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The Buzz

Need-to-know news

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Habit-forming

A cold day in Moscow brought a cold-blooded end to the life of Stanislav Markelov, a Russian human-rights lawyer devoted to battling Russian abuses of Chechens. A masked assailant gunned down the 34-year-old attorney in broad daylight, less than a half mile from the Kremlin. The gunman also shot and killed Anastasia Baburova, a freelance journalist in her mid-20s who tried to intervene. Russia's state-run news agency reported the assailant used a silencer on his gun and shot Markelov at close range in the back of the head, indicating a planned killing. Authorities haven't named a suspect.

Markelov fought the early release of a Russian colonel convicted of strangling a Chechen woman in 2000, and told reporters he was considering filing an international court appeal in the case. Authorities released Col. Yuri Budanov one week before Markelov's murder.

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The killing drew comparisons to the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a high-profile Russian journalist who wrote about Russian abuses in Chechnya. Politkovskaya, once a client of Markelov, was one of more than 12 journalists killed in Russia in the last eight years.

Kremlin critic and human-rights activist Lev Ponomaryov lamented the latest murder in a pattern of violence against Russian critics and said: "When one needed a bold journalist, one called Politkovskaya; when one needed a bold lawyer, one called Markelov."

China bailout

Since when do capitalists urge communists to increase government spending? Since China's roaring surge toward modernization hit the global economic downturn. Growth in the fast-developing nation slowed to just 9 percent last year, down from the 13 percent of 2007 and the first time since 2002 that the number dipped below 10 percent-raising concerns that 2009 might fail to meet the baseline standard of 8 percent that Beijing officials say is necessary to maintain employment levels. Economists hope that China's $600 billion stimulus package can reverse the downward trend, but some project that growth could dip as low as 5 percent in 2009 before an upswing begins. Newly confirmed U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wants China to adopt "a more aggressive stimulus package as we do our part to try to pass a stimulus package here at home."

Split decision

A Vermont judge ruled Jan. 28 that Isabella Miller, 6, should remain in the custody of her biological mother, Lisa Miller, but granted extensive visitation rights to Miller's former lesbian partner, Janet Jenkins ("Are you my mother," May 12, 2007). While Miller is still pursuing appeals in Virginia, Judge William Cohen warned her that failure to comply with the court-ordered visitation, which includes five weeks in the summer, could jeopardize her custody rights. According to Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel, which is representing Miller, the latest ruling underscores the importance of the federal Defense of Marriage Act: "If that law is repealed, it would be over for us. We would have no more hope to fight for Isabella's future."

Slower snail mail

Faced with a potential volume loss of over 15 billion pieces of mail, the U.S. Postal Service is projecting a total net loss of $5 billion this year. On Jan. 28 Postmaster General John E. Potter asked Congress to allow a one-day-a-week cut in mail delivery: "I do not make this request lightly, but I am forced to consider every option given the severity of our challenge."

Gaza recovery

When Israel ended a three-week Gaza offensive aimed at weakening Hamas, Gazans began assessing damage and looking for aid. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia offered a swift, sweeping response: a pledge of $1 billion for reconstruction. United Nations (UN) aid chief John Holmes said the UN would raise money for emergency repairs, but warned an ongoing power struggle between Gaza's Hamas rulers and the opposing Palestinian party, Fatah, would mire aid efforts.

Israeli officials said they wanted to direct international aid to moderate forces in Gaza instead of handing funds to Hamas, a militant party that launched some 6,000 rockets into Israel over the last three years.

Relief groups, including Christian organizations like Barnabas Fund and Open Doors USA, are aiding both Muslims and the region's small Christian minority, working with local Bible societies and churches to provide food vouchers to residents. World Vision is preparing emergency kits for up to 100,000 people but says distribution depends on delivery access over Israel's otherwise closed border.

Stem-cell trial

The Food and Drug Administration granted approval Jan. 23 for California biotechnology company Geron Corporation to conduct the first human clinical trial using embryonic stem cells. Researchers plan to inject the stem cells, which were derived from leftover embryos at fertility clinics prior to former President George W. Bush's 2001 research restrictions, into the spines of up to 10 patients who suffer from severe spinal cord injuries. While the study will focus primarily on the safety of using the cells in humans, many proponents view the trial as the first step to further embryonic stem-cell research under the Obama administration. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., a vocal critic of embryonic stem-cell research, questioned the FDA's decision: "With the approval of a clinical trial utilizing embryonic stem cells, the FDA has taken it upon itself to determine when human embryos should be subject to research and experimentation."

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