Nation briefs 3/11/07

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Chiquita to pay $25 million to settle probe

WASHINGTON -- Banana company Chiquita Brands International said Wednesday it has agreed to a $25 million fine after admitting it paid terrorists for protection in a volatile farming region of Colombia. The settlement resolves a lengthy Justice Department investigation into the company's financial dealings with right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels the U.S. government deems terrorist groups. In court documents filed Wednesday, federal prosecutors said the Cincinnati-based company and several unnamed high-ranking corporate officers paid about $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC for its Spanish initials. The AUC has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's civil conflict and for a sizable percentage of the country's cocaine exports. The U.S. government designated the right-wing militia a terrorist organization in September 2001.

Fitzgerald tells Congress he can't say much

WASHINGTON -- Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who spent years investigating the 2003 leak of a CIA operative's identity, told lawmakers Wednesday that he could offer little help during congressional hearings on the leak. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., asked Fitzgerald last week to meet with members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which will hold hearings on the Bush administration's handling of CIA operative Valerie Plame's classified employment status. In a letter to Waxman, Fitzgerald did not refuse to cooperate with the congressional probe but made it clear he had little to say. "I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to offer opinions, as your letter suggests the committee may seek, about the ultimate responsibility of senior White House officials for the disclosure of Ms. Wilson's identity," Fitzgerald wrote.

U.S. prepares to sanction Sudanese companies

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's envoy to Sudan said Wednesday that the administration is preparing to impose new economic sanctions to counter Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's refusal to allow U.N. peacekeepers to deploy in Darfur. Pending Bush's final approval, envoy Andrew Natsios said, Sudanese companies will be subject to sanctions, and international transactions involving U.S. dollars will be blocked.

Sununu first Republican senator to call for firing

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire on Wednesday became the first Republican in Congress to call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' dismissal, hours after President Bush expressed confidence in his embattled Cabinet officer. Gonzales has been fending off Democratic demands for his firing in the wake of disclosures surrounding the ousters of eight U.S. attorneys -- dismissals Democrats have characterized as a politically motivated purge. Support from many Republicans had been muted, but there was no outright GOP call for his dismissal until now.

Google tightens privacy measures

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google Inc. is adopting new privacy measures to make it more difficult to connect online search requests with the people making them -- a thorny issue that provoked a showdown with the U.S. government last year. Under revisions announced late Wednesday, Google promised to wrap a cloak of anonymity around the vast amounts of information that the Mountain View-based company regularly collects about its millions of users around the world. Google believes it can provide more assurances of privacy by removing key pieces of identifying information from its system every 18 to 24 months.

Egypt names first female judges

CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt's judiciary chief has named the country's first female judges despite opposition from conservative Muslims, according to a decree published Wednesday. Mukbil Shakir, the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, appointed 31 women to judge or chief judge positions in Egypt's courts, the official Middle East News Agency said, quoting Shakir's decree. The move is expected to give a boost to President Hosni Mubarak's political and social reforms that have been widely criticized as too restricted. But others said the announcement still falls short of providing women equal opportunities. The decree said the women, who previously were state prosecutors, passed a special test before being named to their new posts.

-- From wire reports

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