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Are we becoming a police state? Five things that have civil liberties advocates nervous

Oakland police officers in riot gear line Frank H. Ogawa plaza, the site of an Occupy Wall Street encampment, Tuesday, Oct. 25. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Is our Constitution under siege?

Many civil liberties advocates fear it might be. They’re worried about a provision tucked into the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, approved by the Senate last week, that would allow the military to detain without a trial any American citizen accused of being a terrorist, or of supporting terrorists who plot attacks against the United States. The ACLU called the proposal “an extreme position that will forever change our country.”

The indefinite detention provision is just one of many trends in policing and law enforcement that have civil liberties advocates alarmed. New external threats, as well as technological advancements, are posing new challenges to our Constitutional rights, advocates say. Policymakers are debating those issues in Congress and in the courts right now, and the decisions they make could have fundamental consequences for what it means to be an American.

Here are five issues that are especially worrisome to civil liberties watchdogs:

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Renewed push to curb insider trading in Congress after ’60 Minutes’ exposé

With public approval of Congress at an all-time low this year, a recent “60 Minutes” report shining a light on insider trading among members of Congress elicited outrage among an already disillusioned public. But the report has also spurred a renewed focus on banning the practice among members of Congress, which has been gaining momentum in recent weeks.

The “60 Minutes” investigation (which originally aired on November 13), based on the recent book “Throw Them All Out” by conservative-leaning author Peter Schweizer, alleged that several members of Congress in both parties had benefited from lucrative stock trades based on non-public information obtained on Capitol Hill. In the report, Schweizer alleged that members of Congress had been involved in several trades that posed serious conflicts of interest, including trades in health-care stocks during the 2009 health care debate and shorting stocks in the days preceding the 2008 global financial crisis.

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Study suggests soldiers’ guilt is large driver of PTSD cases

According to USA Today, an ongoing study of 2,600 Marines suggests that feelings of guilt regarding certain aspects of their wartime deployment could be a leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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During Clinton’s historic visit to Burma, ‘flickers of progress’ pave the way for an end to isolation

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi have dinner at the US Chief of Mission Residence in Rangoon, Myanmar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool

Burma, the long-ignored pariah state of Southeast Asia, seems to be in the beginning stages of turning over a new leaf. After four decades of sanctions and terse diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a historic visit to the Burma this week and announced that the U.S. would be loosening its blockade on aid to the country.

Before the visit, President Obama declared that Burma was showing “flickers of progress” in recent months, indicating the potential to “forge a new relationship” with the state. Clinton’s arrival marks the first U.S. visit from high-level official to the country since the 1950s, before Burma underwent a military takeover followed by decades of authoritarianism, repression and frequent skirmishes between the military and various ethnic minority groups on the nation’s border. Clinton’s agenda included a meeting with President Thein Sein, formerly the leader of the nation’s military junta, as well as a meeting with famed democratic leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Clinton’s visit to Burma is one part of President Obama’s recently announced shift in foreign policy to focus on the Asian-Pacific, which analysts have noted is an effort to engage seriously with China, the region’s rising powerhouse. Although Burma’s decades of human rights and economic repression have earned its general status as an outcast in the Southeast Asian region, it retains crucial access to valuable resources and has retained strong ties with China. This warm relationship has allowed Burma to stay somewhat economically afloat despite sanctions from Western nations — although the dearth in foreign investments has rendered a high poverty rate in the country and prevented Burma from adopting many modern technologies, evoking a “time warp” effect for its few visitors.

During Clinton’s visit with Thein Sein, she reviewed many of the concerns the United States has with Burma’s policies: Burma’s long list of political prisoners, its heavy atmosphere of censorship on speech and the press, and its inability to curb unrest among ethnic minority groups, many of which have separatist goals.

But indeed, it seems that “flickers of progress” have been evident in the pariah state. After four decades of iron-fisted rule by the country’s military junta, the nation passed a military-drafted constitution and officially transitioned to a civilian-led government in 2010, although election observers criticized the process for being rife with corruption and fraud. However, Burma’s president, Thein Sein, is widely credited as reformist that is open to engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi. The democracy leader herself has stated that she trusts him, although that same trust might not necessarily be extended to the rest of the government.  Moreover, the new civilian government has permitted Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party to run for office in the next national election, years after Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1990 landslide electoral win was voided by the military junta in power.

GlobalPost’s three-part series on Burma’s internal changes also points out that although censorship and government intimidation remain significant threats, the Orwellian atmosphere has thawed in recent months. Whereas the long-ruling military junta often responded to signs of dissent with aggressive crackdowns and heavy surveillance, some previously taboo topics are now allowed to be discussed more openly, and the government has engaged with dissidents through negotiation rather than physical attacks.

Other countries within Southeast Asia have taken note of Burma’s progress as well. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed this year to allow Burma to chair its 2014 summit. In 2006, the last time Burma was handed the summit chairmanship, the country decided to forego  it in part due to the impending boycott of the meeting by Western nations.

Clinton expressed recognition of all these small reforms during her visit with Thein Sein, and indicated that if the country continues on the course, further engagement with and aid from the United States would be possible. The announced changes to aid are fairly modest; the United States will still refrain from loaning money to the country directly, but it will allow the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program to issue loans and financial aid. Still, Clinton’s visit heralds the potential for the historically icy relationship between the two countries to begin thawing, which may mark a crucial turning point that finally lifts Burma out of its long period of isolation.

In overnight raids, police dislodge Occupy encampments in L.A. and Philadelphia

A protester is arrested as Los Angeles police officers dismantle the Occupy LA encampment outside City Hall on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Lucy Nicholson/Pool)

What’s next for Occupy Wall Street?

After early morning raids on Wednesday, police have now shut down two of the largest remaining Occupy encampments in the country, in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The police tactics in those cities mimicked those of police in New York, who led the way in the assault on Occupy Wall Street by dislodging protesters from their main encampment in Zuccotti Park earlier this year. To date, there have been more than 5,000 arrests of protesters at Occupy sites across the country, and 28 of those arrested have been journalists, according to Josh Stearns of the media reform group Free Press.

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As the military clings to power, can democracy thrive in Egypt?

Egyptian Army soldiers stand guard as voters wait outside a polling station on the first day of parliamentary elections in Luxor, Egypt. (AP Photo)

Egyptians went to the polls in surprisingly large numbers Monday for the country’s first parliamentary vote since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. The long lines and wide participation offered fresh glimpses of hope amid an otherwise turbulent post-revolution period, as Egypt’s powerful military clings to power.

The question of whether Egypt’s military would eventually cede power to a civilian government loomed over the vote, following weeks of renewed clashes in which peaceful protests have been dispersed, bloggers and journalists have been arrested and dozens of civilians killed. Even as the elections offered new cause for optimism, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the military of using many of the same iron-fisted tactics as the Mubarak government to stifle freedom of speech and assembly.

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UC Davis still reeling after police pepper spray students

The campus community at the University of California at Davis is still reeling from the events of last Friday, when university police aggressively cracked down on a largely peaceful student protest.

The Occupy Davis movement comprised students and faculty members of the university who were protesting against precipitous tuition hikes and budget cuts. In a video that went viral on Friday evening, a police officer casually used pepper spray at close range at a group of students sitting motionless on the ground. Meanwhile, Occupy supporters who witnessed the incident began chanting loudly, “Shame on you, shame on you.”

Since video of Friday’s incident at UC Davis sparked international media attention, two police officers as well as Spicuzza have been placed on administrative leave. Katehi called the incident “horrific” and “unacceptable,” but the larger question on campus has been what role her leadership has played in allowing the incident to occur. A petition calling for her immediate resignation has received more than 64,000 signatures since Friday, but Katehi has said that she will not step down. On Saturday afternoon, Davis students staged a silent protest outside the building where Katehi was holding a press conference about Friday’s events.

“The police were called for nothing more than a very peaceful dismantling of the equipment,” Katehi said on Forum, a program on local public radio station KQED Monday morning.  “They were not supposed to use force.”

Katehi stressed on KQED’s Forum that while she would take appropriate action against members of the Davis police force, the community “needs to move forward.”

Friday’s police action at UC Davis is the second high-profile incident of police aggression against students on university campuses. Just two weeks ago, members of the Occupy Cal movement at UC Berkeley clashed with university police wielding batons, resulting in several injuries. On Sunday, UC President Mark Yudof issued a statement with strong criticisms against police action against students in both Davis and Berkeley, saying he was “appalled” and would call for a meeting for all the University of California chancellors to discuss police protocols on individual campuses.

For colleges within the University of California system, these recent protests over tuition hikes are largely a continuation of mass protests that began in 2009, when UC tuition rose by 32 percent and has continued to rise ever since. At the Huffington Post, UC Davis faculty member Bob Ostertag writes that annual UC tuition was $5,357 in 2005, but currently stands at $12,192 and is projected to be $22,068 by 2015.

Photo: Revolution in Egypt, revisited

Egypt's army-appointed Cabinet submitted its resignation Monday night as mass protests against the country's military leadership continued into a third day in Cairo's Tahrir Square. At least 24 people have been killed in the violence between security forces and crowds calling for the removal of Egypt's military leaders. Photo: AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill

In stand-off with police at Union Square, two sides of the Occupy Wall Street movement

Protesters in Union Square on Thursday. Photo: AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano

As part of their city-wide “Day of Action” Thursday, protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement brought the conflict and disorder that have simmered in Lower Manhattan for the last two months to the rest of New York City. They gathered at bridges, subways and in major thoroughfares. Thousands descended on Foley Square, across from City Hall, and on Union Square, the epicenter of so much political and social unrest over the years. As protesters streamed onto Fifth Avenue, snarling traffic and stoking a tense stand-off with police, I overheard an NYPD Community Affairs officer on the phone describe the situation this way: “The city is in chaos right now.”

The afternoon rally at Union Square, in particular, offered an especially revealing look at the two-month-old movement, which has refocused the national political dialogue on the growing wealth disparity between the rich and the poor, the unprecedented levels of student and household debt and the collusion among bankers and their patrons in Washington, D.C. As many have noted, the movement finds itself at a crossroads, having been dislodged, somewhat unceremoniously, from its home in Zuccotti Park. Polls show that many Americans remain skeptical of the movement’s tactics, even if they agree with its goals.

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