Military & Politics

New film puts conflict diamonds in spotlight this holiday
Associated Press, Dec. 7, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) – This holiday season some diamond retailers say they are seeing heightened consumer concern about conflict diamonds, the gems mined in war zones that are sold to fund armed conflict and civil war.

Sales of so-called conflict diamonds have helped finance wars that killed millions in Angola,Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia over the past several decades, and efforts to address the problem have been made within the diamond industry.

But human rights groups are now taking the issue straight to consumers, and with Friday’s release of Warner Bros. Pictures’ new film “Blood Diamond,” diamond retailers are preparing to face more scrutiny than ever before.

Many large retailers, like Tiffany & Co. and Zale Corp., say they have enacted policies to help stem the flow of conflict diamonds. And during the all-important holiday season, when at least half of annual jewelry sales are recorded, retailers want their customers to feel they can shop guilt-free.

They are being assisted in this effort by a $15 million marketing campaign launched ahead of the holidays by the World Diamond Council, which wants potential diamond buyers to understand the movie’s premise takes place prior to the Kimberley Process CertificationScheme, which was enacted by governments, non-governmental organizations and the industry in 2002 to track diamonds from mine to jewelry display case, certifying each stone’s origin. The film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly, takes place during the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990’s.

The industry group took out full-page ads in national newspapers, created the website to disseminate information, and provided retailers with training pamphlets on the topic.

David Sternblitz, vice president and treasurer for Zale Corp., said Zale abides by the Kimberley Process, buying stones only from those 45 nations that participate in Kimberley, which account for about 99.8 percent of global production of rough diamonds.

Sternblitz says customers can find information outlining Zale’s policy on conflict-free diamonds on its website. “This is something that hasn’t been new to us,” Sternblitz says. “Since the Kimberley Process in 2002, we’ve required all suppliers to warranty to us that diamonds are coming from conflict-free areas.”
Tiffany & Co. also says it buys diamonds from legitimate miners and doesn’t purchase diamonds for cash or in circumstances where the source of the diamond is questionable.

Smaller retailers are aware of the growing interest, too. “At least one customer a day asks us about it,” said Jennie Fiske, who manages The Clay Pot, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based jewelry retailer. “Over the years, it’s become more and more well-known.”

Fiske says she’s been aware of the issue since 2000 and reassures customers that it’s highly unlikely they are getting a conflict gem, since her suppliers buy diamonds through legitimate sources.

For customers who want to know where their gems come from, The Clay Pot also offers guaranteed conflict-free diamonds from Canada. The diamonds are mined, cut and polished in Canada’s Northwest Territories and are certified by the Northwest Territories Government Monitoring and Certification program, which tracks each diamond from the mining stage to the final cutting process.

“There’s been an increasing popularity for them,” Fiske said, noting that sales of the Canadian stones make up about 20 percent of total diamond purchases.

Despite their notorious reputation, less than 1 percent of the world’s diamonds are conflict diamonds, says the World Diamond Council.

Still, some human rights organizations assert there needs to be more regulation in the U.S., which accounts for more than half of global diamond jewelry retail sales, according to British rights group Global Witness.

A 2004 survey of diamond jewelers conducted by Amnesty International and Global Witness showed only 11 percent of stores visited in the U.S. said they had a policy on conflict diamonds, and 67 percent were unwilling to discuss whether they had a system of guarantees in place.

Charmian Gooch, executive director of Global Witness, said the Kimberley Process needs more work. “It’s still full of loopholes,” Gooch said. “There’s no proper oversight and no clear way to know how the industry is controlling it across the board.”

Amy O’Meara, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, suggests consumers take an active role in the process by asking jewelers where their diamonds come from, since even the smaller percentages of illegal diamonds need to be eliminated. “Ask to see a written guarantee that its suppliers are conflict-free,” O’Meara said. “No amount of human suffering is acceptable to turn a profit.”

Louisville prepared to vote on smoking ban
Associated Press, Aug. 6, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – This city that was once a hub of the nation’s tobacco trade is now divided on a proposed smoking ban that could shape similar initiatives across the Bluegrass State.

Louisville’s Metro Council decision to postpone an anxiously awaited vote on a ban last month sparked emotional outbursts from a packed chamber split between supporters and opponents.The council is to revisit the issue Thursday, and it is again drawing keen attention in a state with one of the nation’s highest rates of adult smokers.

“As the state’s biggest city, Louisville sets the precedent,” said Mike Kuntz with the local chapter of the American Lung Association. “It would be monumental for cities up in northern Kentucky that are slowly moving forward on smoking bans, like Paducah and Bowling Green.”

The initial Louisville proposal would prohibit smoking in restaurants and day-care centers. An amendment would extend the proposal to include most businesses, workplaces and public buildings, except for bars.

But after nearly two hours of debate July 14, it was decided that more time was needed to consider the issue.

Louisville Councilman Tom Owen attributed the hesitation to the city’s merger with surrounding Jefferson County in 2003, when the council grew from 12 members to 26. As a fledgling body governing a metro population of nearly 700,000, the council is tackling one of the most significant issues it has ever faced.

“We’ve only had 30 months experience as a new government. We are feeling our way along on an issue as divisive as this one,” Owen said.

Still, the postponement came as a surprise to many, especially after Louisville’s chamber of commerce announced in early June its support for a ban in most businesses, except for bars.

“We would generally be in favor of less regulation,” said Carmen Hickerson, a spokeswoman. “But quality-of-life issues are decisions that factor in to economic development.Those things have as much, or more, weight than traditional economic development tools, such as tax breaks.”

Louisville would be the third Kentucky city to pass a ban on most public indoor smoking, joining Georgetown and Lexington, the state’s second-largest city and the first in the state to pass a ban in 2003. Meanwhile, efforts to implement a smoking ban are moving at a leisurely pace elsewhere. In Paducah, for example, a task force is to present its recommendations to city officials this month after months of research.

A move to smoke-free would shift dramatically from Louisville’s past, rooted in tobacco production.

In the late 1800s, the city had 15 warehouses, 16 manufacturing plants and 79 companies that made cigars and snuff. The tobacco industry boomed in the early 20th century and Brown & Williamson arrived in 1929, becoming the nation’s third-largest tobacco maker before it merged with R.J. Reynolds in 2003.

“Louisville was one of the major tobacco manufacturing cities in America,” said Owen, also a history professor at the University of Louisville.

Now, Louisville may be close to joining the growing number of smoke-free urban areas. More than 4,800 municipalities across the country are now covered by smoking bans in workplaces, restaurants or bars, or all three, according to the Berkeley, Calif.-based American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Fourteen states — as small as Rhode Island and as large as California have passed similar bans.

“If a ban isn’t passed, Louisville will be behind the curve,” said Ellen Hahn, an associate professor in the University of Kentucky’s College of Nursing, who campaigned for the Lexington and Georgetown bans. “A smoking ban would put the city right in the mainstream of other American cities.”

Supporters of Melton’s proposal say Louisville’s ban needs to be clear and far-reaching.

“The weaker the ordinance is or the more venues we exempt, the more times we have to come back in and strengthen it,” said Councilwoman Tina Ward Pugh. “It’s a workplace safety issue. We should protect all workers, not just some of them.”

Another proposal introduced by Councilman Robin Engle would charge businesses $200 to place a sign in their window that indicates where smoking is permitted. Customers would then have the freedom to decide whether to frequent that business.

Engle’s proposal is supported by those who believe a smoking ban infringes on the personal freedom of business owners.

“More Kentucky businesses, especially restaurants, are going smoke free voluntarily,” said Jim Waters, a spokesman for the Bowling Green-based Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions. “If an increasing number of restaurants are doing that on their own, why do we need government interference? Why not let the market decide?”

Law Enforcement Officials Praise Stun Guns
Associated Press, June 29, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Law enforcement officers from around the country Wednesday praised Tasers as a non-lethal tool for stopping suspects, but emphasized the need for training before use of the 50,000-volt stun guns.

The Taser, which stuns a person using electrical current, is helping to reduce incidents where police have to use deadly force, said Lt. David Ogden, who heads the training division of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando, Fla.

“We’ve also had a substantial decrease in officer- and suspect-related injuries on arrest situations,” said Ogden, who spoke to about 100 law enforcement officials at the National Sheriffs Association’s annual conference, which ended Wednesday.

Critics argue not enough is known about Tasers, and cite deaths following their use. According to Amnesty International, there were 103 Taser-related deaths in the United States and Canada between June 2001 and March 2005.

Arizona-based Taser International says studies show the weapons are safe.

Attorney Bruce Bogan, who has represented several law enforcement agencies in Taser-related cases in Florida, said there is confusion regarding when to use the instrument — now carried by officers in more than 7,000 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies.

“You have to set up a policy of when it’s appropriate to use a Taser, and you need to train your officers as to when it’s appropriate to use a Taser,” he said.
Louisville police began using Tasers last year after civil-rights activists complained about a string of fatal shootings by police.

“I think it will make a difference if the police officers are held accountable for their actions,”said the Rev. Louis Coleman, head of the Justice Resource Center. “But it’s going to take monitoring. If put in the wrong hands, it could be used as a bad weapon too.”

Kentucky soldier dies of non-combat injury in Iraq
Associated Press, June 25, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – The mother of a Fort Stewart, Ga., soldier from eastern Kentucky whodied in Iraq said her son was fulfilling a lifelong dream to see the world.

Sgt. Joseph M. Tackett, 22, died Thursday in Baghdad of a non-combat related injury, Pentagon officials said.

Tackett’s mother, Kathy, said she was visited by a military representative Thursday evening,who said Tackett had been shot. She said she was told that no more details were available until an investigation had been completed.

Joseph Tackett often wrote e-mails to his mother in Whitehouse, Ky., where he was born and raised, telling her of the new and exciting things he was doing every day.

“He told me at one point that he was standing in a mosque and said, ‘There’s not many people who’ve ever done this, Mom,'” Kathy Tackett said in a telephone interview on Saturday.

Tackett dreamed of joining the military, even when he was a student at Johnson Central High School in Paintsville.

“He enlisted in the military to change his future. He wanted to give himself the opportunities to do the things he wanted to do in life,” Kathy Tackett said.

Tackett was living in Hinesville, Ga., with his wife, Stephanie. Tackett was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 76th Field Artillery, 4th Brigade Combat Team, of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart.

At the time of his death, Tackett was completing his second tour in Baghdad, which began Jan.31, 2005. He was expecting an 8- to 18-month deployment there, Kathy Tackett said.

Tackett was stationed in the Green Zone, which houses the American Embassy and the Iraqi government. Tackett’s job was to escort dignitaries through the heavily-fortified area in Baghdad.

When he had time to spare, Tackett wrote letters to students at his old elementary school,who his mother said were his “pen pals.”

“He was the type of person who could find something to do, no matter where he was,” Kathy Tackett said. Plucky and full of life, Tackett enjoyed skateboarding and introducing Iraqisto American rock music. “He was interested in so many things,” said Kathy Tackett. “I can’timagine the person that he would have become, if he would’ve had more years.”

Penny of per-pack cigarette tax will go for cancer research
Associated Press, May 28, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – It’s no secret that Kentuckians love their smokes, and that the habit has health consequences.

But health officials hope funds from a hike in the state’s cigarette tax will help them better understand and treat cancer, which kills thousands of Kentuckians each year.

When the Kentucky tax on a pack of cigarettes goes from 3 cents to 30 cents on Wednesday, a penny of the increase will go to fund cancer research at Kentucky’s two university hospitals.

The tax would raise $2.5 to $3 million annually, and about $5 to $6 million total after the universities raise matching funds, said state Sen. Tim Shaugnessy, who pushed for the cancer research fund.

Kentucky has the nation’s highest adult smoking rate at nearly 31 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until the pending increase, Kentucky’s 3-cent per pack tax is the lowest in the nation.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 23,000 new cancer cases will be diagnosed in Kentucky this year, and the disease will kill more than 9,500 Kentuckians in 2005. The state has one of the highest rates of tobacco-related tumors and incidents of lung cancer in the country, said Donald Miller, director of the University of Louisville’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center. “We see so many families that have been impacted by lung cancer,” Miller said.

Funds raised from the cigarette tax will be split between the Brown Cancer Center and the University of Kentucky’s Lucille P. Markey Cancer Center.

The funds will also be used to get accreditation status from the National Cancer Institute, which would bring leading researchers and top-notch facilities.

“By becoming a hub for cancer treatment, cancer patients would not have to leave the state to get state-of-the-art treatment,” said Shaugnessy, who lost his mother to cancer. “Cancer is a tough enough battle to fight. You at least should be able to fight it on your home court.”

Some longtime smokers aren’t standing in the way.

“I wish it would be more than a penny,” said 34-year-old James McClure, who lives in Jeffersonville, Ind. “I’d like to see 50 cents of it go to cancer research,” said McClure, who has smoked for 22 years.

Patricia Devers, of Louisville, says she’s smoked off and on for 20 years, and had even kicked the habit for six months. But then her husband got sick. Visiting him at the University of Louisville hospital, and smoking a cigarette outside, Devers thinks the penny from the cigarette tax isn’t enough.

“Actually for something like that, it needs to be more. And from a smoker, that’s pretty sad, but it needs to be more,” said Devers, 36, who worries about getting cancer.

At Louisville’s center, the funds will be used to develop new treatments and recruit top doctors and scientists.

“One of our goals is to be included in the top ten cancer centers in the country,” said Miller, of the Louisville center. “This kind of support will let us do that.”

At Markey Cancer Center, the funds will conduct “high risk-high reward” programs that aren’t easily funded by the government, said Dr. Alfred Cohen, the center’s director.

New drugs and treatments will be tested, in the hopes of tackling all kinds of diseases caused by smoking, including lung, pancreatic and bladder cancers.

The funding will also build a “tobacco-related cancer program,” expand biomedical research and keep the research facility on track toward achieving NCI designation.

With its cigarette excise tax, Kentucky will join the ranks of other states which have used part of a cigarette tax to fund cancer research.

For example, Oklahoma last year approved a 55-cent per pack increase on its cigarette tax to fight cancer, which claimed the life of two of its state senators in 2002 and 2003. A spokesman for Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry said the tax is projected to yield about $150 million annually for health programs, and part will be used to construct a cancer research and treatment center.

Kentucky Guard company gets hero’s welcome after 14-month in Iraq
Associated Press, Feb. 7, 2005

LOUISVILLE — Teary-eyed and thankful to be back home, nearly 300 members of the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 2123 Transportation Company returned yesterday to friends and families after a 14-month tour in Iraq.

Hundreds greeted the guardsmen at an armory near the Louisville airport with applause and many ran to kiss their loved ones.

Sgt. Mark Piercy, from Louisville, returned in tears to dozens of family members and a banner reading, “Sgt. Piercy, I’m proud of you. Welcome home baby. I love you.”

“I think I’m in shock,” Piercy said. “It feels great to be home to see all my family here.”

His wife, Carol, and his 9-year-old son, Justin, last saw Piercy six months ago. “I was always worried for his safety,” his wife said.

Piercy, 33, said the group was adequately equipped for their crucial and often dangerous missions. The unit transported tanks and other heavy equipment from a base in Kuwait to locations throughout Iraq. “Once we got there and all the equipment actually arrived there, they up-armored what we needed and everybody had what they needed to go out on the missions,” Piercy said.

Sgt. David Schrier, 33, of Lewisburg, greeted his wife, Jennifer, for the first time since April and saw his 6-month-old daughter, Zoe, for the first time. “It feels really good to get back here and hold her,” Schrier said. “It was stressful every day there. They just tried to get us mentally ready for the challenge.”

The unit is the largest to date from the Kentucky National Guard sent to Iraq, said Lt. Col. PhilMiller, a Guard public affairs officer. Miller expects the unit to be home for some time.

“We do not anticipate mobilization of this unit again in the near future,” Miller said. There are currently 956 members from the Kentucky National Guard in Iraq and “about an additional 400 are preparing to go” from other units, Miller said.

Before departing for Iraq, the 2123rd underwent specialized training, such as how to fire from tanks. “We worked hard to equip them with everything they would need over there,” said Miller.

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher attended the welcoming ceremony and thanked the guardsmen for their service. “Because of your sacrifices, more people know freedom,” Fletcher said.

A total of 16 service members with Kentucky hometowns of record, including two Kentucky National Guard members, have died in the Iraq war.

Darrin Potter was killed Sept. 29, 2003, when his military vehicle overturned and was submerged in a canal in Baghdad. He was part of the 223rd Military Police Company.

Potter’s father, Darrin, presented a bronze plaque Saturday honoring his son to former company commander Capt. Adrian Wheeler and Command Sgt. Maj. David Munden.

First Lt. Robert Henderson II, 33, was killed April 17, 2004, when his military convoy was attacked by insurgents. He was a member of the 2123rd.

Henderson’s mother, Lillian, attended the ceremony wearing a pin with a photograph of her son. “I came because my son would have done this for me, and I came to do this for him,” she said. “I wanted to be here for him. I know he knows I’m here.”

Europe’s top rights body calls on Greece to improve minority rights
Associated Press, Nov. 18, 2004

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Europe’s top human rights body called on the Greek government Thursday to develop national legislation prohibiting acts of discrimination toward minorities in Greece, citing an increase in anti-Semitism in the country.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, which is part of the Council of Europe, said Greece has made substantial progress in promoting religious tolerance and fighting human trafficking, but stressed that more needs to be done to protect vulnerable groups.

“There remain stereotypes, prejudices and incidences of discrimination targeting members of minority groups, particularly the Roma community and minority religious groups, as well as against immigrants,” the rights watchdog said in its 43-page report.

In presenting the report during a round-table discussion in Athens, ECRI members said it was of “utmost importance” that Greece create a national, independent body to monitor discrimination and cases of police misbehavior.

“We need to adopt measures to implement legislation and encourage victims to lodge claims to the police,” said Professor Raluca Besteliu, an ECRI member.

The report cited an increase in anti-Semitism in Greece and encouraged the Greek government to “fight against this phenomenon” by creating a national day to commemorate the Holocaust.

The Commission also stressed that several recommendations made in its reports four years ago have yet to be implemented, including the raising of living conditions for Gypsies, or Roma, to meet EU standards. Gypsies have not received adequate employment or educational opportunities in Greece. Many Roma dwellings are isolated on city outskirts and often do not have electricity or running water.

“The location of Roma camps makes it hard for Roma children to get to school,” said Besteliu. “Roma children encounter discrimination from teachers and parents of other children.”

The 150,000 Gypsies in Greece complain they face scorn just as they have in the rest of Europe.

In the months ahead of the Athens Olympics, some Roma were forced out to make way for such projects as the parking lot at the main Olympic stadium and part of the land used for the Olympic Village.

Government Officials said the Roma camps are “temporary” ways of dealing with the problem and the current framework is being revised. Ioannis Tassopoulos, a Health Ministry director, said the government has responded by creating 50 health centers for the Roma and housing for 1,100 refugees and asylum seekers.

The Commission also noted that Greece has no comprehensive policy processing immigrants and asylum seekers, which makes it difficult for them to fully integrate into Greek society.

“Ten percent of the people living in Greece are foreigners,” said ECRI member Stelios Perrakis. “We still have the problem of harmonizing our legislation to EU legislation on discrimination.”

Refugees and asylum seekers often find themselves homeless due to a lack of reception infrastructures and the lengthy procedure by which their status is clarified from the government.

Greece also has one of the lowest acceptance rates for asylum seekers compared to other EU countries. In 2001, Greece approved 22.4 percent of all applications for refugee or humanitarian status. In 2002, the number dropped to 1.1 percent.

Historic housing project survives wars, neglect and the Athens Olympics
Associated Press, Oct. 25, 2004

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – During the Olympics, its walls were hidden from visitors by a giant advertising banner, while the crumbling homes behind it awaited demolition.

Now, the dwellers of a 70-year-old housing project in central Athens are rejoicing in a rare piece of good news: Their homes will dodge the wrecking ball.

A court of arbitration on Thursday overturned a demolition order and spared the downtown project that sits awkwardly between the glass-and-marble Supreme Court, police headquarters and the home field of the city’s main soccer team.

Constantina Kosma, keeping five children and three puppies in a tiny apartment with little furniture, said she has finally found a place to call home. “I feel comfortable here,” Kosma ,36, said Friday, speaking in the cluttered stairwell of her building where she moved to about a year ago. “I’ve always had to move around and pay rent … This is the first place I’ve ever considered home.”

The project on busy Alexandras Avenue had been slated for demolition as part of Athens’ hasty gentrification drive before the Aug. 13-29 Olympics. Construction crews jackhammered sidewalks, rolled out grass, and painted downtown building facades right up until the opening ceremony.

Six of the eight dilapidated blocks were due to be pulled down to build a park. But the scheme by Greece’s Culture Ministry was halted after about 40 resident families refused to sell their homes to a government-run property agency and took the case to court.

The residents’ campaign was joined by several architects and politicians who argued that the 3.6-acre site should be restored as a reminder of Greece’s recent history.

Built in 1935, the apartments were inspired by Germany’s minimalist Bauhaus school and built by architects Kimonas Laskaris and Dimitris Kyriakos to house survivors from a Greek-Turkish war that ended in 1922 and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees over to Athens.

Bullet holes running down the side of the walls were made during an uprising in 1944, when left-wing fighters clashed with the forces of Greece’s new postwar government.

Since then, the project has steadily sunk into slum-like disrepair, with walls turning brown and fractured, balconies abandoned for fear of collapse, and many of the outer windows and doors boarded up.

During the battle between holdout residents and the state-owned property agency — that began 20 years ago — renovation stopped as the project’s families feared they would ultimately be forced out, a threat suddenly lifted.

“I wouldn’t mind if they fixed up the place,” Kosma said. “It could use a coat of paint.”