The State of Aloha

Azerbaijan is more than 8,000 miles away from the islands. This small country was once part of the Soviet Union deep in the Caucus Mountains and right up against the Caspian Sea. It’s also pretty wealthy with oil resources and its government has plenty of spending money. In other words, it’s safe to presume that most folks here don’t think about Azerbaijan all that much.

So why did two of our legislators take an Azerbaijani holiday last summer? A few weeks ago, Civil Beat, an online news organization in Honolulu, broke the story about how Reps. Rida Cabanilla and Mark Takai traveled to the distant country on a tour paid for by that government. The price tag? $8,000.

Reporters came across the summer trip after spotting it among the representatives’ disclosure statements filed with the Hawaii Ethics Commission. Cabanilla and Takai said that they went to Azerbaijan to attend a convention sponsored by oil companies and find opportunities to promote Hawaii.

Cabanilla explained to reporters that Azerbaijani lobbyists promoted the trip to improve relations with the United States. Cabanilla apparently told Civil Beat that as a retired U.S. Army officer, she feels it is important to foster a good relationship with Azerbaijan because of its resources and its strategic place between the East and West.

The trip has got me thinking. A good relationship between the United States and the former Soviet republic may be a positive diplomatic step, but does that mean our state legislators ought to get involved?

And what about an oil-company-sponsored holiday? Is that an ethical problem? No way, says Takai. Civil Beat reported that Takai explained to its reporters that at the time of the trip, the Hawaii Legislature had not addressed any relevant issues that directly would benefit Azerbaijan so there was no ethical problem in going on the trip.

But that may not be the case for the future. Takai and Cabanilla introduced in the House this session two resolutions addressing a very touchy subject in that part of the world.

House Resolution 13 states a number of facts that you would not expect to find floating around our Legislature. It addresses an armed conflict that broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia as the Soviet Union collapsed. The countries have been locked in a territorial dispute for some time.

According to the resolution, the town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan was the site of a massacre on Feb. 25 and 26, 1992. The resolution states that 600 men, women and children were killed there, and thousands were wounded and captured by Armenian and Russian forces. The resolution marks the 22nd anniversary of the “Khojaly tragedy.” The other resolution urges the United States to strengthen ties to Azerbaijan in coming up with some kind of settlement with Armenia over this disputed region.

The factual claims in the resolutions have been hotly disputed by our local Armenian-American community and the greater Armenian population. The strange resolutions were defeated when subcommittees shelved them indefinitely. The local Armenian community has declared it a victory.

But the question remains: Why do it?

Why would these legislators come back from an all-expenses trip to an exotic country and then officially stake out controversial positions that at best have a tenuous nexus to our islands?

Also, Takai doesn’t seem to have a problem with taking sides. Last year he, along with other American legislators, signed off on a birthday note to the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. Takai congratulated Aliyev for his efforts to reduce crime within the country and promote allegiances abroad.

Aliyev has been criticized by many diplomats and those who follow international relations as an autocrat. After taking office in 2003, he eliminated term limits for himself from the constitution. He’s been accused of running a corrupt government, clamping down on a free press and rigging elections. The infamous WikiLeaks website released a cache of diplomatic cables in 2012 that compare him to a mafia crime boss. Surely, Takai was aware of this before congratulating him on reducing crime in his country eight time zones away, right?

Takai hasn’t talked about the birthday note recently, but perhaps his views on foreign policy will be examined soon. After all, he is among the seven candidates running for Congress in the 1st District. What exactly does Takai think about Azerbaijan?

There surely must be other places our legislators can visit without causing all of this heat. Honolulu and the Azerbaijani capital city of Baku may have been sister cities since 1988, but then again, Honolulu has 22 “sisters,” including far-off cities in Kenya, Morocco, Venezuela and France. Perhaps legislators should promote Hawaii in places with less controversy. I hear France is nice.

The State of Aloha

When I was in the 5th grade at Haiku Elementary School, we took a field trip to the War Memorial Stadium. We had been waiting for this day to come for almost a year. Our section of the stadium (this was before it was remodeled for the Hula Bowl so there were no seats behind the end zones) was poised perfectly near the 50-yard line. All around us were other excited elementary school students from Maui.

It was D.A.R.E. Day – a presentation put on by the Maui Police Department. D.A.R.E. (drug abuse resistance education) is a nationwide program putting armed and uniformed officers in elementary schools for what seemed to me as a long time. The officer assigned to Haiku Elementary told us about drug abuse and had us vow never to use drugs, join a gang and, above all, to just say no.

This was the capping event of the program. Officers were there to rally the student troops and whip up a frenzy of excitement. There were all kinds of demonstrations of police power. There were the fierce German shepherds.

A guy with padding around his arms and shoulders fired blanks at an officer. Then the dogs were released on him and he tried to run.

As we watched the dogs rip up the padding, someone on a microphone explained that the places of attack were not lethal but designed to bring about so much pain that the target was no longer a threat or could no longer get away.

Next came the monster truck that revved its engines and crushed a junk car with the word “DRUGS” spray-painted on its doors. But the most memorable part for me was the helicopter.

A helicopter resembling the ones I’d seen in movies about the Vietnam War hovered above the stadium. The emcee of the event explained that what we were about to witness was a simulated “Green Harvest” raid. An officer rappelled down a rope and snatched up fake marijuana plants on the stage in the middle of the field. Then he waved at the crowd and pulled himself back into the chopper.

So that was it! Nearly every one of us from Haiku School was familiar with the sound of helicopters buzzing over our homes, streets and neighborhoods. Now we got to finally see it firsthand. When it was all over, we got to storm the field and check out police cars, talk to the officers and get a free soda.

I’ve learned a lot more about the police and especially “Operation Green Harvest” since that day. Police officers fly around in helicopters to spot marijuana-growing operations in the remote parts of the island. Turns out that the police departments receive grant money to keep the helicopters flying. The police work in conjunction with the U.S. Army National Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

It is a terrifying experience reminiscent of scenes from “Apocalypse Now.” Opponents say that the choppers sometimes fly as low as 75 feet above the ground. The buzzing and vibrations have damaged property, frightened animals and harassed residents. Their voices are finally starting to be heard.

The Big Island’s county council has been openly hostile to this tactic. A few years ago, it passed an ordinance to deprioritize the operations. The police ignored it, and the county faced a lawsuit for its failure to implement the law itself. The county fought it and won, but the plaintiffs appealed.

Obnoxious police surveillance is part of the long, sordid history of our “War on Drugs.” The war declared by President Richard Nixon may be falling out of favor these days, but make no mistake: It rages on.

Legislators are still reluctant to strike the harsh criminal penalties. Judges are still required to put more and more people into our prison system. And the extensive vigilance (and funding) of special units within police departments, public and private corrections industries and prosecutor’s offices has not waivered. In fact, last week, our appellate court, the Intermediate Court of Appeals, found no error in the county’s victory on the Big Island.

Looks like this year there are more bills that would pull us away from this aggressive tactic toward drug use. Last year there was similar talk, but the House killed all bills that would decriminalize the use of marijuana. Let’s see if the bills this year meet a similar fate.

The “War on Drugs” is a war on our own people. The crackdown on narcotics has not helped people abstain from them. It has certainly not helped eliminate the contraband economy either. All that it has done is erode our confidence in the need to investigate and prosecute criminality by trivializing the crimes themselves. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The war rages on.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”