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Hunger strike ends, prisoners declare victory

By Ali Abunimah. this article was first published on Electronic Intifada.

Palestinians in Gaza City celebrate after hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails suspended a 40-day hunger strike on 27 May. The end of the strike, which coincides with the start of Ramadan, came after marathon negotiations between Israeli prison authorities and strike leaders.

Ashraf Amra APA images

After 40 days without food, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have suspended their hunger strike in Israeli jails.

The end of the strike came after 20 hours of intense negotiations between the strike’s leaders, including imprisoned Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti, and the Israel Prison Service, according to a statement issued Saturday morning by the prisoners solidarity committee.

The committee hailed the agreement as a “victory for the Palestinian people and the prisoners in their epic defense of freedom and dignity.”

It added that Israel was forced to negotiate after realizing that the prisoners “were ready to continue until victory or martyrdom and that the use of oppression, violence and other violations failed to weaken them, but rather strengthened their resolve.”

The statement says Israeli authorities accepted some of the demands of the prisoners, but does not provide details.

However Israel Prison Service sources told the Ma’an News Agency that the agreement, reached between Israel, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Palestinian Authority, would grant prisoners a second monthly family visit to be funded by the PA.

“The move effectively reinstated the number of family visits that were traditionally provided to Palestinian prisoners, before the ICRC reduced the number of visits they facilitated last year from two to one visit a month, sparking protests across the Palestinian territory,” according to Ma’an.

But the Israeli prison spokesperson reportedly “declined to comment on whether any of the other demands were met.”

Strike-breaking efforts

Some 1,500 prisoners began their hunger strike on 17 April to demand improvements in conditions and an end to solitary confinement, heavy restrictions on family visits and administrative detention – prolonged imprisonment without charge.

They also called for Israel to ease restrictions on the entry of books, clothing, food and other items from family members.

Israel quickly resorted to harsh punitive measures in its effort to break the strike, including transferring prisoners between prisons, subjecting leaders to solitary confinement, blocking visits by lawyers and confiscating personal belongings.

As the strike continued and the health of many prisoners sharply deteriorated, Israel increased psychological pressure: media reports suggested Israel would resort to the dangerous and medically unethical practice of force-feeding and Israeli ministers publicly smeared Marwan Barghouti in an apparent effort to discredit him and break the strike’s unity.

By Friday night, 834 prisoners remained on hunger strike, according to the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz, and 18 remained hospitalized.

Solidarity

Activists in Palestine and around the world have organized solidarity actions with the hunger strikers. Many posted on social media about taking the “salt water challenge” – symbolically drinking only salty water, as the hunger strikers do, to raise awareness about their struggle.

The last mass hunger strike occurred in 2014, when hundreds of prisoners protested the use of administrative detention. Before and since, individuals have waged individual hunger strikes, in some cases reaching three months.

The end of this strike coincides with the beginning of Ramadan. Some prisoners had announced the intention to fast by refusing even salt and water during the hours of sunrise to sunset. This could have placed their already weakened bodies in even graver danger, and sharply increased pressure on Israel.

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Exxon Loses Appeal to Keep Auditor Records Secret in Climate Fraud Investigation

By David Hasemyer. This article was first published on Inside Climate News.

The documents, held by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, could provide a glimpse into the oil giant's calculations of the business risks posed by climate change.
Exxon is under investigation by the New York attorney general

The New York attorney general is investigating whether oil giant ExxonMobil misled shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

ExxonMobil lost its appeal on Tuesday to keep records held by its auditors away from the New York attorney general's climate fraud probe.

The documents could afford a candid—and perhaps damaging—glimpse into Exxon's private calculations of the business risks posed by climate change. They could contain anything from a smoking gun email to plodding, yet revealing, discussions related to Exxon's posture on global warming, including whether the company was adequately calculating climate change risks for investors. Exxon still has another opportunity to appeal.

Investigators for state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed PricewaterhouseCoopers records pertaining to Exxon's assessment of climate change as part of an investigation into Exxon that was opened in 2015.

Exxon fought to have the subpoena voided, arguing the records were privileged communications with its auditor and should be kept from the eyes of investigators. The oil giant, headquartered in Dallas, based its argument on a Texas law that grants a privilege to auditors and clients much like that between a lawyer and client.

A state court judge agreed with Schneiderman's office that there was no such protection afforded Exxon under New York law and ordered the documents handed over last year. Exxon appealed that decision.

The appeals court, which had been considering the case since a hearing in March, rejected Exxon's argument.

"In light of our conclusion that New York law applies, we need not decide how this issue would be decided under Texas law," the two-page decision said.

Exxon did not respond to a request for comment.

Caroline Nolan, a spokeswoman for PwC, said the company had no comment.

The accounting firm, which has expertise in climate-related risks faced by fossil fuel companies, has remained neutral in the legal fight but has honored Exxon's request not to turn over documents pending the outcome of the litigation.

Exxon has been fighting investigations by Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey both in federal court and state courts.

Schneiderman opened his financial fraud investigation of Exxon in November 2015 by subpoenaing decades of records related to Exxon's history of research into and knowledge of climate change. The investigation revolves around whether the company misled shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.

The attorney general followed up with a subpoena to PwC nine months later seeking documents related to the auditors' work for the oil giant. Records sought under the subpoena include documents about accounting and reporting of oil and gas reserves, evaluation of assets for potential impairment charges or write-downs, energy price projections and projected cost estimates of complying with carbon regulations.

Attorneys for Exxon argued that the judge's ruling in October to force PwC to surrender documents "eviscerates" the accountant-client privilege afforded by the laws of Texas, where Exxon is headquartered.

New York investigators disagreed and argued that PwC should feel a moral obligation to cooperate. "As a certified public accountant, PwC 'owes ultimate allegiance to [a] corporation's creditors and stockholders, as well as to the investing public,'" the attorney general's office responded.

Exxon could file additional appeals up to the New York Supreme Court or allow PwC to comply with the subpoena.

While it is unclear what Exxon's next move may be related to the PwC documents, the company is also asking a judge to seal five subpoenas issued by Schneiderman's office in connection with its investigation, which has grown to include missing emails from former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, now U.S. secretary of state.

The attorney general's office disclosed last week that it has expanded its probe to determine whether Exxon may have destroyed emails from Tillerson's "Wayne Tracker" email alias. Investigators are trying to determine why several weeks of emails from that account are now missing. As part of that widening investigation, the attorney general's office revealed that it has subpoenaed a number of Exxon officials.

Exxon offered few clues in its request to the New York judge overseeing the case as to why the documents and the arguments by company lawyers justifying the sealing must remain secret.

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Dump Hydro Privatization, Build Public Power

Hydro in Ontario is a mess and rates are skyrocketing. The high number of people who have trouble paying or can't pay their Hydro bills is growing by the day. In short, deregulation and privatization did not deliver on its promises of “lower rates,” or create “greater efficiencies.” Smart Meters did not save consumers any money. In fact, Hydro deregulation has been a complete disaster for Ontario's businesses, citizens and its economy. Deregulated electricity markets have not worked anywhere and never forget, the vested interests who profit greatly from the ENRON designed, IESO electricity market here in Ontario with do anything and everything to keep that market open. The longer the delay to dump hydro privatization and deregulation, the worse our electricity problems will become. We need to keep building the anti-privatization and anti-austerity movements. We need to rebuild public power and democratize public utilities. Returning democratic control over hydro to local and provincial governments is critical.

Other resources:

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"Corporate Free" Richmond Candidates Moving Up

By Steve Early. This article was first published on Portside.
Two Progressive Alliance leaders–city councilors Jovanka Beckles and Gayle McLaughlin–are preparing to run as “corporate free” candidates for higher office.

Since 2004, members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) have won ten out of the sixteen city council and mayoral races they have contested in their majority minority city of 110,000.

Last November, progressives gained an unprecedented “super-majority” of five on Richmond’s seven-member council—despite more than a decade of heavy spending against them by Chevron Corp. and other big business interests. For 12 years, RPA candidates have distinguished themselves from local Democrats by their lonely, Bernie Sanders-like refusal to take corporate contributions.

Now two Progressive Alliance leaders–city councilors Jovanka Beckles and Gayle McLaughlin–are preparing to run as  “corporate free” candidates for higher office. It’s the first time either one has sought a ballot line outside their own blue-collar refinery town.  Both hope to capitalize on the energy and enthusiasm (and campaign donations) of thousands of former Sanders supporters, including those who tried to reform the Democratic Party at its statewide convention in Sacramento May 20-21.

At a lively pre-convention gathering of 500 “Bernicrats” last Friday night, McLaughlin discussed her not-quite-final decision to run for lieutenant governor of California as a progressive independent.  Like Sanders during his 2014 visit to Richmond–when he was still soliciting advice from out-of-state audiences about running for president—the former Richmond mayor asked the crowd for its “input.” (The response when she finished her speech, was loud chanting: “Run, Gayle, Run!”)

Introduced by Beckles, McLaughin faithfully echoed the post-campaign message of the Sanders-inspired national group known as Our Revolution and stressed her personal support for OR. She urged the assembled delegates to “organize locally for political power! Be corporate free! Be the progressive leaders you are waiting for and run for office yourself!”

A four-time winner at the polls herself, McLaughlin advised Bernie-inspired state and local office-seekers to  “denounce corporate control of our democracy. Make this the issue. It’s a winning issue. People are ready.”

Taking The Pledge

Throughout the state party convention, Beckles rounded up support for her own recently announced bid to replace Tony Thurmond in Assembly District 15, which includes Richmond and other parts of the East Bay. Thurmond decided to run for state superintendent of public instruction instead of seeking re-election to the Assembly. Ironically, he began his political career as an-up-and-coming young African-American Democrat who sought RPA backing for his first Richmond city council bid in 2004.

But, like others at the time, Thurmond refused to join the group or take the “no-corporate money” pledge required for RPA support. At the polls that year, Thurmond was defeated while McLaughlin, a white newcomer to the city, a California Green, and a co-founder of the RPA won a city council seat for the first time.

The Beckles/McLaughlin message last weekend—delivered in person and via convention leafleting by their supporters—was pretty simple:  the influence of big money in California politics can’t be curbed by sending people to Sacramento who are beholden to business interests (even if they say they aren’t).

“Billion dollar corporations buying elections are not going to create the future we want for California,” Beckles said. “I’m running a campaign built on individual donations and support from ordinary people—not on interest groups that trying to influence the process for the benefit of the few.”

The timing of the Richmond councilors visit to Sacramento couldn’t have been better.  During the three-day meeting, restive delegates interrupted speech-making at one reception with the chant, “Hey hey, ho ho, corporate Dems have got to go.” On Saturday, several hundred environmentalists staged a protest directed at Governor Jerry Brown and state legislators too often swayed, during the last ten years, by $266 million worth of oil industry lobbying and political spending in California. “We need champions who are looking out for our communities, not the profits of the oil industry,” the sixty sponsoring organizations declared.

Among them were a few political heavyweights—like Greenpeace, the California Nurses Association, and Clean Water Action. But most endorsers of the rally against corporate pollution of air, water, and politics were local branches of 350.org or the Green Party, anti-fracking groups, and on-line networks like RootsAction or the Courage Campaign.

McLaughlin and Beckle certainly look like the ideal “champions” for such groups to support. Few “electeds” in California have done more to hold Big Oil accountable than the Richmond municipal leaders who pressed Chevron to pay its fair share of taxes, sued the company over its 2012 refinery fire, lobbied for stronger refinery safety rules, better emissions controls, and other community health protections. Plus, Beckles and Mclaughlin survived Chevron’s $3.1 million campaign to defeat them when they ran for re-election three years ago. (For more on that victory over big money in local politics, see http://www.beacon.org/Refinery-Town-P1229.aspx)

Rounding Up Support

So far, Beckles’ AD 15 campaign has gained endorsements from former State Assembly member Tom Ammiano, BART board member Lateefah Simon, former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport, and current Berkeley City Councilor Kriss Worthington. Worthington was among fifty activists and elected officials at an “East Bay Progressive Round Table,” hosted by the RPA on May 13. Participants from within AD 15 expressed strong interest in making Beckles’ campaign one priority for coordinated activity by like-minded municipal reformers in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

Beckles herself is the personification of Bay Area intersectionality. In addition to being a black Latina lesbian, she’s a longtime child protection worker for the county, past shop steward, and now a Teamster member. She is seeking her own union’s backing, plus endorsements from the CNA, National Union of Healthcare Workers, SEIU Local 1021, and other labor organizations who’ve  backed Richmond progressives in the past.

Beckles and McLaughlin are also lobbying hard for official support from Our Revolution, with its accompanying boost in small-donor fund-raising. A registered Democrat and strong Sanders supporter, Beckles more neatly fits the profile of most local, state, and federal candidates OR has assisted since its launch last summer.

But one of OR’s biggest 2016 victories was the election of Vermont Progressive Party leader and state senator Dave Zuckerman as lieutenant governor in the Green Mountain State. No other left-leaning third party in the U.S. has been able to elect a statewide office holder in the modern era. McLaughlin hopes to duplicate Zuckerman’s success in an electoral arena seventy times larger, where Gavin Newsom, the leading candidate for governor has already raised nearly $14 million, more donations than the next top three contenders for that job combined.

A Green Party member when she served as Richmond mayor from 2006 to 2014, McLaughlin changed her registration to NPP, or No Party Preference, so she could vote for Sanders in the California primary last June. In a recent letter sent to Our Revolution on her behalf, the RPA steering committee reported that McLaughlin “hopes to be able to support a 2020 Bernie presidential campaign and to rally many independents to that cause.” The not-yet-official candidate has reached out to all of OR’s forty new affiliates in California seeking their endorsement as well.

“I remain registered NPP and consider myself an independent,” she says, adding that “a mass-based third party in the future is something that we really need.”    In the meantime, McLaughlin and Beckles may be a catalyst for something other than business as usual in two “jungle primary” contests next June.

(Steve Early belongs to the Richmond Progressive Alliance and is the author, most recently, of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City, a new Beacon Press book about political change in Richmond. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)

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Russia Calls House Bill an “Act of War.” Will the Senate Block H.R. 1644?

By Gar Smith. This article was first published on World Beyond War.

Top Russian officials are concerned that a bill passed by the US Congress will do more than increase sanctions on North Korea. Moscow claims H.R. 1644 violates its sovereignty and constitutes an “act of war.”

On May 4, 2017, House Resolution 1644, the innocently named “Korean Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act,” was quickly passed by the US House of Representatives by a vote of 419-1 – and it was just as quickly labeled an “act of war” by a top Russian official.

Why was Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Russian Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, so alarmed about a US law ostensibly aimed at North Korea? After all, there had been no blistering partisan debate preceding the vote. Instead, the bill was handled under a “suspension of the rules” procedure usually applied to noncontroversial legislation. And it passed with only one dissenting vote (cast by Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky).

So what did H.R. 1644 call for? If enacted, the bill would amend the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 to increase the president’s powers to impose sanctions on anyone in violation of certain United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea. Specifically, it would allow for expanding sanctions to punish North Korea for its nuclear weapons programs by: targeting overseas individuals who employ North Korean “slave labor”; requiring the administration to determine whether North Korea was a state sponsor of terrorism and, most critically; authorizing a crackdown on North Korea’s use of international transit ports.

H.R. 1644 Targets Foreign Ports and Air Terminals

What caught the eye of Russian critics was Section 104, the part of the bill that presumed to grant the US “inspection authorities” over shipping ports (and major airports) far beyond the Korean Peninsula – specifically, ports in China, Russia, Syria, and Iran.  The bill identifies more than 20 foreign targets, including: two ports in China (Dandong and Dalian and “any other port in the People’s Republic of China that the President deems appropriate”); ten ports in Iran (Abadan, Bandar-e-Abbas, Chabahar, Bandar-e-Khomeini, Bushehr Port, Asaluyeh Port, Kish, Kharg Island, Bandar-e-Lenge, Khorramshahr, and the Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport); four facilities in Syria (the ports at Latakia, Banias, Tartous and the Damascus International Airport) and; three ports in Russia (Nakhodka, Vanino, and Vladivostok). Under the proposed law, the US Secretary of Homeland Security could use the National Targeting Center’s Automated Targeting System to search any ship, plane, or conveyance that has “entered the territory, waters, or airspace of North Korea, or landed in any of the sea ports or airports of North Korea.” Any vessel, aircraft, or vehicle found in violation of this US law would be subject to “seizure and forfeiture.”  House Bill Raises a Red Flag for Russia

“I hope [this bill] will never be implemented,” Kosachev told Sputnik News, “because its implementation envisions a scenario of power with forced inspections of all vessels by US warships. Such a power scenario is beyond comprehension, because it means a declaration of war.”

Russian officials were understandably outraged by Congress’ imperious move to extend the US military’s authority to include surveillance of sovereign ports in the Russian Far East. Russia’s Upper House heatedly noted that such actions constitute a violation of international law that was tantamount to a declaration of war.

“No country in the world, and no international organization, has authorized the US to monitor implementation of any resolutions of the UN Security Council,” Kosachev observed. He accused Washington of attempting to “affirm the supremacy of its own legislation over international law,” an example of US “exceptionalism” that he claimed constitutes “the main problem of present-day international relations.”

Kosachev’s Upper House colleague, Alexey Pushkov, underscored this concern. “It is absolutely unclear how the bill will be implemented,” Pushkov stated. “To control Russian ports, the US will have to introduce a blockade and inspect all ships, which amounts to an act of war.” Pushkov argued that the lopsided 419-1 vote “indicates the nature of the legal and political culture of the US Congress.”

Russia Challenges US Exceptionalism

Russia now fears that the US Senate maybe similarly inclined. According to Sputnik News, the surveillance-and-interdiction amendment is “due to be approved by the Senate and then signed by US president Donald Trump.”

Andrey Krasov, the First Deputy Head of the Defense Committee in Russia’s Lower House, greeted news of the US move with a mixture of disbelief and indignation:

“Why on Earth did America assume the responsibilities? Who gave it such powers to control the seaports of our country? Neither Russia nor international organizations asked Washington to do so. One can only answer that any unfriendly step by the US administration against Russia and our allies will receive a symmetrical adequate response. In any case, no American ship will enter our waters. Our armed forces and our fleet have every means to severely punish those who will dare to enter our territorial waters.”

Krasov suggested that Washington’s “saber-rattling” was another sign that the US has no interest in accommodating other members of the world community – especially rivals like China and Russia. “These are heavyweights which, in principle, do not fit into the US’s overall concept on governing and ruling the whole world.”

Vladimir Baranov, a Russian ferry line operator whose vessels ply the waters between Vladivostok and the North Korean port city of Rajin, told Sputnik News that “the US physically cannot control Russian ports – you have to visit the Port Authority, demand documents, that sort of thing . . . . This is essentially a bluff by the US, an attempt to show that it controls the world.”

Alexander Latkin, a professor from the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service, was similarly skeptical: “How could the US control our ports operations? It might have been possible if the US possessed a percentage of the port’s equity but, as far as I know, all of the shareholders are Russian. It is essentially a political move by the US. The Americans don’t have any legal or economic basis for controlling our ports.”

Maxim Grigoryev, who heads Russia’s Foundation for the Study of Democracy, told Sputnik Radio that he found the proposed legislation “rather funny,” given that it fails to provide any details on what a US inspection intervention might entail nor does it provide any guidelines for conducting Pentagon inspections of internationally flagged foreign vessels and foreign port facilities.

“What happened is that the US judicial authority has empowered its executive counterpart to present a report on this matter, which includes telling whether the sanctions against North Korea are being violated via Russian, Korean, and Syrian ports,” Grigoryev stated. “The US doesn’t mind that it basically dictates that other countries must adhere to US legislation. Clearly, this is a preparation for some sort of statement to be made against Russia, Syria or China. The measure is unlikely to be related to real politics – because the US doesn’t have any jurisdiction over other countries – but this is an obvious foundation for some propaganda campaign.”

Adding to the growing uncertainty over rising US/Russia tensions, top Russian military officials have expressed alarm over signs that the Pentagon is making preparations for a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia.

Rising Concerns of a Nuclear Attack

On March 28, 2017, Lt. Gen. Victor Poznihir, Deputy Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces, warned that the placement of US anti-ballistic missiles near Russia’s borders “creates a powerful clandestine potential for delivering a surprise nuclear missile strike against Russia.” He repeated this concern again on April 26, when he alerted the Moscow International Security Conference that the Russian General Staff’s Operations Command is convinced Washington is preparing to exercise the “nuclear option.”

This terrifying news went virtually unnoted by the US media. On May 11, columnist Paul Craig Roberts (a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Ronald Reagan and former associate editor of The Wall Street Journal) cited Poznihir’s comments in a clearly agitated blog post.

According to Roberts, a Google search revealed that this “most alarming of all announcements” had only been reported in a single US publication – the Times-Gazette of Ashland, Ohio. There were, Roberts reported, “no reports on US TV, and none on Canadian, Australian, European, or any other media except RT [a Russian news agency] and Internet sites.”

Roberts also was alarmed to discover that no “US senator or representative or any European, Canadian, or Australian politician has raised a voice of concern that the West was now preparing for a first strike on Russia” nor, it appeared, had anyone reached out to “ask Putin how this serious situation could be defused.”

(Roberts has previously written that Beijing’s leaders also fear the US has detailed plans for a nuclear for strike on China. In response, China has pointedly reminded the US that its submarine fleet stands ready to destroy America’s West Coast while it’s ICBMs go to work obliterating the rest of the country.)

“Never in my life have I experienced the situation where two nuclear powers were convinced that the third was going to surprise them with a nuclear attack,” Roberts wrote. Despite this existential threat, Roberts notes, there has been “zero awareness and no discussion” of the growing risks.

“Putin has been issuing warnings for years,” Roberts writes. “Putin has said over and over, ‘I issue warnings and no one hears. How do I get through to you?'”

The US Senate now has a critical role to play. The bill is currently before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The committee has an opportunity to acknowledge the grave existential risks created by H.R. 1644 and make sure that no companion bill ever makes it to the Senate floor. If this precipitously ill-conceived legislation is allowed to survive, our own survival – and the survival of hundreds of millions of others around the world – cannot be guaranteed.

Gar Smith is a veteran of the Free Speech Movement, an anti-war organizer, a Project Censored Award-winning reporter, Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, co-founder of Environmentalists Against War, a member of the board of World Beyond War, author of Nuclear Roulette and editor of the forthcoming book, The War and Environment Reader.

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David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.

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