Saturday, August 1, 2009

Musharraf's emergency rule illegal

The emergency rule imposed in Pakistan two years ago by Pervez Musharraf, the country's former president, was unconstitutional, the country's supreme court has ruled.

Many Pakistanis gathered at sites across the country to await the decision cheered and danced in the streets after hearing the announcement from Islamabad.

The ruling is significant as it means all steps Musharraf subsequently took were illegal, Al Jazeera correspondent Kamal Hyder said.

It also may strengthen the case for bringing treason charges against the former military ruler and could invalidate the appointments of judges made by Musharraf in the six weeks after he suspended the country's constitution on November 3, 2007.

Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice whose attempted removal by Musharraf spurred much of the political turmoil that ultimately led to the president's downfall last year, headed the 14-member bench that delivered the ruling on Friday.

Mass detentions

Musharraf was elected to a new term as president in October 2007 while still head of the army, but the result was not validated by the supreme court.

The president's lawyers had said he would stand down as army chief once re-elected, but Musharraf declared a state of emergency the following month when it appeared the supreme court might challenge his eligibility for office.

The constitution was subsequently suspended and Chaudhry fired as chief justice.

The emergency, which was accompanied by mass detentions and harsh media restrictions, enraged an already emboldened opposition and was lifted after six weeks.

Summons ignored

Eventually, under domestic and international pressure, Musharraf allowed elections that brought his foes to power in February 2008.

Musharraf, who stepped down as president in August 2008 under threat of impeachment, is currently staying in London.

He ignored a summons to appear before the court or send a lawyer this week to explain his actions.

In the past, he has defended the moves as being in the interest of the country.

Pope meets swimming worlds athletes

Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday met athletes participating in the swimming world championships in Rome and urged them to act as role models for fellow youths "in sports and in life."

Benedict blessed and shook hands with athletes in the courtyard of his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo in the hills outside Rome, and praised their "exciting performance."

He playfully put on sports hats the athletes gave him and triumphantly raised a plush green frog — the mascot of the Rome championships.

Among those handing the gifts to Benedict were fellow German Paul Biedermann, who beat American Michael Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle on Tuesday, and Italy's double gold medallist Federica Pellegrini. The two also gave Benedict an Italy and a Germany jersey, and Biedermann's was autographed by his teammates.

Though Phelps was invited, he skipped the audience to rest before his final individual race of the world championships later Saturday.

Benedict blessed the crowd of about 100 athletes, organizers and volunteers using his right hand, encased in a cast since he fell and broke his wrist two weeks ago while vacationing in the Italian Alps.

In a speech, he praised the athletes for choosing to train hard and make sacrifices to succeed in sports.

"With your competitions you offer to the world an exciting performance of discipline and humanity, artistic beauty and tenacious will," Benedict said. "You, dear athletes, are models for your fellow youths and your example can be decisive in positively building their future. Therefore, be champions in sports and in life!"

Benedict also worked an apt sports pun into his speech, telling the athletes: "I hope that you will 'swim' toward ever higher, unmatchable ideals."

Boy, 7, in US police car chase

A 7-year-old boy took his family’s car to avoid going to church.

A Utah kid took his family’s car -- and the cops -- on a joyride.

According to FOXNews and video footage released by CBS, Preston Scarbrough was seen recklessly driving in Plain City, Utah, on Sunday, before he returned to his home’s driveway. The vehicle reached 40 mph, and one witness said Scarbough did not stop at a stop sign. Two deputies from Weber County Sheriff’s trailed behind the Dodge Intrepid but could not stop it.

FOXNews reports that Scarbrough said on the “Today” show on Friday that he took off to avoid going to church in hot weather. He also wanted to see what it was like driving a car after watching his mother and sister do it. Police said they were impressed with Scarbrough’s driving.

Scarbrough’s parents were unaware of their child’s reckless driving at the time, New York
Daily News reports. Police chased him for 10 blocks after finding the car near a high school. No citations were issued against him because of his age, but Scarbrough said his punishment is “no TV or video games for four days.”

Suspicious bag outside Harpo Studios is harmless

Bomb and arson detectives say a suspicious package discovered outside Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios in Chicago is harmless.

Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Laura Kubiak says security personnel found a dark backpack with wires hanging out of it early Friday in a flower bed near the studios.

Police blocked off nearby streets as bomb and arson detectives investigated early Friday.

Police say the investigation using "remote diagnostics" determined there was no bomb. But police will not say what was in the backpack.

The investigation was completed and the streets reopened a few hours later. The building was not evacuated.

Serena crashes out in California

Top seed Serena Williams crashed to a shock 2-6 6-3 2-6 quarter-final defeat at the hands of Australian Samantha Stosur in the Bank of the West Classic.

The Wimbledon champion failed to convert nine break points against an opponent ranked 18 places below her.

"She had a lot of lucky shots; she's a good framer but it's obviously all talent," said Williams.

Williams' sister Venus did win in California, beating Maria Sharapova 6-2 6-2 to reach the semi-finals.

Stosur, 25, has won 22 WTA doubles titles but no singles crown during her career and reached the semi-finals of the French Open this year.

"It's one of the biggest, if not the biggest win of my career," said Stosur of her victory over an opponent who beat her in three sets at the Medibank International in Sydney in January.

Give your reaction to Serena's defeat to Stosur

Serena praised her opponent afterwards and added: "She played well and didn't do anything bad. She went for broke and struck all her balls as hard as she could. She never lets you get into a rhythm."

Stosur will now play Marion Bartoli in the semi-finals after the Frenchwoman scraped past fourth seed Jelena Jankovic 3-6 7-6 (7-3) 6-3.

Venus Williams, the number two seed, hit 14 winners, including three aces, against Sharapova, who produced 30 unforced errors in her loss.

"I can't complain too much," stated Venus. "I could have played a little more consistently but I just really want to keep elevating my game through the week."

Sharapova, who returned to the court earlier this year after a nine-month lay-off following shoulder surgery, conceded that Venus had been the better player.

"Against Venus you have to go more for your shots because you don't expect her to make the errors," she commented.

"She did many things a lot better than I did. My goal was to create my own opportunities and I didn't do that."

Venus faces a semi-final showdown with third-seeded Elena Dementieva, who beat fellow Russian Daniela Hantuchova 6-2 6-4.

Iran confirms 3 Americans arrested near Iraq border

Iran has arrested three Americans who "infiltrated" the border with Iraq, state-owned Al-Alam television said on Saturday, in the Islamic republic's first confirmation of the incident.

"An informed Iranian source confirmed the arrest of three Americans after they infiltrated through the Iraqi border," the Arabic-language television station reported.

In northern Iraq, a Kurdish official said earlier that three US backpackers were arrested after having been warned on the Iraqi side not to hike in the mountains because of the proximity of the border with Iran.

Beshro Ahmed, media adviser for general security in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, said the two men and a woman had entered from Turkey earlier along with a fourth American who did not join the trek because he was ill.

According to CNN, Iran detained the three US nationals on Friday after they crossed into the country from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ahmed named the three as Shane Bower, Sara Short and Joshua Steel, while Shaun Gabriel Maxwell stayed behind in their hotel in the Kurdish region's second largest city of Sulaimaniyah.

"On Thursday, three of them went to the summer resort at Ahmed Awa," Ahmed said of an area about 90 kilometres (55 miles) northeast of Sulaimaniyah.

Ahmed Awa is a cool and heavily-forested area popular with Iraqis seeking to escape the country's high summer temperatures.

The mountainous region has several youth hostels, one of which the three American tourists stayed at, but the nearby border with Iran is not clearly marked.

"The (Kurdish) tourist police in the area asked them not to climb the mountains because the Iranian border was very close," Ahmed said.

"On Friday, they went close to the mountains, and climbed them. Then they called their friend in the hotel telling him that they were arrested by Iranian forces at the border," Ahmed said.

"Shaun was in the hotel and he called the US embassy in Iraq to tell them about this information, and the Americans came to the hotel and took him."

Speaking to AFP earlier, a US embassy spokeswoman in Baghdad said: "We've seen the reports and are looking into it but can't confirm anything at this time."

Iranian state television, without quoting a source, said on an earlier Saturday news bulletin that three US military personnel had gone missing near the border.

But an official at the Pentagon in Washington has insisted that no US military personnel were involved.

US-Iran tensions have been high for years, with the Islamic republic deriding the United States as the "Great Satan" and President Barack Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, labelling Tehran part of an "axis of evil."

The acrimony has increased as Washington, despite Obama offering Tehran a chance to turn the page, has expressed mounting concern over Iranian nuclear ambitions and its disputed June presidential election.

LaGuardia terminal evacuated in NYC, 1 in custody

NEW YORK — Authorities say a main terminal of LaGuardia Airport in New York City has been evacuated and a police bomb squad has arrested a man and is searching his bag.

John Kelly, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, say the airport's main terminal building was evacuated shortly after 5:30 a.m. Saturday. He didn't know how many passengers were there at the time.

Kelly says one man is in custody. He says Port Authority and the city police department's bomb squad are investigating the man's bag.

The NYPD isn't commenting on the arrest.

Obama hails `historic step' on health care changes

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are looking ahead to a health care showdown on the House floor in September following a key committee's passage of sweeping overhaul legislation.

"This historic step," Obama said, "moves us closer to health insurance reform than we have ever been before."

In a sign of the fight ahead, Republicans on Saturday quickly blasted the Democrats' proposals as a "dangerous and costly experiment" that will run up the federal deficit and overwhelm state budgets.

The 31-28 vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee late Friday was weeks later than either the White House or Democratic leaders had hoped. Nonetheless, it was a triumph for them.

Appealing for passage, Obama said in a statement Saturday that in the coming weeks "we must build upon the historic consensus that has been forged and do the hard work necessary to seize this unprecedented opportunity for the future of our economy and the health of our families."

The vote came after weeks of negotiations finally satisfied concerns raised by fiscally conservative Democrats — only to produce a compromise that riled liberals.

The liberal opposition was quieted with a last-minute series of changes agreed to early Friday that included limiting how much insurers can raise premiums, and giving the federal government authority to negotiate directly with drug companies for lower prices under Medicare.

"We passed a bill out that shows that we can bring together conservative, moderate and progressive Democrats," Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said after the vote. "We're going to need that coalition on the House floor, and I feel confident that we'll pass a health care reform bill in the House when we come back in September."

Five Democrats and all committee Republicans opposed the bill.

The measure is designed to extend health insurance to millions who now lack it, at the same time it strives to slow the growth in medical costs nationwide — Obama's twin goals.

While the pace of action was slower than party leaders had hoped, it was speedier by far than the timetable in the Senate.

There, Democrats said a deadline of Sept. 15 had been imposed on marathon talks aimed at producing a bipartisan compromise in the Senate Finance Committee.

In the GOP's weekly radio and Internet address, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota contended that the Democrats' current proposals do not improve health care because it would force millions of Americans in employer-based coverage into a government-run system.

He also said the proposals would burden states because they expand Medicaid coverage without a clear source of funding. In South Dakota, for example, the new requirements could require $45 million a year in new state spending that will "have to come from somewhere, and that means either higher taxes or cuts to other priorities."

"That's what we're facing not just in South Dakota, but nationwide," he said.

Thune said Republicans would seek reforms that allow small businesses to band together to buy affordable health insurance for their employees; protect doctors and hospitals from frivolous lawsuits; encourage wellness and prevention programs proved to cut costs; and give people who buy their own insurance the same tax breaks as those who get insurance through their employers.

Without a bipartisan bill, Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., would presumably have to produce a measure tailored to Democratic specifications, a step he has said repeatedly he would rather avoid. It wasn't clear how much the deadline for the committee to start voting was Baucus' idea, and how much it reflected growing impatience at the White House and on the part of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The Energy and Commerce Committee was the third of three House panels to act on the legislation affecting one-sixth of the nation's economy. A vote in the full House is expected in September, after lawmakers return from a monthlong vacation. Combining the measures produced by the three House committees could be tricky since compromises agreed to in the Energy and Commerce Committee produced a bill less reflective of liberal priorities than the legislation passed by the Ways and Means and Education and Labor committees.

The biggest example is probably the shape of a new government insurance plan that would compete with private insurers. House Democrats originally tied payment rates for providers in the plan to Medicare rates, but fiscally conservative Blue Dogs in the Energy and Commerce Committee pushed instead for rates to be negotiated with providers, as happens with private companies.

Many liberals fear that would result in higher costs to patients, and the Ways and Means and Education and Labor produced bills with public plans modeled on Medicare.

The Democrats who opposed the final Energy and Commerce bill were Reps. John Barrow of Georgia; Rick Boucher of Virginia; Jim Matheson of Utah; Charlie Melancon of Louisiana and Bart Stupak of Michigan.

Under the bill, insurance companies would be required to sell coverage to all seeking it, without exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions. The federal government would provide subsidies for lower-income families to help them afford policies that would otherwise be out of their reach.

The bill would set up so-called exchanges, in effect national marketplaces where consumers both with and without subsidies could evaluate different policies and choose the one they wanted.

The main expansion of coverage would not come until 2013 — after the next presidential election.