15 Human Rights Success Stories of 2013

By Natalie Butz, Communications Specialist at Amnesty International USA

It’s rare Amnesty activists get a moment to stop and take a breath. But with the start of a new year comes the opportunity to take stock of the progress we’ve made and the successes we helped accomplish in 2013. There’s still much to be done, but we hope the list below will help inspire all of us in the year to come:

Yorm Bopha was 29 when she was arrested on September 4, 2012 on spurious charges. She is a prominent activist from the Boeung Kak Lake community who is facing up to five years' imprisonment if found guilty at her trial. She is a prisoner of conscience (Photo Credit: Jenny Holligan).

Yorm Bopha was 29 when she was arrested on September 4, 2012 on spurious charges. She is a prominent activist from the Boeung Kak Lake community who is facing up to five years’ imprisonment if found guilty at her trial. She is a prisoner of conscience (Photo Credit: Jenny Holligan).

1. In 52 years, Amnesty International activists have helped free tens of thousands of Prisoners of Conscience around the world. In 2013, we continued that trend. Human rights activists freed this year included Yorm Bopha in Cambodia, Kartam Joga in India, Filipino poet Ericson Acosta, Yemeni journalist Abdul Ilah Haydar Shayi’ and Iranian human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh.

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Is Executing A Man With A Brain Disorder “Timely Justice”?

Frank Walls

Frank Walls

As the state legislature of Florida debated the Timely Justice Act – a law designed to speed of executions in the Sunshine State – bill sponsor Matt Gaetz pointed to the case of Frank Walls, quipping that:

If the Timely Justice Act becomes law, Mr. Walls is going to have to start thinking about what his last meal is going to be.

The Timely Justice Act has become law, and Frank Walls, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Ann Peterson (and life for the murder of Edward Alger) is under consideration for clemency. If clemency is denied, then he indeed will be eligible for an execution date.

Frank Walls was convicted of heinous crimes. But, State Representative Gaetz’s disturbing enthusiasm for his execution notwithstanding, Frank Walls should be granted clemency.  He is a remorseful prisoner with brain disorders that have left him functioning at the level of a 12-year-old.

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The Racist Testimony That Helped Sentence This Man to Death

Duane Buck was sentenced to death by a Texas jury that heard an "expert" say his race made him a "future danger" (Photo Credit: North Dallas Gazette).

Duane Buck was sentenced to death by a Texas jury that heard an “expert” say his race made him a “future danger” (Photo Credit: North Dallas Gazette).

Like the Precogs in Phillip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, Texas jurors are asked to peer into the future and determine if capital defendants are likely to commit future crimes. “Future dangerousness” is a factor Texas juries must consider before issuing a death sentence. To accomplish this prognostication, these juries often rely on expert – some would say “expert” – psychological testimony.

Sometimes those “experts” are racist. Like Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified in several cases that defendants were “future dangers” because of their race. In the case of Duane Buck, he had the following exchange:

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The State of Missouri Has a Secret…

Missouri law provides members of an execution team with anonymity, and the pharmacy for Joseph Paul Franklin’s execution has been added to the team. Without knowing which pharmacy is providing the execution drugs, the drugs’ efficacy cannot be guaranteed (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

Missouri law provides members of an execution team with anonymity, and the pharmacy for Joseph Paul Franklin’s execution has been added to the team. Without knowing which pharmacy is providing the execution drugs, the drugs’ efficacy cannot be guaranteed (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

Legend has it that more than a century ago, a Missouri Congressman stated at a banquet that he was not impressed by fancy speeches or “frothy eloquence,” concluding “I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” Since then, Missouri has been known as the “Show Me” State.

One thing the people of Missouri are not being shown is how their state is killing prisoners.

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The Odd – But Welcome – Reason This Inmate Received a Stay of Execution

Ohio Governor John Kasich has granted a reprieve so that Ronald Phillips may donate his organs (Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).

Ohio Governor John Kasich has granted a reprieve so that Ronald Phillips may donate his organs (Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).

You can’t get too excited when it’s considered a sign of progress that a Governor stays an execution so the condemned inmate might donate his organs.

But, given the almost non-existence of executive clemency in U.S. capital cases, it is a relatively good thing that Ohio Governor John Kasich granted a reprieve to Ronald Phillips so that his request to donate his kidney and heart to ailing family members might be explored.

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4 States That Are Trying – and Failing – to Find a More Humane Way to Kill

The U.S. death penalty is floundering for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the growing awareness that errors can go uncorrected and lead to executions of the innocent (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

The U.S. death penalty is floundering for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the growing awareness that errors can go uncorrected and lead to executions of the innocent (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

At the end of this October, we learned that public support for the death penalty is at its lowest in 40 years. And while three states (AZ, FL, TX) did manage to carry out 5 executions (Arizona and Florida killed twice) this month, several states were forced to scramble to get the drugs they need to kill their prisoners “humanely.”

Of course, there is no humane way to deliberately kill a human being; it’s a fundamentally inhumane act. Pharmaceutical companies and health professionals continue to resist being dragged into this degrading quagmire. But U.S. states keep trying.

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Will This Man Be Executed Twice?

Addicted to deathAn Iranian man, identified by state media only as “Alireza M.,” was hanged and presumed dead, but discovered to be alive in a morgue by his family. Now, the authorities intend to reattempt the execution once his health “improves.”

Iran has been basking in the dubious distinction of being number two in the number of citizens it executes. It can’t quite compare to the perennial executions “champion” China, but Iran does likely have the highest per capita rate of executions of any country in the world.

This is not exactly an achievement to brag about.

We can’t be sure how many people Iran executes each year, but the latest reliable estimates are that as of this week, at least 508 people were executed in Iran so far this year. If the trend continues, Iran is well on the path to exceed in 2013 the minimum of 544 people it is believed to have executed last year.

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On World Death Penalty Day, An Activist Reflects

Andrea Hall was among the activists looking on when Gov. Martin O’ Malley signed Maryland’s death penalty abolition bill this May (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

Andrea Hall was among the activists looking on when Gov. Martin O’ Malley signed Maryland’s death penalty abolition bill this March (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

By Andrea Hall, Regional Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator, Mid-Atlantic Region

I was late to the party, but I won’t be leaving early. I joined Amnesty’s death penalty abolition team in May 2011, just as the Maryland repeal campaign was kicking into high gear. I stood on the shoulders of giants, helping finish the decades-long work of those who came before me.

I joined the movement because I felt strongly that the death penalty is dead wrong. I grew up in Texas, where for many, executions are as revered as football, a cause for celebration. That lack of respect for the dignity of the human person has stayed with me.

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Who’s Really Using the Death Penalty?

Just 2 percent of U.S. counties are responsible for 52% of all executions and 56% of the country's current death row population(Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Just 2 percent of U.S. counties are responsible for 52% of all executions and 56% of the country’s current death row population(Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

We know that, in the U.S., there are large differences in the enthusiasm with which the death penalty is applied. Currently, there are 32 states that still allow the use of the death penalty: some use it a lot, some barely at all. But what is less well known is the disparity that exists within states, at the county level.

The Death Penalty Information Center has released a report which illustrates these disparities. For example, out of the 3,143 counties in the U.S., 62, or just 2% (representing just 15.6% of the total U.S. population), are responsible for 52% of all executions and 56% of the current U.S. death row population. Even in states known for their vigorous use of the death penalty, many counties have never handed down a death sentence. Nationally, an overwhelming majority (85%) of counties have never produced an execution.

These disparities have serious implications for fairness (the Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is supposed to be applied based on the severity of the crime, not its location), and for taxpayers, who must pay to support the criminal justice money pit of capital punishment even though the majority of them live in counties where the death penalty is largely irrelevant.

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BREAKING: Supreme Court Rejects Warren Hill Petition

Warren Hill

Warren Hill

Georgia authorities continue to pursue the execution of Warren Hill despite the fact that:

  • The victim’s family opposes the execution
  • Several jurors from the trial now object to the execution
  • All 7 doctors who have examined him now agree that Hill is intellectually disabled
  • The U.S. Supreme Court banned execution of the intellectually disabled in 2002

With an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, which today rejected Warren Hill’s petition for relief, Georgia may get its way.

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