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News Briefs

Facing Pressure, China Releases Pro-Democracy Protester

The New York Times -- BEIJING

Under international pressure for its human rights record, the Chinese government released a prominent, pro-democracy dissident on Thursday, the second political prisoner to be set free in just over a week, a human rights group said.

The dissident, Wang Youcai, 37, was scheduled to arrive in San Francisco later in the day on a flight from China, after leaving a prison in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights group that helped negotiate Wang’s release, said he would receive medical attention in the United State for bronchial problems and other illnesses.

In 1998, Wang was sentenced to 11 years in prison on subversion charges after he and two other dissidents founded the China Democracy Party, a direct challenge to the authoritarian Communist Party. Wang had previously served almost two years in prison for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The timing of Wang’s release, which came five years early, suggests a continuing effort by the Communist Party to curry favor with the United States and to repair its international reputation on human rights. Last week, the State Department used its annual human rights report to criticize China on a range of human rights issues.

China’s human rights record is now also an issue before the European Union, where several countries are resisting efforts by France to lift a ban on arms sales. And China could also come under criticism when the U.N. Human Rights Commission holds its annual meeting later this month.

Rover Finds Water on Mars

Houston Chronicle -- HOUSTON

Scientists declared new evidence on Tuesday that life-sustaining water once pooled around an ancient Martian rock formation, which is now under scrutiny by one of the twin NASA robotic rovers.

The evidence, gathered by the rover Opportunity, increases the prospect that the planet harbored life in a warmer, wetter past.

“We believe at this place on Mars, for some period in time, it was a habitable environment. This was the kind of place that would have been suitable for life,” said Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres, who serves as the principal investigator for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rover missions.

“That does not mean life was there. We don’t know that, but this was a habitable place on Mars at one point in time.”

Opportunity’s findings are the first to combine close-up images from the ground with mineral and chemical analyses of the rocks and soil to reveal the fingerprint of flowing water.

The findings on the surface mesh with imagery gathered by cameras on spacecraft flying over the planet. Those images reveal channel-like features winding through the rugged terrain, watersheds and hints of shorelines.

Theorists believe the water that once flowed on Mars disappeared from the surface in response to unexplained climate changes. Some of the moisture evaporated into the thin atmosphere of Mars, but much of it may have remained underground, where it is frozen among the subsoil or ponded in vast subterranean reservoirs.

U.S. Households Rack Up Debt At Fastest Pace Since 1987

The New York Times -- The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that the nation’s debt, including both household and government borrowing, grew last year at a pace not seen since the late 1980s.

According to the quarterly federal funds report, the total national debt, excluding the obligations of banks and other financial institutions, grew by 8.1 percent last year, its fastest pace since 1988.

Households threw caution to the wind, mortgaging and re-mortgaging their homes and expanding their debt by 10.4 percent, the biggest percentage gain since 1987. Federal government borrowing expanded by 10.9 percent, the fastest rate since 1992. Only businesses pulled back. Still hobbled by credit overhangs from the investment boom of the late 1990s, corporate borrowing inched ahead by 3 percent.

Overall, the nation’s debt grew by some $1.7 trillion last year to $22.4 trillion, the Fed said. The federal government accounted for about 18 percent of the total, local governments for roughly 7 percent, households for 42 percent and businesses for 33 percent.

Creditors abroad financed about a third of the year’s borrowing, equivalent to about 5 percent of the nation’s total output of products and services.

Committees Propose Trims In Bush’s Defense Budget

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

The Senate Budget Committee voted Thursday night to shave $7 billion in defense spending off President Bush’s request, even as lawmakers acknowledged there would be heavy pressure to add the money back when the full Senate takes up the matter next week.

Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., the budget committee chairman and author of the resolution approved in a 12-10 party-line vote, acknowledged that the final budget Congress produces may come “very close” to giving Bush his entire request for $421 billion in military spending.

“My guess is there are going to be some adjustments,” Nickles said.

Also, in the House on Thursday, the budget committee chairman, Jim Nussle, came under growing pressure to back off a proposed $2 billion reduction in the White House request for military spending.

However, some Republicans said they remain concerned about the size of both the deficit and Bush’s military request. The $20 billion increase called for in Nickles’ resolution is “enough to adequately fund defense,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.