THE INDEX — January 25, 2010

Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, was executed by hanging in Iraq this morning. Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and notorious enforcer in his regime, had been sentenced to death four times for multiple, separate crimes against humanity. His first sentence came down in June 2007 for participation in a February-August 1988 military campaign against ethnic Kurds. He was sentenced to death again in December 2008 for his role in crushing the Shia revolt at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. His third death sentence was handed down in March 2009, for the ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims in Sadr City, a district of Baghdad. Finally, this January, Majid was sentenced to death for ordering the infamous gas attack against Halabja, a Kurdish town, in 1988. In what was termed an act of genocide, an estimated 5,000 people died in Halabja as Iraqi jets sprayed a mixture of lethal chemicals on the town for five hours. (This attack earned Majid his nickname, Chemical Ali.) Majid was sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal, a committee set up to try former members of Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and which sentenced Saddam to execution in 2006.
All 90 passengers on board an Ethiopian Airlines plane are believed to be dead after crashing into the Mediterranean. The Boeing 737-800 was headed to Addis Ababa and disappeared off radar within five minutes after taking off at 2:37 Monday morning during a thunderstorm. A Lebanese minister reported that “bad weather was apparently the cause of the crash” and Defense Minister Elias Murr said that the government had “ruled out foul play so far." Witnesses on the coast reported seeing a “ball of fire” in the sky. Lebanese army officials noted that the plane broke up in the air before plummeting into the sea, though these initial conclusions have not been confirmed. Rescue efforts are underway with helicopters and naval ships searching the crash site; the UN peacekeeping operation in Lebanon sent three ships and two helicopters. So far, 24 bodies have been recovered in the sea and debris has begun washing up on shore. Lebanese prime minister Saad Hairi has declared a day of mourning, closing schools and government offices.
An announcement this week from Myanmar’s ruling military junta brought good news to the country’s famed democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi, who has been subjected to house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, is slated to be released from detention this November, according to a statement by Myanmar’s home minister, Maj. Gen. Muang Oo. In addition to Suu Kyi, another Burmese democracy advocate, former general Thura Tin Oo [no relation], will also be released from detention. The decision to release both Suu Kyi and Tin Oo comes amid assurances on the part of the country’s ruling junta that this year’s upcoming elections—the country’s first in 20 years—will be open and transparent. “We are not a power crazy government,” Maung Oo reportedly said during his announcement of Suu Kyi’s release. “The election will be held in 2010 without fail. I promise the election will be free and fair. There will be no cheating.” While Burmese officials have not yet declared a specific date on which the country’s elections will occur, a representative of Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), insisted that “the most important thing is they [both Suu Kyi and Tin Oo] must be freed in good time so that they can work for national reconciliation.” Suu Kyi’s NLD party won an overwhelming victory in 1990, during Myanmar’s last democratic elections. However, the country’s military regime, which has controlled Myanmar since 1962, failed to allow the party to take office. In the intervening years, Suu Kyi became a symbol of democratic resistance throughout Myanmar and the world. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts.
The government of Rwanda just released a detailed report concluding its investigation of the assassination of former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. According to the official report, Habyarimana’s assassination, which occurred on April 6, 1994, was undertaken by Hutu extremists who went on to commit a 100-day genocide that lead to the demise of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis, along with an indeterminate number of moderate Hutus. This report comes in the aftermath of a long-running political storm that pitted Rwanda’s current Tutsi-led government in Kigali against a wide array of actors, many of whom insinuated that the current Rwandan government, lead by Paul Kagame, was itself responsible for the assassination of Habyarimana. (Kagame’s former militia, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, was credited with halting the 1994 genocide, which exploded in the aftermath of a four-year civil war between Kagame’s forces and Habyarimana’s anti-Tutsi regime.) The French government, which was a prominent supporter of the authoritarian Habyarimana regime, has long alleged that Kagame’s forces were themselves responsible for shooting down the president’s plane, which also killed several French nationals who were on-board. In 2006, a French judge in Paris issued arrest warrants for nine Rwandan government officials in conjunction with Habyarimana’s assassination. Officials in Kigali responded by freezing diplomatic ties with France. However, in the intervening years, as the French judge’s allegations slowly fizzled, ties between the two nations have warmed. A few weeks ago, in early January, Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo held a meeting with her French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, in Kigali. "We have a common history,” she said. “We have had difficulties. We are ready to discuss them and move on. We are beginning a new phase in our shared history." For his part, Kouchner noted, “What happened in Rwanda concerns every inhabitant of this land. France is with you and I say this in the name of France of the past days, present and future.” Members of the Rwandan government and other observers hope that the publication of this report will signal a turning point between the two countries in the months to come.

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