Kurdish academics? Why did you decide to cover a pro-Kurdish demonstration?” said Reporters Without Border’s Bihr. “It’s really likely that prosecutors have nothing on them except their profession.”

Arrests are not the only problem besetting the country’s media. Turkey has introduced tougher Internet censorship, has pursued what critics say is politically motivated tax cases against media groups and deals harshly with people who violate bans on denigrating the Turkish state.

Media observers blame the judiciary first and foremost for the arrests. Turkey’s anti-terrorism law and penal codes give them a lot of latitude to detain people and to keep them under lock and key without filing formal indictments. One of the reasons media experts are not sure about the number of journalists under arrest is that it is impossible to see the charges filed against them.

When the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published in December its annual census of imprisoned journalists it could only verify that eight were actually being held for their writing and reporting, a fraction of the 64 or so others counted. The estimate triggered a sharp debate in the human rights community. 

But Erdogan and others in the government have come to the defense of the country’s media freedom. “Turkey does not deserve the negative image portrayed to the world by the main opposition and some journalists and writers,” he said last week at an event marking the 25th anniversary of a pro-government newspaper, Zaman.

Others would beg to differ. They say that Erdogan has encouraged an atmosphere of press hostility with personal attacks on journalists who criticize him and his government and by personally pursing defamation lawsuits. Indeed, while defending the country’s record on media freedom, he decried in the same speech media conspiracies against the government.

“If you claim to have media freedom, you shouldn’t launch attacks on [newspaper] columnists who are critical of you. But he does that all that time,” Saka said.  “That triggers anti-journalist feeling in the bureaucracy and judiciary.”

Pollard’s wife: Jonathan may not last another year in prison


The wife of convicted spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard said her husband may not survive another year in prison.

Pollard, who entered his 27th year in prison on Monday, is suffering from several medical complications, according to his wife, Esther. Polllard married his wife while he was in prison.

“In the last year, as Jonathan’s [medical] condition became worse, he was too weak to even sit through a one-hour visit. I feel he’s withering away in front of my very eyes,” Esther Pollard said in a statement.

She added that after “26 years, all his systems are feeble and we both know that the next emergency hospitalization or operation are just a matter a time, and that no one is promising us he’ll make it through.”

Pollard has been hospitalized four times this year.

Esther Pollard’s statement came as the Justice for Jonathan Pollard campaign called on its supporters to call the White House and send the message “Free Jonathan Pollard Now.”

The campaign has publicized the White House’s phone number and set up a special number in Israel that goes directly to the White House for the cost of a local call, according to Ynet.

Current and former U.S. lawmakers and government officials have called on President Obama in recent months to grant clemency to Pollard, who was convicted of espionage in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a formal request for Pollard’s clemency to Obama. Also that month, more than 500 religious and community leaders asked Obama in a letter to commute Pollard’s sentence to time served.

Madoff says he is happier in prison than free


Financial swindler Bernard Madoff said that he is happier in prison than he was on the outside because he no longer lives in fear of being arrested and knows he will die in prison, TV journalist Barbara Walters said on Thursday.

Walters, who spent two hours at the prison with Madoff two weeks ago, also told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program that Madoff said that while he had contemplated suicide during his early days behind bars, he lacked the courage and never thinks about killing himself now.

Madoff is serving a 150-year prison term for bilking investors out of billions of dollars in a decades-long Ponzi scheme that is considered the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history.

Madoff’s wife, Ruth, said in an interview to be aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program on Sunday that the couple actually tried to kill themselves by taking pills on Christmas Eve 2008 after the fraud was exposed.

“I don’t know whose idea it was, but we decided to kill ourselves because it was so horrendous what was happening,” Ruth Madoff said of the failed attempt.

Walters did not address the subject of suicide on Thursday. She said Madoff and his wife are now estranged.

The couple’s elder son, Mark, 46, hanged himself in his New York apartment on Dec. 11, the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. Mark and Andrew Madoff turned in their father to authorities a day after he confessed to them.

Walters said Madoff, 73, was distraught over his son’s suicide, and that his wife wanted to stop visiting him in prison after that and he agreed. He has not seen her since, Walters said.

“Ruth does not hate me. She has no one, and this is not fair to her,” Walters quoted Madoff as saying.

“He has terrible remorse, he says he knows that he ruined his family,” Walters said, adding that Madoff told her that with the help of therapy he does not think about what he has done, but “at night he says he has horrible nightmares.”

The interview, one of several involving the Madoff family to surface in the past week, was not filmed because cameras are not allowed in the North Carolina facility where Madoff is serving time.

Walters said Madoff speaks of being happier now because for the first time in 20 years he has no fear of being arrested.

“I feel safer here than outside,” Madoff told Walters.

“I have people to talk to, no decisions to make … now I have no fear because I’m no longer in control” and “know that I will die in prison,” she said he told her.

As for his crimes, Madoff said, “the average person thinks I robbed widows and orphans. I made wealthy people wealthier.”

Walters said Madoff told her, “every once in a while I find myself smiling, and I’m horrified.”

Mark Madoff’s widow Stephanie said in interviews ahead of the publication of her book that Madoff had boasted in a letter to her of being treated like a celebrity, and Walters corroborated this, saying that he told her the prisoners, “especially the younger ones,” treat him with respect.

Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Greg McCune

Judge rules U.S. inmate has no right to matzah


A U.S. federal judge has ruled that an inmate in a New York jail does not have a constitutionally protected right to matzah and grape juice.

Christopher Henry, who was charged with first-degree sodomy, claimed permanent trauma and malnourishment and requested nearly $10 billion in damages for what he called a violation of his First Amendment right to religious freedom.

Henry didn’t request matzah for Passover, the Jewish holiday during which it is traditionally eaten. Instead, Henry claimed he had a right to have the unleavened bread served daily and grape juice every Friday.

But on Aug. 2, U.S. Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin held that the Rikers Island jail could deny Henry his request in the interests of maintaining order and keeping costs reasonable.

“Providing individualized meals to a single inmate might well foster an impression of favoritism, which could lead to jealousy and resentment among the inmate population, which in turn could cause tension and threaten prison security,” she wrote.

“Similarly, providing individualized meals to one or several inmates would involve a substantial increase in administrative costs.”

Scheindlin noted that Henry already receives Kosher meals and is allowed to meet with a rabbi.

Henry, who represented himself, has filed a number of lawsuits against the department of corrections, including claims based on the permitted length of phone calls and lack of conjugal visits.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder)

Opinion: Solitary Confinement -When Solitude Is No Longer a Virtue


Last week, there was a major Congressional briefing on the effects of long-term solitary confinement.

Experts demonstrated that prolonged, isolated confinement causes serious psychological damage. Yet, most courts and legislatures have been unwilling to declare this harsh practice unconstitutional or to change this nation’s current unethical practice. Can anyone hear the cries from the hole?

Many legal scholars understand confinement that is longer than a few weeks or is continued indefinitely to be psychological torture and cruel and unusual punishment because the lack of human contact and sensory deprivation can deeply harm one’s mental state and lead to mental illness or death. EEG studies show diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement, not to mention the lethargy, chronic apathy, depression and despair. The paradox is that the more humans are starved of human interaction and companionship, the more unfit they become for social interaction.

Almost 90 percent of those in solitary confinement cultivate further challenges with “irrational anger” as compared to just 3 percent of the general population. Scholars have attributed this to the extended absence of any opportunities for happiness or joy.  

Yet, today there are at least 70,000 to 100,000 inmates living in isolated conditions in the United States every day (25,000 in super-max prisons alone), and many of these extremely harsh conditions are also in clear violation of international human rights law. How can this be?

A few hundred years ago, religious advocates of solitary confinement argued that it provides the opportunity for one to reflect on one’s sins and that this would lead to reformation. Today, we know that being locked, isolated from one and all, in a cell 48 square feet or smaller will not lead to the positive transformation of the soul that some hope for.

There is currently no empirical evidence that the “hot box” reduces violence or gang presence in prison or that it increases public safety. In fact, a 1997 study in Washington state actually found the opposite — that solitary confinement was correlated with higher recidivism. It is highly likely that one placed in solitary confinement will commit more crimes upon release from incarceration.

Some argue that using long-term isolation helps to provide discipline and prevent violence. However, a major study in 2003 demonstrated that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged by the use of solitary, and that levels of inmate-on-staff violence changed unpredictably, rising in Arizona, falling in Illinois and holding steady in Minnesota.

The violence is due to overcrowding. Over the past 30 years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but hasn’t increased prison space, while work and education programs have been canceled. Prisoners are left idle — a formula for violence.

While there are specific cases where some limited isolation of a criminal is needed for the protection of others, the practice is used in many cases beyond this. At the least, we all can support isolation time limits, better data collection, more mental health screening and care, and reductions in overcrowding and overall incarceration rates. Inmates should be informed as to how long their solitary confinement will be and what they can do to increase or decrease that time. There can be a reduction of isolation by using out-of-cell time and a system of progressive housing when transferring prisoners out of solitary confinement and back into the general outside population.

There is hope for change. Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, New York and Vermont have begun to reform their solitary practices. California and other states must follow their lead to ensure that prisoners are treated more humanely. Congress is discussing the future of this practice; now is the time to make our voices heard.

As Jews, we can be motivated by one of the first statements about the human condition that is made in the Torah, when God said, “lo tov heyot ha’adam levado” — one should never live alone! The Talmud actually compares an isolated lack of social discourse to death: “Choose either a learning partner or death.” Partnership and companionship are part and parcel of a good life.

Only one character in the Torah — he who is stricken with skin blemishes — must live in isolation. This was a particular spiritual remedy for a spiritual ailment used in biblical times that clearly would have no place in today’s system of punitive justice. But even here, it is not in a small, dark space, but rather just beyond the settlement limits, set aside as a space for reflection.

Teshuvah (repentance) is best achieved through positive relationships, not isolation. In the biblical City of Refuge (Ir Ha’Miklat), the residents (prisoners) lived with the Levites (the leaders of the generation). Rehabilitation and growth happens not in isolation but around role models of compassion, spirituality and good values.

Some of the great Jewish sages were victims of solitary confinement. In the second century, 70 rabbinic sages were placed in solitary confinement to translate the Torah into Greek. Most rabbinic teachings portray the result of this torture to have been destructive to Torah. The unified interpretation of the Torah into another language that emerged might demonstrate how confinement destroys the potential for human uniqueness and personal nuance.

While we may embrace solitude as a spiritual practice — and only for the very few, at that! — extreme forced isolation is not an acceptable Jewish model of punishment. As Congress currently debates the future of this practice in America, the Jewish community must continue to be at the forefront of the struggle for human rights.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the senior Jewish educator at UCLA Hillel, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, and a fifth-year doctoral candidate in moral psychology and epistemology at Columbia University.