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    Tuesday, May 5, 2009

    Reuters - U.S. reports second swine flu death

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    U.S. reports second swine flu death

    Tuesday, May 05, 2009 8:57PM UTC

    By Chris Baltimore and Pascal Fletcher

    HOUSTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - U.S. authorities announced on Tuesday a second death attributed to the new H1N1 flu virus, while Mexico protested curbs on its citizens and pork products in response to the waning epidemic.

    In Texas, local health officials said a woman infected with the H1N1 virus died earlier this week.

    "A woman from Cameron County who had chronic underlying health conditions died earlier this week," the Texas Department of State Health Services said on its website.

    It was the second death attributed to the virus on U.S. soil following the death earlier this month of a Mexican toddler who had traveled to the United States.

    Health experts have said the H1N1 swine flu, which has killed 26 people in Mexico, appears mild and does not seem to be spreading aggressively outside North America. But Mexican citizens and goods have faced quarantines and bans.

    The global health alert over the previously unknown virus, which has infected more than 1,300 people in 22 nations, has also stirred trade and diplomatic tensions as alarmed governments take protection measures to avoid contagion.

    An AeroMexico plane on Tuesday picked up dozens of Mexicans stranded in China after they were quarantined there. Mexican President Felipe Calderon condemned the measure as discrimination against his compatriots.

    China, which was badly hit by a SARS epidemic in 2003, says it acted correctly, and along with Russia and more than a dozen other countries has imposed a ban on Mexican meat products, despite expert views that the pork contagion risk is minimal.

    The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Tuesday the risk of catching the H1N1 flu virus from pork was "totally negligible."

    Following up on its diplomatic protest to China, Mexico told the World Trade Organization on Tuesday it was "deeply disappointed" by what it called "divisive measures" applied by some WTO members against its pork products.

    "Mexico urgently requests all its trading partners to eliminate any restrictive measures established on Mexican products, which are not in accordance with the scientific information available," the Mexican statement said.

    U.S. and Canadian pig and pork exports have also been hit by bans which rattled the $26 billion a year global pork industry, in which Mexico, the United States and Canada are among top exporters.


    Mexico now says it is over the worst of its flu infection and is set to gradually resume normal business and public life from Wednesday after days of shutdown.

    Calderon has announced a fiscal stimulus plan, including tax reductions to lure back foreign tourism and cruise operators, to offset the blow of the health alert, which Finance Minister Agustin Carstens said could knock as much as half a percentage point off growth this year. [nN05475803]

    Pedestrians and cars were returning to the streets of Mexico City, but activity was still well below normal.

    Many Mexicans felt their country, already notorious for drug cartel violence, was being unfairly stigmatized.

    "With all this bad reputation that we're getting, it's going to take time to salvage the nation's image ... it's been bad luck for Mexico," said Jorge Ramirez, 48, a chauffeur.

    "There should be no travel restrictions or closure of borders ... It is not helpful to blame or stigmatize people who happen to be citizens of infected countries," Dr Jon K. Andrus of the Pan American Health Organization told reporters.

    Following World Health Organization warnings of an "imminent" pandemic, which generated global alarm and shut down business and public life in Mexico, scientists now say the new H1N1 strain does not appear more deadly than seasonal flu.

    But the United Nations, fearing a possible more violent flu resurgence later this year, urged continuing vigilance.

    "There is still much that is not known about this new strain and the dangers it poses. We must therefore be prepared," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference.


    Some health experts said the virus could surge in the southern hemisphere when the winter begins.

    The United States had more than 400 confirmed cases in 38 states, and the WHO was also monitoring infection clusters in Spain and Britain. [nL5689687]

    The WHO said on Tuesday it would begin sending 2.4 million treatment courses of Tamiflu, an antiviral proven effective against the new flu, to 72 nations, including Mexico.

    U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a news briefing scientists were growing more confident the outbreak would not be as serious as originally feared.

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acting director Dr. Richard Besser said even Mexico's outbreak was looking milder.

    Mexican President Calderon urged his people to try to resume their regular lives after almost two weeks of alarm.

    "Little by little we are returning to normal," he told an event in the city of Puebla to mark the Cinco de Mayo celebration there of an 1862 battle against French forces.

    (Additional reporting by Louise Egan, Daniel Trotta, Luis Rojas Mena, Michael O'Boyle, Pascal Fletcher in Mexico City, Laura MacInnis, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Silvia Aloisi in Rome, Royston Chan in Shanghai, Maggie Fox, Andy Quinn in Washington, Writing by Pascal Fletcher, editing by Alan Elsner).

    CNN - Texas police shake down drivers, lawsuit claims

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    Texas police shake down drivers, lawsuit claims

    Roderick Daniels was traveling through eastern Texas in October 2007 when, he says, he was the victim of a highway robbery.

    The Tennessee man says he was ordered to pull his car over and surrender his jewelry and $8,500 in cash that he had with him to buy a new car.

    But Daniels couldn't go to the police to report the incident.

    The men who stopped him were the police.

    Daniels was stopped on U.S. Highway 59 outside Tenaha, near the Louisiana state line. Police said he was driving 37 mph in a 35 mph zone. They hauled him off to jail and threatened him with money-laundering charges -- but offered to release him if he signed papers forfeiting his property.

    "I actually thought this was a joke," Daniels told CNN.

    But he signed.

    "To be honest, I was five, six hundred miles from home," he said. "I was petrified."

    Now Daniels and other motorists who have been stopped by Tenaha police are part of a lawsuit seeking to end what plaintiff's lawyer David Guillory calls a systematic fleecing of drivers passing through the town of about 1,000.

    "I believe it is a shakedown. I believe it's a piracy operation," Guillory said.

    George Bowers, Tenaha's longtime mayor, says his police follow the law. And through her lawyers, Shelby County District Attorney Lynda Russell denied any impropriety.

    Texas law allows police to confiscate drug money and other personal property they believe are used in the commission of a crime. If no charges are filed or the person is acquitted, the property has to be returned. But Guillory's lawsuit states that Tenaha and surrounding Shelby County don't bother to return much of what they confiscate.

    Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson said they agreed to forfeit their property after Russell threatened to have their children taken away.

    Like Daniels, the couple says they were carrying a large amount of cash --- about $6,000 -- to buy a car. When they were stopped in Tenaha in 2007, Boatright said, Russell came to the Tenaha police station to berate her and threaten to separate the family.

    "I said, 'If it's the money you want, you can take it, if that's what it takes to keep my children with me and not separate them from us. Take the money,' " she said.

    The document Henderson signed, which bears Russell's signature, states that in exchange for forfeiting the cash, "no criminal charges shall be filed ... and our children shall not be turned over" to the state's child protective services agency.

    Maryland resident Amanee Busbee said she also was threatened with losing custody of her child after being stopped in Tenaha with her fiancé and his business partner. They were headed to Houston with $50,000 to complete the purchase of a restaurant, she said.

    "The police officer would say things to me like, 'Your son is going to child protective services because you are not saying what we need to hear,' " Busbee said.

    Guillory, who practices in nearby Nacogdoches, Texas, estimates authorities in Tenaha seized $3 million between 2006 and 2008, and in about 150 cases -- virtually all of which involved African-American or Latino motorists -- the seizures were improper.

    "They are disproportionately going after racial minorities," he said. "My take on the matter is that the police in Tenaha, Texas, were picking on and preying on people that were least likely to fight back."

    Daniels told CNN that one of the officers who stopped him tried on some of his jewelry in front of him.

    "They asked me, 'What you are doing with this ring on?' I said I had bought that ring. I paid good money for that ring," Daniels said. "He took the ring off my finger and put it on his finger and told me how did it look. He put on my jewelry."

    Texas law states that the proceeds of any seizures can be used only for "official purposes" of district attorney offices and "for law-enforcement purposes" by police departments. According to public records obtained by CNN using open-records laws, an account funded by property forfeitures in Russell's office included $524 for a popcorn machine, $195 for candy for a poultry festival, and $400 for catering.

    In addition, Russell donated money to the local chamber of commerce and a youth baseball league. A local Baptist church received two checks totaling $6,000.

    And one check for $10,000 went to Barry Washington, a Tenaha police officer whose name has come up in several complaints by stopped motorists. The money was paid for "investigative costs," the records state.

    Washington would not comment for this report but has denied all allegations in his answer to Guillory's lawsuit.

    "This is under litigation. This is a lawsuit," he told CNN.

    Russell refused requests for interviews at her office and at a fundraiser for a volunteer fire department in a nearby town, where she also sang. But in a written statement, her lawyers said she "has denied and continues to deny all substantive allegations set forth."

    Russell "has used and continues to use prosecutorial discretion ... and is in compliance with Texas law, the Texas constitution, and the United States Constitution," the statement said.

    Bowers, who has been Tenaha's mayor for 54 years, is also named in the lawsuit. But he said his employees "will follow the law."

    "We try to hire the very best, best-trained, and we keep them up to date on the training," he said.

    The attention paid to Tenaha has led to an effort by Texas lawmakers to tighten the state's forfeiture laws. A bill sponsored by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would bar authorities from using the kind of waivers Daniels, Henderson and Busbee were told to sign.

    "To have law enforcement and the district attorney essentially be crooks, in my judgment, should infuriate and does infuriate everyone," Whitmire said. His bill has passed the Senate, where he is the longest-serving member, and is currently before the House of Representatives.

    Busbee, Boatright and Henderson were able to reclaim their property after hiring lawyers. But Daniels is still out his $8,500.

    "To this day, I don't understand why they took my belongings off me," he said.

    CNN - Pregnant Briton to escape death penalty in Laos

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    Pregnant Briton to escape death penalty in Laos

    A British woman who had been facing possible execution in Laos will escape the death sentence because she is pregnant, a spokesman for the Laotian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

    The country's criminal law prohibits courts from sentencing pregnant women to death, spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing told CNN. The woman's trial hasn't been scheduled yet, he said, but is likely to happen next week.

    Samantha Orobator, 20, was facing death by firing squad for drug trafficking, said Clare Algar, the executive director of Reprieve, a London-based human rights group.

    She was arrested August 5, Khenthong has said.

    Orobator was alleged to have been carrying just over half a kilogram (about 1lb) of heroin, Reprieve lawyer Anna Morris told CNN by phone from Vientiane, the Laotian capital. Those found guilty of carrying that amount normally face the death penalty, she said.

    Reprieve has said Orobator became pregnant in prison, possibly as a result of rape, and that she is due to give birth in September. That would mean Orobator became pregnant in January.

    Khenthong agreed that Orobator is five months pregnant.

    But he indicated that Orobator might have already been pregnant when she was arrested, and that she lost the first baby while in prison.

    He said Orobator declared on the day of her arrest in August that she was two months pregnant by her boyfriend. After she had already been in jail for some time, he said, Orobator asked for medication to cure a vaginal infection, and he believes it caused her to lose the child.

    Nuanthasing said officials are investigating Orobator's pregnancy.

    Orobator's mother said she found out about her daughter's pregnancy in January. Jane Orobator told CNN she heard the news from the British Foreign Office, which has been monitoring the case.

    There is no British Embassy in Laos; a British vice-consul arrived in the country over the weekend, the British Foreign Office said.

    Jane Orobator said she cannot believe her daughter was involved in drug trafficking, and she was surprised to learn she was in Laos.

    "I don't know" what she was doing there, she said from her home in Dublin, Ireland. "The last time she spoke with me, she said she was on holiday in London and she would come to see us in Dublin before returning to the UK in July.

    "She is not the type of person who would be involved in drugs," she added.

    Reprieve is worried about her health, especially given her pregnancy, Anna Morris said.

    "She became pregnant in prison. We are concerned that it may not have been consensual and we are concerned that someone who finds herself in prison at 20 is subject to exploitation," she said.

    Reprieve sent Morris from London to Laos to try to help Orobator, Algar said.

    The lawyer arrived there on Sunday and is hoping to visit Orobator on Tuesday, her boss at Reprieve said. A British consul has also arrived in the country.

    "I am the first British lawyer who has asked for access to her," Morris said. "She needs to have a local lawyer appointed to her. We are pressing very hard for the local authorities to appoint one."

    She said it was normal in the Laotian justice system for a defendant to get a lawyer only days before a trial.

    The last execution in Laos was in 1990, the foreign affairs spokesman said.

    Samantha Orobator was born in Nigeria and moved to London with her family when she was 8, her mother said.

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