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Former Black Panther Leader Geronimo Pratt Dies at 63

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By Ra-Jah Kelly, Special to the NNPA from the Washington Informer –

Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, the former Black Panther leader, who spent nearly three decades in prison for a crime he claimed to have not committed, has died. He was 63.

Pratt -- who spent eight years in solitary confinement and had his 1972 murder conviction overturned in the death of a Santa Monica, Calif., teacher in 1968 -- died early Friday at his home in a village near Arusha, Tanzania. He had lived there for the past five years, according to a statement his friend, Pete O’Neal, made to the Associated Press (AP). O’Neal, who praised Pratt as his hero, said that he suspected he died from either a heart attack or stroke.

“Geronimo was a symbol of steadfast resistance against all that is considered wrong and improper,” O’Neal told the AP. “His whole life was dedicated to standing in opposition to oppression and exploitation...He gave all that he had and his life, I believe, struggling, trying to help people lift themselves up.”

Pratt had maintained that on the day of the murder, he was in Oakland for Black Panther Party meetings. He also reportedly said that evidence that would have proven his innocence had been destroyed or hidden by police and FBI agents.

Pratt’s conviction was overturned after a judge cited a lack of credibility by key witnesses, and in 2000 he settled a $4.5 million lawsuit for false imprisonment and violation of his civil rights against the FBI and city of Los Angeles.

However, Stuart Hanlon, the attorney who helped Pratt win his freedom, said his client had refused to harbor any resentment.

"He had no anger, he had no bitterness, he had no desire for revenge,” Hanlon said. “He wanted to resume his life and have children. He would never look back."

Pratt is survived by his wife and son.

South African Ambassador Slammed with Hefty Fine for Anti-Gay 'Hate Speech'

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

The South African ambassador to Uganda, a former columnist for South Africa's Sunday Sun paper, was found guilty of hate speech in an anti-gay article.

South Africa's Equality Court fined Jon Qwelane $14,450 and ordered him to apologize for promoting hatred in the column published in 2008 titled "Call me names but gay is NOT OKAY". It caused an uproar at the time.

Qwelane, appointed last year to Uganda where homosexual acts are illegal, did not mount a defense.

Vincent Moaga, spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission, applauded the decision and said money from the fine would be donated to gay rights organizations.

Meanwhile, a lesbian who was brutally tortured in Uganda, is fighting her deportation from the UK. Betty Tibikawa, 22, was “branded” with a hot iron as punishment for her sexual identity.

"I can't sleep and I'm having terrible nightmares about what will happen to me if I'm sent back to Uganda. My family has disowned me because I'm a lesbian and I'm convinced I'd be killed, if I'm sent home.”

Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Gauri van Gulik said: "Our research has shown that many cases of women like Betty are not taken seriously by the UK Border Agency. “Unfortunately women who suffer this kind of violence have serious difficulty claiming asylum.”

CSU East Bay Professor Braves Bullets, Arrest to Enter Governor's Race in Nigeria

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

An assassination attempt that killed his aide and wounded another, and his arrest for disturbing the peace failed to scare off a determined Cal State professor from the race for governor in his home state of Benue, Nigeria.

Professor Steve Ugbah, of California State College, Hayward, who returned to Nigeria in December, had been tipped to win the April elections in Benue with a lead of 20 percent more than his opponent, Gabriel Suswam, a candidate of the ruling party of President Goodluck Jonathan.

But, victory was elusive. The 56 year old East Bay professor was defeated in a disputed election and he and members of his party were later detained and charged with inciting public disturbances and unrest. He was released on bail, last week, but continues to face charges that he says were cooked up to keep him quiet.

Ugbah’s home state is one of Nigeria's richest agricultural regions but people are poor and he was frustrated by the failure of politicians to improve it, relatives said.

The son of a medical field worker, he came to the U.S. in 1974, at the age of 18, to go to college at Ohio University, where he earned his Ph.D. before moving to the Bay Area to teach more than 20 years ago.

HUD Launches New Campaign Against Housing Fraud

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Areas Hard-Hit by Foreclosures Most Susceptible to Scams

By Charlene Crowell –

According to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an estimated three million families have already lost their homes to foreclosure since 2007. But, the worst may still be ahead; analysts now predict that as many as eight million more Americans could face foreclosure by 2012.

With so many desperate homeowners looking for solutions, a new kind of consumer fraud has found a ready-made market. Families fighting for their homes and financial survival can be gullible to shady businesses that promise guaranteed mortgage modifications or a halt to foreclosures already in progress. Oftentimes, aggressive sales pitches to troubled homeowners claim that serious financial problems can go away as soon as payment of an advance fee is made. Other solicitations call for sharing personal financial information over the phone or online to quickly solve a housing dilemma.

The spread of these and other consumer scams have now trigged a new campaign by HUD and other consumer groups with dual goals. Know It. Avoid It. Report It is a new campaign that seeks to: 1) direct homeowners facing foreclosure to trusted housing resources and counselors; and 2) solicit the support of homeowners to shut down scammers who target communities of color and the elderly. The campaign includes support from the Federal Trade Commission, NeighborWorks America, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law. Using a combination of traditional and social media, the effort will also include multi-lingual brochures, posters and flyers along with multiple outreach activities in hard-hit areas such as Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

“You can’t go around Miami without seeing all these promises to ‘help’ and the result is that too many people are being taken advantage of,” said Ed Jennings Jr., HUD Southeast Regional Administrator.

"With millions of homeowners in foreclosure or at risk of losing their homes as they fall behind on mortgage payments, and eight million Americans expected to face foreclosure now through 2012, the timing of this campaign could not be more prudent," continued Jennings. "When you know better, you do better."

Another outreach effort in HUD’s campaign featured a two-hour telethon on June 1 with more than 20 housing counselors in the studio of Los Angeles’ KMEX-TV. Counselors answered viewer calls and also sought information to determine whether callers were at risk of being scammed and provided information on how and where to report scams.

Although HUD’s campaign has begun in three heavily-affected markets, every state where large numbers of foreclosures have occurred is also a potential target for this new kind of fraud. Residents of other states with large foreclosures include: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Anyone, regardless of where they live, can dial a toll free help line at 1-888-995-HOPE (4673), or go online for more advice on how to avoid housing scams at www.loanscamlert.org.

Additionally, the Center for Responsible Lending has state-by-state information on the number of foreclosures and the costs of bad lending practices, including payday loans, bank overdraft loans, and overcharges in auto financing. It is available at: http://www.responsiblelending.org/mortgage-lending/tools-resources/factsheets/

With communities of color already having lost $350 billion of wealth through foreclosures, everyone should be on guard against promises of debt relief that sound too good to be true. If there really was a quick and easy fix to the foreclosure fiasco, it would have happened before so many families lost their homes.

Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s communications manager for state policy and outreach. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

Promising New Research on Preventive and Therapeutic HIV Vaccines

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By Rod McCullom –

May 18, 2011, was HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, a time to remind ourselves of the worldwide effort to create vaccines to help prevent HIV infection and to boost the immune systems of people already infected with the virus.

The past three weeks have seen a flurry of activity around new and exciting potential HIV-vaccine concepts.

In Kenya, clinical trials began on two promising new designs for preventive HIV vaccines. In South Africa, researchers launched clinical trials on a therapeutic vaccine intended to strengthen the immune systems of people living with HIV/AIDS. And just last week, scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine announced their biggest research gift ever: $23.4 million to continue the university's decades-long work on an HIV/AIDS vaccine from a consortium led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"I don't think anyone can argue that this has been an exciting time," says Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, originally the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, the 16-year-old New York City-based group that advocates for the development of an AIDS vaccine and biomedical prevention.

Prevention technologies have been in the news lately--from the breakthrough microbicide research at the 2010 International AIDS Conference to the recent data on the potential of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to help protect gay and bisexual men. And, all have potentially serious implications for African Americans, who represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 45 percent of new HIV infections.

Preventive Vaccine Trials

"There are three major areas of work right now around vaccines," Warren explains. "On the one hand, there is a lot of work focused on doing better than what we did in Thailand, how to modify that vaccine candidate and improve upon it."

Announced in September 2009, the U.S.-funded "Thai Prime-Boost" trial--the world's largest, with 16,000 volunteers--combined two previously unsuccessful vaccines. But, while a medical milestone (the vaccine reduced new infections by almost a third), it was not effective enough.

"The second major area of work is other new vaccine concepts. The trial in Kenya is one example," says Warren of the research being conducted in collaboration with the (IAVI). The candidate vaccine affects both antibodies and cellular immune response and has been described as the most advanced AIDS vaccine design" likely to succeed.

Novel HIV-Vaccine Candidate?

Another major effort includes the early research dollars that the National Institutes of Health and the Gates Foundation are providing to the University of Maryland for entirely new vaccine concepts based on other scientific ideas.

The funding was awarded to the university's Institute of Human Virology, headed by the renowned Robert C. Gallo, M.D., who helped discover the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS and later developed the HIV blood test. If effective, the novel HIV-vaccine candidate would neutralize many different strains of HIV." Previous vaccine candidates responded only to a single type of the disease.

"With the possibility of an HIV vaccine that could prevent many different strains of this disease, we could indeed be changing the world," says E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Reece, who is African American, describes the new vaccine candidate's potential as "extraordinary."

New Proteins

The third major focus of research "has gotten a lot of people excited," says AVAC's Warren. "That's been the discovery of more than a dozen new neutralizing antibodies. For almost 30 years of the epidemic, there were only a few known antibodies. . . . Scientists broke the code and [can] find additional areas of the HIV virus that might be better targets." Neutralizing antibodies defend cells from an infection by working to inhibit, or "neutralize," the pathogen's effect.

One recent example: Scientists in Oregon recently announced an experimental vaccine that helped monkeys with a form of HIV control their infections for more than a year. This is the first time that a vaccine candidate has been able to "fully control the virus in some animals," Wayne C. Koff, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at the IAVI, told Reuters.

Some Progress on Therapeutic Vaccines

Positive developments have also occurred on therapeutic vaccines, intended to one day boost the ravaged immune systems of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Clinical trials on a vaccine candidate called TAT were announced at the University of Limpopo in South Africa. Participants continue to take their antiretroviral medications (ARVs) as researchers investigate "what health restorative qualities the candidate vaccine has that ARVs do not possess," reports The Sowetan.

This approach appears particularly promising for African and Caribbean nations, where many patients do not have easy access to lifesaving ARVs. An estimated 5.7 million HIV-positive people live in South Africa alone--more than in any other nation.

But, the stateside HIV/AIDS-treatment-and-research community is divided on the benefits of funding therapeutic strategies because many people are on ARV therapy, which is largely effective. Stephen Bailous, vice president of community affairs at the National Association of People With AIDS, defends the approach. “We need to have hopes, and some of the therapeutic vaccines look really promising," Bailous is quoted by Scientific American.

Recruiting Blacks for Vaccine Trials

"In the long term, the preventive vaccine is the goal standard," says Ben Perkins, associate director of community education at the Boston-based Fenway Institute.

"It's great that the PrEP study has shown that uninfected men who have sex with men can take medication and decrease their likelihood of HIV acquisition," he says. "But, that is medication you have to take on a daily basis under medical supervision. A vaccine is just a couple of shots; maybe later you get a booster. That's it."

In addition to doing community outreach and working with AIDS-service organizations around the country, "my job is also to talk about HIV-vaccine research and try to get people of color involved in trials," Perkins says. A participant in the STEP-study phase 2 clinical vaccine trials, Perkins recently uploaded a video to YouTube discussing the importance of Black involvement.

"My childhood best friend died from AIDS-related complications in 1991 at 27 years old," Perkins says. "In addition, once I later came out as a gay man, my first partner had an AIDS diagnosis. It's impacted me personally, and it's important to do my part to help find a vaccine. . . . We were able to eradicate smallpox through vaccine several generations ago. I'd like to see the same thing happen with HIV."

Blacks and Latinos are generally underrepresented in clinical research. There has been a nationwide, sustained effort by the NIH-funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network's Legacy Project to recruit more Black and Latino participants. "In the United States, African Americans are at greatest risk for HIV. Not to acknowledge that, or not to design our research around that, means we are reinforcing the very obstacles that the virus preys upon," AVAC's Warren reminds us. "Whether it be for a vaccine, for a therapy, microbicide or PrEP, we need to make sure that diverse populations are enrolling in the clinical trials.

"But we will find a vaccine," Warren adds. "There is no doubt, given all the recent advances."

Rod McCullom, a writer and television news producer, blogs on Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender news and pop culture at rod20.com.

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BVN National News Wire