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Dispatches

News

Issue: "What price conscience?," April 19, 2014

March 31: An Afghan National Army soldier watches as soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division patrol below near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan. The primary mission of soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division stationed at FOB Shank is to advise and assist Afghan National Security Forces. Security was at a heightened state as Afghanistan prepared for the April 5 presidential election.

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Wednesday, March 19

Fred Phelps
The Topeka Capital Journal/AP
Fred Phelps

Final picket

Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, a former civil rights lawyer who became infamous for picketing military funerals, died at the age of 84. Phelps, his family, and his church in Topeka, Kan., earned condemnation from evangelical and secular Americans for protesting funerals of servicemen, tornado victims, or AIDS patients. They proclaimed a message of God’s judgment on national sins that lacked any good news, and carried signs reading “God hates fags” or “Thank God for dead soldiers.” In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Constitution protected Westboro Baptist’s funeral pickets as free speech. Phelps’ estranged son Nathan said the church’s elder board had excommunicated the pastor last year after a power struggle.

Toyota fined 

The U.S. Justice Department imposed a $1.2 billion fine on Toyota—its largest such penalty against an automaker—for hiding safety defects from the public in “blatant disregard” of the law. Under the settlement, Toyota admitted to withholding information about accelerator pedals that might stick or become entrapped by floor mats.

Thursday, March 20

Serena Hotel
Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
Serena Hotel

Pre-election terror 

Four Taliban gunmen launched a gruesome attack inside the luxurious Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing nine before being gunned down by police. After smuggling small pistols into a hotel restaurant inside their shoes, the men shot patrons at point-blank range, including three small children (one survived). The same day, Taliban fighters stormed a police compound in Jalalabad, killing 10 officers. And on March 25, suicide bombers attacked election offices in Kabul, killing five. The attacks, along with others that month, were part of a Taliban campaign to disrupt Afghanistan’s presidential election, scheduled for April 5.

Free speech victory

In a decision an Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer called “a powerful message for academic freedom and free speech,” a U.S. District Court jury ruled the University of North Carolina Wilmington retaliated against associate criminal justice professor Mike Adams because of his conservative views. Adams, a former atheist who converted to Christianity, had argued the school denied him a promotion because of his conservative columns addressing subjects like abortion, homosexuality, and religion.

Friday, March 21

Vladimir Putin
Alexei Druzhinin/Presidential Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP
Vladimir Putin

Crimea annexed

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty finalizing the annexation of Crimea, a process begun earlier in the week after residents of the peninsula illegally voted to secede from Ukraine. Condemning Russia’s move, the United States and European Union announced economic sanctions against elite Russian officials and businessmen. “No amount of propaganda can make right something the world knows is wrong,” said President Barack Obama in a March 26 speech before EU leaders in Brussels.

Marriage overruled 

A federal judge in Detroit overturned Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage in a lesbian couple’s adoption case. Voters had approved the ban in 2004. “The guarantee of equal protection must prevail,” wrote U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman. Michigan joins Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, and Virginia as states where federal judges have overturned traditional marriage laws since last summer. Appeals are pending.

Saturday & Sunday, March 22-23

Wave of mud

Softened by spring rains, 600 feet of hillside near Oso, Wash., suddenly gave way on March 22, pitching evergreen trees, damming a river, and demolishing a cluster of four dozen homes in a wave of mud nearly a mile wide and up to 40 feet deep. Rescue teams pulled several people from the mire, but muddy ground slowed search efforts. A little more than a week later the teams had confirmed 27 deaths, with over a dozen people unaccounted for. The hill had been known among geologists as unstable for decades. It experienced a much smaller mudslide in 2006.

Surprise hit 

God’s Not Dead, a low-budget Christian film about a student who believes in God and a professor who doesn’t, was a surprise hit at the weekend box office. Released in just 780 theaters, the movie was the fourth most popular for the weekend, earning $9.2 million. Divergent, the latest fantasy thriller targeted to teens, ranked first, pulling in $54.6 million.

Church attack 

During a Sunday morning worship service at Joy in Jesus Church near Mombasa, Kenya, two gunmen burst into the building and began firing on Christian congregants. Six worshippers died, including an assistant pastor. The attackers fled, but were believed to be Muslims affiliated with al-Shabaab, the extremist group that invaded Westgate Mall in Nairobi last year.

Monday, March 24

Addenbrooke: D. Dinneen • Ultrasound: Ryan J. Lane/iStock

Burnt for fuel

A British television news investigation revealed that government-run hospitals in the United Kingdom not only dispose of the bodies of aborted or miscarried babies in trash incinerators, but sometimes burn them for fuel. Channel 4 Dispatches found that two major hospitals with “waste-to-energy” incinerators, built as a “green” heating source, added the remains of nearly 2,000 babies as biofuel. Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge told mothers the babies had been “cremated.” The U.K. Department of Health ordered an immediate stop to the practice upon hearing of the report.

Mass death penalty 

After a trial that lasted just two days, a three-judge panel in Minya, Egypt, sentenced 529 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for rioting and killing a police commander in August. Legal experts said the sentencing was excessive and unprecedented in modern Egyptian history, and unlikely to withstand appeal. A day later, a second mass trial of 863 Islamist suspects began, with charges including murder and sabotage. The Egyptian government has cracked down on the now-outlawed Brotherhood since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July.

Core rejection 

Gov. Mike Pence signed a law making Indiana the first state to reject the national Common Core education standards after originally adopting them. The Core standards for K-12 math and English met opposition from Hoosiers worried about academic decline and federal overreach. The new law requires Indiana to craft its own statewide standards by July 1.

Tuesday, March 25

Jay Carney
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Jay Carney

Endless extensions 

Two weeks after insisting it had no legal authority to extend the March 31 deadline for Americans to sign up for Obamacare, the Obama administration extended it. By checking a blue box on HealthCare.gov, people late to obtain insurance can indicate they already tried to enroll, but ran into a problem with the glitchy healthcare exchange website. The extension relies on self-attestation, so anyone could claim the loophole, until at least mid-April. After then, enrollees facing website problems will be able to request an extension over the phone. Justifying the move, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted the official deadline remained March 31: “If you’re in line before the polls close, you get to vote.”

Wednesday, March 26

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter wears APU for “All Players United” on wrist tape as he scores a touchdown.
Associated Press/Photo by Nam Y. Huh
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter wears APU for “All Players United” on wrist tape as he scores a touchdown.

Student workers

In a decision experts called “revolutionary” for college sports, the National Labor Relations Board ruled football players at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., were treated like employees and therefore have a right to unionize. With an approval vote, they would be the first unionized football team in the NCAA, where players do not earn salaries but sometimes receive scholarships. Northwestern plans to appeal the ruling, which could otherwise trigger unionization bids at other schools. The group pushing the case, the College Athletes Players Association, wants schools to provide long-term medical coverage for sports injuries, reduce the risk of concussions, and give players permission to sign commercial deals.

Edge planets 

Astronomers announced in Nature the discovery of a probable dwarf planet orbiting far beyond Pluto. The object, dubbed officially as 2012 VP113 and unofficially as “Biden” (after the U.S. vice president), is about 280 miles in diameter. It may be one of hundreds of dwarf planets at the distant edge of our solar system.

Thursday, March 27

Pro-life law upheld 

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Texas abortion laws that sparked a Democratic filibuster in the State House last year and have resulted in the closing of 17 abortion centers so far. Requiring abortionists to have local hospital admitting privileges and abide by other rules does not infringe on women’s constitutional rights, the three-judge panel said, overturning an earlier ruling by a lower court. The U.S. Supreme Court may ultimately weigh in.

Surprise decision 

A judge in Qatar handed down a surprise three-year prison sentence to Matthew and Grace Huang, a Christian couple from Los Angeles whose adopted daughter died of malnutrition last year. Qatari prosecutors claimed the Huangs starved 8-year-old Gloria in order to harvest her organs, but the couple says she had an eating disorder. The couple plans to appeal.

Papal visit 

President Obama and Pope Francis joked and exchanged gifts during their first visit together at the Vatican, where they discussed the world’s poor, immigration reform, and human trafficking. Francis may have delegated his second-in-command to talk to the president about contraceptive coverage under Obamacare and Catholic conscience rights: Obama promised to “continue a dialogue” about the issue in order to “strike the right balance” (see "Crowd sourcing").

Friday, March 28

Michael Kirby, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.
Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP
Michael Kirby, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.

Time for action

The United Nations Human Rights Council called for action in response to the 372-page report documenting prison camps, torture, executions, and other human rights abuses against political dissidents and religious adherents in North Korea (see “Fleeing hell,” March 22). Thirty member nations approved of a strong resolution asking the Security Council to examine the report and file charges against North Korean officials at the International Criminal Court. China, which voted against the resolution, could stall the process. “Mind your own business,” said a North Korean envoy to the UN.

Double tragedy 

LaKisha Wilson, a 22-year-old African-American, died after seeking an abortion at a facility in Cleveland. Wilson was at the Preterm abortion center March 21 when she stopped breathing and was rushed to a local hospital. She was pronounced dead March 28, Operation Rescue later reported. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner planned to conduct an autopsy.

California quakes 

A series of small earthquakes and dozens of aftershocks shook the Los Angeles region beginning around 8 p.m. The largest, a magnitude-5.1 quake centered near La Habra, Calif., knocked products off store shelves, broke water lines, and damaged some homes. But no major injuries were reported.

Monday, March 31

Associated Press/Photo by Alejandro Cegarra

Crackdown 

By morning government forces in Venezuela, driving bulldozers and armored vehicles, declared they had regained control of San Cristóbal, a western city where university students had barricaded the streets with furniture, tree trunks, and steel drums. Students in San Cristóbal had begun demonstrating against violent crime and food shortages in February, and the protests soon spread throughout the socialist nation. Since then, at least 39 people have died in confrontations with security forces. On April 1 the government rolled out a new ID card system to ration food and counter black markets.

More glitches 

The official final day of Obamacare enrollment at HealthCare.gov didn’t come off without a hitch. Website glitches prevented many uninsured Americans from completing their enrollments Monday, ensuring they would need to use the extension option. Many had waited until the last minute to sign up: Record traffic clogged the website, with 125,000 people trying to access the system at one point. 

Tuesday, April 1

A demonstration outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s office in London.
Gail Orenstein/NurPhoto/Sipa/AP
A demonstration outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s office in London.

Brotherhood watch 

British media revealed that U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered a probe into the local activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group has reportedly established headquarters in a flat above a former kebab shop in London, and British authorities worry members may be using the city to plan extremist activities. The Brotherhood, which advocates Islamic law and democracy, was founded in Egypt but has since been outlawed there. Saudi Arabia declared the group a terrorist organization in March, although Western nations do not yet treat it as such.

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