Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Elders' View Of the Middle East

By Jimmy Carter
The Washington Post (9/6/09)


During the past 16 months I have visited the Middle East four times and met with leaders in Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. I was in Damascus when President Obama made his historic speech in Cairo, which raised high hopes among the more-optimistic Israelis and Palestinians, who recognize that his insistence on a total freeze of settlement expansion is the key to any acceptable peace agreement or any positive responses toward Israel from Arab nations.

Late last month I traveled to the region with a group of "Elders," including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Mary Robinson of Ireland, former prime minister Gro Brundtland of Norway and women's activist Ela Bhatt of India. Three of us had previously visited Gaza, which is now a walled-in ghetto inhabited by 1.6 million Palestinians, 1.1 million of whom are refugees from Israel and the West Bank and receive basic humanitarian assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Israel prevents any cement, lumber, seeds, fertilizer and hundreds of other needed materials from entering through Gaza's gates. Some additional goods from Egypt reach Gaza through underground tunnels. Gazans cannot produce their own food nor repair schools, hospitals, business establishments or the 50,000 homes that were destroyed or heavily damaged by Israel's assault last January.

We found a growing sense of concern and despair among those who observe, as we did, that settlement expansion is continuing apace, rapidly encroaching into Palestinian villages, hilltops, grazing lands, farming areas and olive groves. There are more than 200 of these settlements in the West Bank.

An even more disturbing expansion is taking place in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Three months ago I visited a family who had lived for four generations in their small, recently condemned home. They were laboring to destroy it themselves to avoid much higher costs if Israeli contractors carried out the demolition order. On Aug. 27, we Elders took a gift of food to 18 members of the Hanoun family, recently evicted from their home of 65 years. The Hanouns, including six children, are living on the street, while Israeli settlers have moved into their confiscated dwelling.

Daily, headlines in Jerusalem newspapers say that certain areas and types of construction would be excluded from the settlement freeze and that it would, at best, have a limited duration. Increasingly desperate Palestinians see little prospect of their plight being alleviated; political, business and academic leaders are making contingency plans should President Obama's efforts fail.

We saw considerable interest in a call by Javier Solana, secretary general of the Council of the European Union, for the United Nations to endorse the two-state solution, which already has the firm commitment of the U.S. government and the other members of the "Quartet" (Russia and the United Nations). Solana proposes that the United Nations recognize the pre-1967 border between Israel and Palestine, and deal with the fate of Palestinian refugees and how Jerusalem would be shared. Palestine would become a full U.N. member and enjoy diplomatic relations with other nations, many of which would be eager to respond. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad described to us his unilateral plan for Palestine to become an independent state.

A more likely alternative to the present debacle is one state, which is obviously the goal of Israeli leaders who insist on colonizing the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A majority of the Palestinian leaders with whom we met are seriously considering acceptance of one state, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. By renouncing the dream of an independent Palestine, they would become fellow citizens with their Jewish neighbors and then demand equal rights within a democracy. In this nonviolent civil rights struggle, their examples would be Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

They are aware of demographic trends. Non-Jews are already a slight majority of total citizens in this area, and within a few years Arabs will constitute a clear majority.

A two-state solution is clearly preferable and has been embraced at the grass roots.

Just south of Jerusalem, the Palestinian residents of Wadi Fukin and the nearby Israeli villagers of Tzur Hadassah are working together closely to protect their small shared valley from the ravages of rock spill, sewage and further loss of land from a huge settlement on the cliff above, where 26,000 Israelis are rapidly expanding their confiscated area. It was heartwarming to see the international harmony with which the villagers face common challenges and opportunities.

There are 25 similar cross-border partnerships between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors. The best alternative for the future is a negotiated peace agreement, so that the example of Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah can prevail along a peaceful border between two sovereign nations.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Texas May Soon Become First State to Admit Executing an Innocent Person

Reprinted from InnocenceProject.org

An exhaustive new investigative report shows that Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004, was innocent. The report comes three years after the Innocence Project released analysis from some of the nation’s leading forensic experts who found that the central evidence against Willingham was not valid. The Innocence Project also obtained public records showing that Texas officials ignored this evidence in the days leading up to Willingham’s execution.

Willingham was convicted of arson murder in 1992 and was executed in February 2004. His three young children died at a fire in the family’s Corsicana, Texas, home. At Willingham’s trial, forensic experts testified that evidence showed the fire was intentionally set. A jailhouse informant also testified against Willingham, and other circumstantial evidence was used against him.

A 16,000-word report in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker deconstructs every facet of the case, finding that none of the evidence against Willingham was valid. Prior to the New Yorker’s investigative report, by David Grann, the forensic science had been debunked as completely erroneous (including in a 2004 investigative report in the Chicago Tribune), but the other evidence was never examined closely.

“The New Yorker’s investigation lays out this case in its totality and leads to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham was innocent. There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person has been executed,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. “The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again.”

“As long as our system of justice makes mistakes – including the ultimate mistake – we cannot continue executing people,” Scheck said. “This case also highlights serious problems with forensic science in this country. The vast majority of forensic scientists are honest, capable, hard-working professionals, but we aren’t giving them the tools they need to do the job. Congress needs to create a National Institute of Forensic Science that can spark research to determine the accuracy of forensic disciplines and set standards for how our system of justice uses science.”

In May 2006, the Innocence Project (which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law) formally submitted the Willingham case to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, along with information about another arson case and a request that the panel order a review of arson convictions across the state. In the other arson case, Ernest Willis was convicted of an unrelated arson murder and sentenced to death in 1987, and he served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated. The May 2006 filing included a 48-page report from an independent five-member panel of some of the nation’s leading arson investigators, who reviewed more than 1,000 pages of evidence, testimony and official documents in the two cases.

In the report, the arson experts – with a combined 138 years of experience in the field – say that neither of the fires which Willingham and Willis were convicted of setting were arson. The expert report notes that the evidence and forensic analysis in the Willingham and Willis cases “were the same,” and that “each and every one” of the forensic interpretations that state experts made in both men’s trials have been proven scientifically invalid.

In 2007, the Texas Forensic Science Commission announced that it had accepted the Innocence Project’s complaint and would launch an investigation. The commission contracted with Craig Beyler, a widely respected arson expert, to conduct an independent review of the evidence. Last week, Beyler filed his report with the commission, finding that the forensic analysis in Willingham’s case was wrong. The commission announced that it is reviewing Beyler’s report and will review other evidence before issuing its conclusion next year.

“The Forensic Science Commission is still looking at this case and the broader issue of arson convictions statewide. Members of the commission are clearly taking this very seriously, carefully and thoughtfully, and they should have the space to do their work,” Scheck said. “The Forensic Science Commission is not going to determine whether an innocent man was executed. The New Yorker has already done that. The commission will determine what went wrong with the forensic analysis, how widespread the problem is and how we can be sure similar analysis is more reliable in the future.”