LegalWrap: Bunga Bunga to Bradley Manning


Today’s tour through the realm of the law starts with the fine art of lawmaking as practiced in the realm of Silvio Berlusconi, master of Bunga Bunga and legal skullduggery.

One way to avoid conviction: Change the law

Italian prosecutors have been trying to convict media magnate of politico extraordinaire Berlusconi for ages, but somehow slippery Silvio always manages to slip the cuffs and slither away to party some more.

And now, it seems, he’s done it yet again.

No, not for the paid-sex-with-a-minor charges, but those stemming from yet another scandal, this one involving allegations of bribery.

John Hooper reports for The Guardian:

Silvio Berlusconi has named as his likely successor a young minister who on Wednesday steered through parliament a measure which will have the effect of halting the trial in which Italy’s prime minister is accused of bribing his British lawyer, David Mills.

Speaking to a restricted group of foreign correspondents on Tuesday night, the 74 year-old prime minister revealed that he would not stand at the next general election in 2013. And he indicated Angelino Alfano, his 40-year-old Sicilian justice minister, was the person to whom he intended entrusting his party.

Alfano yesterday oversaw the passage of a bill that critics maintain was expressly crafted to enable the prime minister to escape justice. According to the body that oversees the judiciary, some 14,000 other trials will also be halted by the bill that was debated amid raucous scenes in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. A final vote was due last night, but a clause that guarantees the scrapping of the Mills trial was approved by 306 to 288.

Berlusconi and his followers have defended the measure, which guillotines legal proceedings in a court system notorious for delays, as a contribution to the speeding up of proceedings.

One result is that action will not now be taken against builders, officials and property developers suspected of responsibility for deaths that occurred during the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. More than 300 people died – many in buildings allegedly constructed with sub-standard materials.

An amendment to exclude the investigation from the terms of the measure was voted down by the government majority. Outside, relatives of the victims hurled insults at Berlusconi’s followers as they came in and out of the parliament building.

Read the rest.

Hey, so there’re a few bodies here, a few there, and no one’s going to pay. But Silvio gets to party. At least for now.

Another tough guy headed for the courtroom?

While Silvio Berlusconi’s been noted for his alleged ties to La Costa Nostra, another major Mediterranean political figure has been dogged by rumors of pals in another mafia, the Russia one.

And now Avigdor Leiberman, Israel’s tough guy foreign minister, may be headed to the hoosegow.

From Edmund Sanders of the Los Angeles Times:

Israel’s attorney general moved Wednesday to possibly indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on fraud and other corruption charges, capping a decade-old investigation into the leader of the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The announcement of the top justice official’s intention to indict raised questions about the political future of Lieberman, who many suspect was preparing to challenge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the next election.

The case also could destabilize Netanyahu’s government; Lieberman has the power to bring down the coalition by withdrawing his party’s adherence, though he has said that he does not intend to do so.

Under Israeli law, Wednesday’s announcement begins an indictment process that still must be finalized. Lieberman has the right to request a hearing before that happens, which could take until fall to complete.

For years Israelis have been speculating about whether Lieberman, an ultranationalist Moldovan native who draws large support from Russian immigrants, would face criminal charges in an investigation that has focused on allegations that he received millions of dollars through fictitious companies set up while he served in other government posts.

The statement that Atty. Gen. Yehuda Weinstein issued Wednesday said Lieberman could face charges of fraud, aggravated fraud, breach of trust, money-laundering and harassing a potential witness. An earlier accusation of bribery was not included in the draft indictment.

Lieberman has consistently denied the allegations, calling the probe a political witch hunt.

Read the rest.

Arianna’s unpaid bloggers take her to court

Arianna Huffington, the political chameleon who switches allegiance at the drop of a dollar, is being hauled into court by cyberserfs who say they’re owed a piece of the millions she pocketed from selling her eponymous web empire to AOL.

They’re asking for $105 million of the $315 million she and her partners pocketed from the sale.

From Dan Sabbagh of The Guardian:

The class action is led by Jonathan Tasini, a writer and trade unionist, who wrote more than 250 posts for Huffington Post on an unpaid basis until he dropped out shortly after the news and comment site was sold to AOL earlier this year.

Tasini complained that “Huffington bloggers have essentially been turned into modern day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation” and said he was bringing the action because “people who create content … have to be compensated” for their efforts.

The complainant and his lawyers estimate about 9,000 people wrote for the Huffington Post on an unpaid basis – and argue that their writings helped contribute about a third of the sale value of the site, the basis of their $105m claim for compensation.

Tasini was behind a successful lawsuit on behalf of freelance journalists against the New York Times a decade ago. He won a 2001 supreme court judgment that concluded copyright for print and online versions of an article were separate – meaning writers have to assign permission for a publisher to use both.

Huffington Post was founded in 2005 by Huffington and Ken Lerer – initially recruiting some high-profile writers such as Alec Baldwin and Larry David. But their ranks were swelled by a team of less well-known unpaid bloggers to boost output.

Their combined efforts helped improve traffic and revenues – which totalled $31m last year – until the site became a takeover target for AOL. Huffington and Lerer are thought to have taken the lion’s share of the $315m payout, although the exact amounts has not been disclosed.

The Huffington Post said any class action lawsuit would be “completely baseless”. In a statement, the website said: “Our bloggers utilise our platform to connect and ensure that their ideas and views are seen by as many people as possible. It’s the same reason hundreds of people go on TV shows – to broadcast their views to as wide an audience as possible.”

Read the rest.

U.N. official blasts Pentagon in Bradley Manning case

And it’s about time, too.

From Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post:

A United Nations diplomat charged with investigating claims of torture said Monday that he is “deeply disappointed and frustrated” that U.S. defense officials have refused his request for an unmonitored visit with Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst accused of passing classified material to WikiLeaks.

Juan E. Mendez, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, said his request for a private interview with Manning was denied by the Defense Department on Friday. Instead, he has been told that any visit must be supervised.

Mendez has been seeking to determine whether Manning’s confinement at a military brig at Quantico amounts to torture, following complaints about his treatment and an incident in which the private was forced to strip in his cell at night and sleep without clothing.

“My request . . . is not onerous: for my part, a monitored conversation would not comply with the practices that my mandate applies in every country and detention center visited,” Mendez said in a statement Monday, noting that at least 18 countries have allowed unmonitored interviews.

Manning, 23, has been held at Quantico since July 29 and is awaiting a possible court-martial on charges that he endangered national security by allegedly leaking classified military and diplomatic information.

For most of this time, military officials have kept Manning under “prevention of injury” watch, asserting that he poses a risk to himself. That means he spends 23 hours a day alone in his cell, with one hour allowed for exercise, and has no contact with other prisoners. He is allowed visitors for a few hours on the weekends. He must give up his prison uniform at night, though jail officials have now issued him a smock to wear.

U.S. officials have denied that Manning is being mistreated and have said that the circumstances of his confinement comply with U.S. law and Defense Department regulations.

Last month, however, P.J. Crowley, then the spokesman for the State Department, said the conditions of Manning’s confinement were “counterproductive and stupid” — a comment that angered the White House and prompted Crowley’s resignation.

On Sunday, the New York Review of Books published a letter signed by more than 250 lawyers, professors and authors, including Harvard University constitutional law professor Laurence H. Tribe, that called the conditions of Manning’s confinement “illegal and immoral.” The British government has also raised concerns about the issue.

Read the rest.

Two members of the University of California, Berkeley, faculty have signed the letter, former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich and political scientist Margaret Weir. A full list of signatories is here.

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