Gunmen opened fire Saturday on a prominent Pakistani TV news anchor, an attack his brother linked to the nation’s government despite its firm denial.
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The American legal system offers few moments as dramatic as an eyewitness to a crime pointing his finger across a crowded courtroom at a defendant.
The problem is that decades of studies show eyewitness testimony is only right about half the time — a reality that has prompted a small vanguard of police chiefs, courts and lawmakers to toughen laws governing the handling of eyewitnesses and their accounts of crimes. Reform advocates say procedures long regarded as solid police work, from bringing a witness to a crime scene where he might see a suspect in handcuffs to the subtle encouragement of a detective during a police lineup, can fundamentally alter what someone believes they saw.
“It’s not the case that eyewitnesses are inherently unreliable,” said Gary Wells of Iowa State University, who has researched the field of eyewitness identification since the 1970s. “But we can make it better by cleaning up the procedures around it.”
Prosecutors, however, have opposed the efforts, arguing that the changes erode their powers, even as studies have shown that eyewitnesses are about half as likely to choose the correct suspect out of a lineup as they are to choose some combination of the innocent fillers or no suspect at all when the correct one is present. The reexamination of eyewitness testimony comes at a time when technology and other forensic analysis are being given greater weight.
In Maryland, legislators this week passed a bill that overhauls the state’s eyewitness identification procedures, but not before the prosecutor for Baltimore County testified against it. “What we see is a fairly organized and aggressive attack on all forms of evidence prosecutors use to get convictions,” said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.
Burns said criminal defense attorneys, groups that try to get wrongful convictions overturned and the American Civil Liberties Union are part of a bloc that is selecting outlier cases of prosecutorial misconduct or witness mishandling and applying that to the entire system.
It’s that attitude that gives advocates of reform migraines, said Rebecca Brown, state policy reform director for the Innocence Project, which pursues exonerations of the wrongfully convicted.
“We joke in the office that it’s like climate change,” she said. “There’s settled science, and then there’s this group of people denying it.”
The U.S. Supreme Court had a chance to establish a national standard for eyewitness testimony when it handled a 2012 case from New Hampshire. The court instead delegated that responsibility to the states, which could choose to overhaul their laws or do nothing at all. Most chose the latter.
Advocates of reform seek several major changes to the way police and prosecutors operate. They want “blind” administrators of lineups — people who don’t know who the suspect is, and a lineup that doesn’t unfairly single out a suspect. They want police to record an eyewitnesses’ degree of confidence in his identification, and they want any photo lineups of suspects to be randomized.
In Texas, the state allowed for the possibility that agencies might need to cut the law to fit their individual needs. Law enforcement agencies must either adopt the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas’ guidelines for lineups composed of people or photographs, or submit their own plan that conforms to the law.
In Oregon and New Jersey, the state supreme courts implemented stringent guidelines for the treatment of such testimony, and another seven states, from Connecticut to North Carolina, along with a number of cities have overhauled their treatment of eyewitness testimony.
A case that’s playing out in Oregon, advocates say, highlights the problems.
Two women, both white, peered through their rain-streaked car window at a crowded street corner in 2007 and saw a black man fire a handgun four times. One person fell dead and the shooter ran at their car. They screamed. They made it a half-dozen blocks before police stopped them and asked them what they saw. Not much, they said, and what they did see was blurred by the rain, the dark and their own terror.
But two years later, after seeing Jerrin Hickman in the courtroom seat normally reserved for defendants, one of the women identified him. “Oh, my God,” she said, hyperventilating, according to appellate filings in the murder case. “That’s him, that’s him, that’s him.”
Their testimony was unanimously dismissed as implausible by the Oregon Court of Appeals, which found that a host of factors that have rarely been given weight in American criminal law unfairly twisted the recollections of the two women and their confidence in their own testimony.
For one, studies have shown racial differences between witness and suspect makes identification much more difficult. Second, the girls hadn’t given any indication of their confidence in their choice of suspect initially, so it was impossible to later judge its value against their later certainty.
And most important to the suspect’s attorneys, the first time the girls saw the suspect since the shooting was when he was seated at the defense table, which was “egregiously suggestive.” The case is under consideration by Oregon’s highest court, the first challenge to the state’s new law regarding eyewitnesses.
Multnomah County, Ore., district attorney Rod Underhill said as a prosecutor, he’s prepared to embrace the reforms but worries that the realities for small departments could turn a good law into a logistical nightmare.
“If it’s 10 p.m. on Saturday night, you only have one officer working and the other is a half-hour away on the other side of the county,” Underhill said. “That makes getting a blind administrator difficult, if not impossible.”
Underhill said law enforcement’s top priority is justice, but he is worried about a one-size-fits-all policy.
Reach reporter Nigel Duara on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara
“We have embraced the idea that being mentally sick is a crime.”
It is way past time to overhaul the U.S. prison system.
I’m not talking about a little tweak here and there. I’m talking about throwing a massive metaphorical hand grenade into the entire system and starting over from scratch. We should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing the system to have morphed into what it has.
Why should you care about this? Well, because you’re paying for it. Between states and the federal government the U.S. spends about $74 billion a year housing, feeding, providing health care (such as it is in prison) for inmates and supervising the newly released.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2012 there were nearly 7 million Americans under the supervision of adult correctional systems. Translated: one in every 108 adults in the United States was incarcerated, a per-capita world record.
The problem, as I see it, centers on who we are locking up. The Washington Post reports that only one percent of them are in for murder. Four percent are serving time for robbery. The most serious charge against 51 percent of them is a drug offense.
But here is the most startling, heart-wrenching statistic of them all. According to a Justice Department study more than half of the prisoners in the U.S. suffer from a bona fide mental illness. Among female inmates, about three-quarters have a diagnosable mental disorder.
Why in the world are we locking up the mentally ill in the same place we house violent and predatory criminals? The answer is simple. Because there is nowhere else to put the “crazy people,” so we put them in jail after they act out. Many times their families have spent years begging for mental health care for their disturbed loved one to no avail. And sometimes, the “crazy people” deliberately commit crimes knowing they will be housed, fed and minimally medicated in lockup.
Back in the mid-’50s, psychotropic drugs like Thorazine were found to be so successful in quelling mental patient’s delusions and agitation that within a decade society decided it was cruel to continue to institutionalize them. The abuse of patients and unsanitary conditions found at some mental hospitals were ascribed to all such institutions so we closed them down. Patients were given a prescription for their meds and told they were “free.” No one seemed to notice that the planned community mental health centers never materialized and when one of these former patients had a problem there were very few places they could go for help.
The pattern continues to this day. There are simply not enough mental health beds to service everyone who needs help. Today, commitment is difficult and, sadly, we have to wait for the mentally ill to actually commit a crime before the state steps in. In the last few years, many of America’s mass murders were committed by untreated mentally ill people who should have been in a mental health care facility — for their protection and for ours.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? The very society that once agreed it was unjust to lock people up in mental hospitals now allows the mentally disturbed to be locked up in much more dangerous jails and prisons.
We have turned our backs on these folks and our prisons have become de facto psychiatric facilities. We have decided that these are throwaway human beings and embrace the idea that being mentally sick is a crime. Our children and grandchildren are going to look back and wonder what was wrong with us.
I could fill this entire page with quotes from wardens describing the horror of what happens to sufferers of schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders and other mental illnesses once they enter prison. But the ugly truth is that some of those same wardens employ practices that are, literally, creating even more disturbed individuals.
The widespread use of solitary confinement in prisons has been shown to have a tremendously negative effect. Mostly because inmates — be they habitually violent, in danger from other prisoners or simply a rule breaker — are often held for months and even years in isolation. You know what being locked up, alone, for years at a time does to the human mind?
According to Dr. Stuart Grassian, a veteran psychiatrist from Harvard who is considered an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, prolonged seclusion only leads inmates to exhibit more impulsive and violent behavior.
“Ninety-five percent of these people will get out and be released back on the streets,” Grassian said on a National Geographic documentary. “All isolation will have done is make them as violent, crazy and dangerous as possible when they get out.”
So how long does the system continue doing what we know doesn’t work? When do the priorities shift away from warehousing chronic drug addicts with the hope that they will somehow cure themselves by their release date? When do we stop thinking it is morally defensible to house the mentally ill alongside career gang-bangers, rapists and killers? And, what will it take to convince prison administrators to reject the rage-filling practice of prolonged solitary confinement?
Look, I’m not advocating letting anyone out of prison. I’m suggesting its way past time to take a fresh look at revolutionary new ways to spend that $74 billion every year.
How about we start with a plan that separates the hardcore, habitual criminals from the mentally sick and persistently addicted? Keep the first group in a standard prison setting. Then, turn some of our prisons into psychiatric centers to help the more fragile inmates. The past confirms that an overwhelming majority of those who suffer from mental illness and addiction are not violent. They are lost souls who could possibly get their lives set straight if exposed to the right therapies and medications.
I’m embarrassed that we have adopted a toss-and-forget attitude about so many of our weakest citizens. Prison is not where they belong and it certainly isn’t where they will ever learn to become contributing members of society again. By continuing our current policies we insure only one thing: America’s per-capita standing as the world’s number one jailer.
Visit Diane Dimond’s official website at www.dianedimond.com. You can reach her here: Diane@DianeDimond.com. Diane is active on Facebook and Twitter @DiDimond
BOSTON (AP) — Several days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Gov. Deval Patrick received a call in the pre-dawn hours from a top aide telling him that police officers outside the city had just engaged in a ferocious gun battle with the two men suspected of setting the bombs and that one was dead and the other had fled.
Within hours, Patrick shut down the region’s public transportation system and made an extraordinary request of more than 1 million greater Boston residents: Shelter in place.
And for the better part of April 19, 2013, nearly everyone did.
On what otherwise would be a normal weekday, people stayed home. Stores in Boston were shuttered, streets deserted and an eerie silence prevailed while authorities searched for the suspect and attempted to cut off escape routes.
“It was a big decision. I’m glad we made it,” Patrick reflected during a recent interview about the anniversary of the bombing.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it turned out, would not be captured until shortly after the shelter-in-place request was lifted some 12 hours later. He was found in a boat, behind a home in Watertown, a Boston suburb, blocks from where his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had died after the earlier shootout. The homeowner had ventured outside to check on his boat and, upon noticing the cover amiss, peered in and saw the bloodied teenager.
That the population of greater Boston overwhelmingly agreed to shelter in place — it was not mandatory — and that there was little second-guessing despite the inconvenience and disruption of commerce it caused, was viewed as a reflection of the anxiety gripping the region. It was also a sign of how strongly the city rallied around itself and its leaders after the bombing.
Henry Willis, director of the homeland security and defense center at Rand Corp., said he was surprised there had not been more analysis of the decision.
“It was clear the perpetrators of the bombing were armed and willing to hurt people,” Willis said. “At the same time, shelter in place created an effective lockdown of the entire city, and, if nothing else, it’s difficult to sustain such a condition in a major metropolitan area.”
Initially, Patrick said, police intended only to seal off parts of Watertown and a small portion of Boston and suspend public buses to those areas. But that would change as more details emerged in the chaotic overnight hours.
He learned that the earlier shooting of Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier and a carjacking in Cambridge were believed to be linked to the bombing suspects as well. And other information, alarming though later unsubstantiated, kept pouring in: One report of a taxi going from Watertown to Boston’s South Station just before the first scheduled train of the day to New York City; another that federal agents had chased a person matching the suspect’s description in South Boston.
Patrick concluded that the suspect could have already moved far from Watertown, necessitating a broader lockdown.
“So there was all this other stuff happening and the question then was, How do you surgically shut down (public transportation) in and out of Boston? It’s impossible to do. So we suspended service for the day and we asked people in the city and in the greater Boston area to shelter in place,” Patrick said.
At mid-afternoon, Patrick took a call from President Barack Obama, who offered encouragement but also a reminder that the lockdown could not last indefinitely.
“We lifted it before we found the surviving suspect because we got to a point where we didn’t think we could sustain it anymore,” Patrick said. A house-to-house search in Watertown had also been completed.
Exhausted, Patrick headed home, first stopping to pick up Thai food for his wife and daughter who, like so many others, had spent a long day at home. It was then he learned of the capture and returned to Watertown.
“It’s a tough, tough call,” said Patrick, asked if he would recommend the same course of action to other governors in similar situations.
The advantages of such a massive lockdown, said Willis, include keeping people out of harm’s way and removing traffic and other encumbrances for police. On the flip side, it removes the eyes and ears of a million people who could conceivably be helpful during a manhunt, and there are other costs, he said.
“It also creates anxiety and fear for people,” which, Willis added, is a goal of terrorists.
Aside from the immediate area of the attack, Boston remained open in the days after the bombing.
Marc Fucarile, who lost his right leg in the bombing, said he strongly supported the shelter-in-place request, noting how dangerous the suspects were and dismissing the notion it was inconvenient.
“You know what was an inconvenience? Two bombs on Boylston Street was an inconvenience,” Fucarile said.
The NSA’s mass surveillance activities, including the collection of billions of U.S. cell phone records every day, have sparked vigorous debate about whether such surveillance is legal, consistent with democratic principles, or effective in catching the terrorists it ostensibly targets. One essential question has received little attention, however: Is amassing mountains of privacy-sensitive “metadata” technically necessary for effective, lawful electronic tracking and surveillance of legitimate targets?
The answer is emphatically no. Well understood cryptographic techniques can enable lawful intercept and surveillance without the creation of centralized hoards of personal information. This is not a geeky footnote in the mass surveillance saga. Such hoards are dangerous as well as unnecessary; they could be leaked or sold to a foreign state or criminal gang by a future, more venal incarnation of Edward Snowden.
The FBI is already adept at catching criminals without hoarding the cell phone metadata of all Americans. The High Country Bandits were two men who robbed 16 rural banks in Arizona and Colorado before being caught. After one bandit was observed using a cell phone near a robbery site, the FBI obtained cell tower dumps — records from cellular providers listing all cell phones that had electronically “checked in” around the locations and times of three past robberies. This request yielded three sets of phone numbers, one from each cell tower, containing approximately 150,000 numbers in total. However, only one phone number appeared in the intersection of these sets, i.e., in all three: that of the phone one bandit had carried during the robberies. The bandit need not have made any calls; his phone merely needed to have been powered on and communicating with the cell towers.
In computer security, this is known as an intersection attack, with the FBI in this case playing the role of “attacker.” Intersection attacks are a powerful, general, and in this case effective method of answering questions of the form, “What is common to several large heaps of otherwise meaningless-looking data?”
Intersection attacks are also evidently the foundation of the NSA’s CO-TRAVELER program. To find unknown associates of a known target, the NSA collects cell tower dumps of all users carrying cell phones near the target at different locations and times. The NSA then identifies previously unknown cell phone numbers common to several of these sets, representing people who may be “traveling with” the target. Although the U.S. government has offered scant evidence of this claim, let us assume for the sake of argument that location-tracking methods like CO-TRAVELER are effective at catching terrorists.
The FBI did not need to hoard the cell phone records of all Americans to catch the High Country Bandits, but they still swept 149,999 other phone numbers into their intersection attack: numbers probably belonging to innocent people who happened to be in the vicinity of one robbery site but not all three. Did the FBI immediately delete the rest of these phone numbers, or were they stashed for possible use in future investigations? Part of the widespread opposition to New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” regime was the NYPD’s policy of retaining the names, addresses, and descriptions of people who had been stopped, frisked, determined to be doing nothing illegal, and released without ever having been arrested, much less convicted of a crime. Should the FBI need to do the equivalent of a retroactive “stop and frisk” of 149,999 innocent cell phone users, gathering their phone numbers and potentially storing them forever to use in ways yet to be determined, in the process of catching one pair of bandits? Even if the FBI were to declare a policy of deleting data incidentally collected on users not under suspicion, must Americans simply trust that every FBI agent will follow this policy faithfully?
The answer is still no. Modern cryptography has moved far beyond merely encrypting and decrypting data. We can now perform many computations on encrypted data, while keeping it encrypted and unknown to the parties performing the computation. For example, we have efficient methods for privacy-preserving set intersection, which start with several sets of encrypted items, decrypt only the elements in the intersection, and leave items not in the intersection encrypted and unreadable by anyone. Thus, cell phone carriers could have stored cell tower data in encrypted form, used privacy-preserving set intersection, and delivered only the bandit’s phone number to the FBI without disclosing the other 149,999 phone numbers to anyone. This may sound like magic, but it is merely an illustration of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Like any technology, modern cryptography can be misused: for example, to conceal spy agencies’ activities without accountability or privacy protection for innocent users. Proper uses should ensure that lawful electronic surveillance activities protect the innocent, are properly authorized and limited in scope, are subject to robust oversight, and follow transparent processes that the public can debate or challenge in court. With proper system design, adequately informed by both policy and technological capabilities, this combination of surveillance power and privacy safeguards is achievable with existing technology.
For example, cell phone carriers could encrypt their lawful intercept records so that neither the carriers themselves nor any single government agency can decrypt them. These records would be useless to malicious insiders at the carriers or hackers who might compromise the carriers’ networks, mitigating one valid reason carriers don’t want to hold this hot potato. Records could be “unlocked” only when independent agencies representing all three branches of government coordinate, e.g., when an intelligence agency electronically requests a warrant, a judge digitally signs it, and a legislative oversight agency digitally attests that the warrant has been tallied in statistics reported to Congress. This electronic coordination need not be slow; the process could occur within seconds of the judge’s signing the warrant.
With privacy-preserving set intersection, an agency need not have a name or phone number to request a warrant. For example, the FBI could have issued a “John Doe” warrant merely listing the cell tower dumps of interest in the High Country Bandits case. The judge authorizing this warrant could limit its scope by specifying a threshold number of these dumps that a phone number must appear in before that phone number can be decrypted and revealed to the FBI. The judge could also specify the maximum number of phone numbers that the warrant may reveal. If, for example, the three requested cell tower dumps unexpectedly coincided with three Justin Bieber concerts, then the warrant might net the phone numbers of thousands of innocent regular teenage fans without yielding useful intelligence. In this case, the set-intersection process would abort without revealing any phone numbers, protecting the fans and requiring the FBI agent to request different cell tower dumps or otherwise narrow the search.
Recent breakthroughs may soon make it practical to perform any computation on encrypted data. Currently, the use of encrypted input data may impose some performance cost, but often such costs are not show stoppers for intelligence agencies following targeted leads. And the costs are falling: DARPA is funding a major effort in computing on encrypted data as part of its PROCEED program.
The NSA is a major employer of cryptographers and computer-security experts. If the US government had directed the agency to work with the broader security-research community on proper application of privacy-preserving technology for warrant-based surveillance, instead of directing it to hoard cell phone metadata of U.S. citizens, a giant and still-ongoing controversy might have been avoided. It is not too late to begin such a collaboration, but that window of opportunity may be closing.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A Mexican man who was killed by a U.S. Border Patrol agent in a remote mountainous area was shot twice in the chest after allegedly pelting the agent with rocks, according to an autopsy report released Friday.
Two casings were recovered about 16 feet from the body of Jesus Flores, 41, whose death on Feb. 18 came amid controversy about how Border Patrol agents should respond to rock throwers. The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office said three rounds were missing from the agent’s gun. Investigators have said Flores threw a rock about the size of a basketball while positioned above the agent on a hillside and hurled another that that hit the agent in the head. They said the agent, Daniel Basinger, feared another blow could kill or incapacitate him.
The autopsy says both bullets took a downward path in Flores’ chest and did not exit the body.
Scott Ross, a Los Angeles private investigator whose cases include Michael Jackson’s physician Conrad Murray and actor Robert Blake, said a bullet can go down even if the shooter fires from below. It can bounce off a bone or muscle, and the angle of Flores’ body when he was shot — which is not explained in the autopsy report — could also have played a part.
Ross, who is not involved in the case, also highlighted the absence of exit wounds.
“You have to have two points to measure,” he said. “If it didn’t come out of his back, you don’t have that second measurement.”
San Diego County Sheriff’s Lt. Glenn Giannantonio, whose department is leading the investigation, said there are reasons that a bullet can take a downward path when shots are fired from below. But he said he couldn’t speculate on what happened in Flores’ case.
According to investigators, Basinger ordered Flores to stop and chased him down a ravine and up a hill, where the shooting occurred about four miles from San Diego’s Otay Mesa port of entry. The account is based on the agent’s statement, and there were no other surviving eyewitnesses.
The killing sparked criticism from the Mexican government at a time when the Border Patrol has been under scrutiny for use of force, particularly against rock throwers and assailants in vehicles.
Under current policy, agents can use deadly force if they have a reasonable belief that their lives or the lives of others are in danger. Last month, Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher urged agents to show restraint.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A man who shot and wounded four people outside of a Halloween party on the University of Southern California campus was sentenced Friday to 40 years to life in prison.
Brandon Spencer, 21, of Inglewood wept and banged his head on the table after he was sentenced in Los Angeles County Superior Court. During the hearing, he begged the judge for leniency and a second chance.
“I’m sorry for what happened, but I can’t spend the rest of my life in prison,” a sobbing Spencer said. “I’m not just some gang-banger.”
His attorney, John Blanchard, said Spencer had no criminal record, had a job and wanted to go to college. Blanchard said he planned to appeal.
Spencer was convicted in February of attempted murder for the 2012 shooting.
Prosecutors say he had been shot in the stomach by a rival gang member in 2011 and was seeking revenge when he opened fire on Oct. 31, 2012, outside of a party sponsored on campus by the Black Student Assembly.
Prosecutors say Spencer arrived at the party, spotted a rival gang member, left and returned with a gun.
He shot Geno Hall, 22, and three other people.
The two “had an ongoing feud over social media fueled by their gang rivalry,” according to a statement from the county district attorney’s office.
No one involved was a USC student but the shooting caused the university to beef up security and put restrictions on events held on the campus.
SLAVIANSK/DONETSK, Ukraine, April 18 (Reuters) – A day after an international deal in Geneva to defuse the East-West crisis in Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists vowed not to end their occupation of public buildings and Washington threatened further sanctions on Moscow if the stalemate continued.
Leaders of gunmen who have taken over city halls and other sites in and around Donetsk this month in pursuit of demands for a Crimea-style referendum on union with Russia rejected the agreement struck in Geneva by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and European Union and demanded on Friday that the leaders of the Kiev uprising must first quit their own government offices.
Moscow renewed its insistence that it has no control over the “little green men” who, as before Russia annexed Crimea last month, appeared in combat gear and with automatic weapons to seize public buildings – a denial that Western allies of those who overthrew the pro-Russian president in Kiev do not accept.
The White House renewed President Barack Obama’s demands that the Kremlin use what Washington believes is its influence over the separatists to get them to vacate the premises. It warned of heavier economic sanctions than those already imposed over Crimea if Moscow failed to uphold the Geneva deal – or if it moved to send troops massed on the border into Ukraine.
“We believe that Russia has considerable influence over the actions of those who have been engaged in destabilising activities in eastern Ukraine,” national security adviser Susan Rice said. “If we don’t see action commensurate with the commitments that Russia has made yesterday in Geneva … then obviously we’ve been very clear that we and our European partners remain ready to impose additional costs on Russia.
“Those costs and sanctions could include targeting very significant sectors of the Russian economy.”
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman hit back, while voicing scepticism – of a kind also heard from the Ukrainian government – about how useful the cautiously worded Geneva pact would be.
“You can’t treat Russia like a guilty schoolboy,” said Dmitry Peskov. “That kind of language is unacceptable.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said: “The Americans are once again stubbornly trying to whitewash the actions of the Kiev authorities, who have embarked on a course of violently suppressing protesters in the southeast who are expressing their legitimate indignation over the infringements of their rights.”
Later in the day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and urged “full and immediate compliance” with the Geneva agreement, a senior State Department official said.
“He made clear that the next few days would be a pivotal period for all sides to implement the statement’s provisions, particularly that all illegal armed groups must be disarmed and all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners,” the official said.
Ukraine’s interim government, in power since pro-Western protests forced President Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Russia two months ago, was at pains to show it was keeping its part of the bargain. Its ill-equipped security forces have shown little sign of being able to regain control in the east by force.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, though admitting he was not overly optimistic about the agreement solving what has become the gravest East-West crisis since the Cold War, said militants would be offered an amnesty. And he and the acting president made a formal joint broadcast pledging constitutional reform to devolve power to the regions and bolster the status of Russian as an official language in areas where it was widely spoken.
Kerry called Yatseniuk and praised him for the amnesty and other measures taken by Ukraine to implement the agreement, the State Department official said.
Russia has made much of the presence of far-right “fascists” among those who forced Yanukovich out in February. In parliament, nationalists briefly tried to abolish a law allowing the official use of Russian, the first language of many in the 46 million population, and of a majority in the eastern regions.
Critics of Putin say that Kremlin-controlled Russian media have fuelled unjustified fear of the new Kiev leadership in the east of Ukraine, where Yanukovich had his power base.
But Russia, which Ukraine and the West say is destabilising the new government in order to maintain and extend its influence over its most populous ex-Soviet neighbour, echoed the Donetsk militants in denouncing the authorities’ failure to dismantle what is effectively an anti-Russian protest camp in Kiev.
The barricaded encampment around Independence Square, known as Maidan, played a crucial role in bringing down Yanukovich after he roused popular anger by rejecting closer economic and other ties with the EU in November. Now, hard-core activists on the square say they will defy any efforts to move them on until a presidential election has been held successfully on May 25.
Ukraine’s foreign minister warned the militants in the east that they could face “more concrete actions” after the Easter weekend if they failed to cooperate with monitors from Europe’s OSCE security body and start vacating buildings. But, he said, the Maidan was not an “illegal” occupation and so unaffected.
Russia’s envoy to the European Union said Ukraine was misreading the Geneva accord, “in particular that it only applies to the eastern and southern provinces and those who are demanding federalism, but not to Kiev, where everything is legal including the ongoing occupation of Maidan”.
The Geneva agreement requires all illegal armed groups to disarm and end occupations of public buildings, streets and squares. This week has already seen several people killed in eastern Ukraine, although details remain unclear.
The self-declared leader of all the eastern separatists said he did not consider his forces to be bound by the agreement.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told journalists in Donetsk, the regional capital, that Lavrov “did not sign anything for us; he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation”.
First, he said at a news conference in the heavily barricaded, occupied headquarters of the regional administration, Yatseniuk and Acting President Oleksander Turchinov should quit their offices, as they took them over “illegally” after Yanukovich was ousted.
“The Kiev junta is signing agreements and fulfilling none of them. They are provoking crisis,” he said. “Turchinov committed a crime against his own people. We will keep going to the end.”
But Alexei, a separatist in nearby Slaviansk, acknowledged that the Geneva talks may have changed the situation: “It turns out Vova doesn’t love us as much as we thought,” he said, using a diminutive term for Putin, who is viewed by many of the militias in occupied buildings as their champion and protector.
Massive unknowns hang over the situation. Putin’s ultimate goal may not be the Crimean-style annexation of Ukraine’s industrial heartland, despite his comments in a major public appearance on Thursday in which he recalled that what is now eastern and southern Ukraine was the tsars’ New Russia.
The Kremlin denies any ambition to take territory and many analysts believe it is principally seeking to influence events in Ukraine to ensure a favourable outcome in next month’s election following the loss of Russian ally Yanukovich.
That in turn raises questions of the role of Ukraine’s rich business “oligarchs” in the crisis and the election.
Conspiracy theories abound in Kiev, according to which the rich and powerful may be fomenting unrest behind the scenes to further their own ends or to curry favour with Putin, who holds sway over the Russian business interests of Ukrainian tycoons.
Suspicion of the elites whom they blame for robbing the national wealth and corrupting government and society for the 23 years of post-Soviet independence drives activists on Kiev’s Maidan to insist they will not dismantle “self-defence” barricades until after they see a fair election next month.
“People will not leave the Maidan,” said 56-year-old Viktor Palamaryuk from the western town of Chernivtsi.
“The people gave their word to stay until the presidential elections so that nobody will be able to rig the result. Then after the election we’ll go of our own accord.”
As shrines to the 100 or so who died in violence on the square became a focus for Good Friday solemnity, when Christians mark the crucifixion of Jesus, many said that weariness after five months of protests would not break their will.
“Nobody will take down our tents and barricades,” said 34-year-old Volodymyr Shevchenko from the southern Kherson region. “If the authorities try to do that by force, thousands and thousands of people will come on to the Maidan and stop them.”
Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group at the heart of battles with riot police in February, saw the Geneva accord as being directed only at pro-Russian separatists in the east.
“We don’t have any illegal weapons,” said Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadsky. “We, the vanguard of the Ukrainian revolution, should not be compared to outright gangsters.”
Washington did not spell out what further sanctions it might place on Russia. With the EU, it has so far imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a small number of Russians, a response that Moscow has mocked. But some EU states are reluctant to do more, fearing that could provoke Russia further or end up hurting their own economies, which are heavily reliant on Russian gas. (Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth, Pavel Polityuk and Alastair Macdonald in Kiev, Christian Lowe, Alissa de Carbonnel and Conor Humphries in Moscow, and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman and Mohammad Zargham)