Congress Moves on the 2009 Tribal Law and Order Act

On Thursday, December 10th, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing to discuss the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009, for which AIUSA was invited to submit written testimony. The bill, a close approximation of the early Senate draft of the bill, would make crucial and desperately needed reforms in tribal justice systems, helping to address the epidemic of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women and girls.

Over the last few years, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) has worked to document the disconcerting realities of law enforcement in Indian Country, especially as they impact the capacity and ability to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women and girls. Our research found that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the United States in general. In recent months, as both the House and Senate have made headway in pushing their respective bills through committee, it seems that Congressional leaders are finally realizing the true urgency of reforming tribal law enforcement.

Both bills would make crucial steps in ensuring justice in Indian Country. These bills mandate and create structures for improving communication, transparency, and data sharing between tribal, state, and Federal agencies, increase tribal prosecutorial authorities, expand and emphasize the importance of data collection and analysis, and call for the US Attorney General’s Office to document cases it refuses to prosecute. The bills also require training for law enforcement personnel on how to respond to domestic and sexual violent crimes and require Indian Health Services to improve services for victims of sexual assault.

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Women of Zimbabwe Arise Report Increased Harassment

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Last month, Magodonga Mahlangu was awarded the RFK Human Rights Award for the work she does as co-leader of Women of Zimbabwe  Arise (WOZA). Since her return to Zimbabwe, however, she and co-leader Jenni Williams are reporting increased harassment levels by police and Central Intelligence officers. Both Magodonga and Jenni have faced heightened intimidation efforts following past international recognition, but it was hoped that since this award was presented by President Barack Obama along with Ethel Kennedy, it might buy them a little breathing space since even Mugabe has hailed Obama as a pretty cool dude. Clearly Obama’s street cred as a brother will only carry you so far.

Magodonga and Jenni were back in court last week on pending charges from an arrest in October 2008. The Supreme Court verbally ruled almost six months ago that the charges were unconstitutional but has yet to put it in writing. In the spirit of continuing to drag the process out as long as possible, the ladies were now told that their file was missing and the magistrate would not make any ruling without it and these “political cases” are sensitive. Hmmm. Political cases? I seem to remember that Magodonga and Jenni were arrested because they were marching in the streets demanding equitable distribution of food aid. You say political case, I say oppression of human rights defenders. Tomato, tomatoe.

Magodonga and Jenni were ordered to reappear Monday, January 14th. Take Action! Demand justice for Magodonga and Jenni.

Beyond the Market: Health Care as a Civil or Human Right?

A dramatic disconnect between principles and policies has hampered current U.S. health care reform efforts. This became obvious when candidate Obama declared health care to be a right and then proceeded to treat it as a commodity when negotiating with insurance companies a requirement for individuals to buy a commercial health insurance product.

Similarly, early on in the debate the president championed the principle of universality by promising some form of health coverage – if not necessarily health care – for 46 million uninsured people, only to lower the policy goal to 30 million American citizens in his speech before Congress, excluding many immigrants and low-income people. Since then, further policy provisions that restrict access to health coverage for immigrants – documented and undocumented – and reduce affordability for lower-income people have appeared in the health care bill adopted by the Senate Finance Committee. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

A Tale of Two Taliban

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

In the last month, a spotlight has fallen on two sharply different terrorism cases that illuminate the best and worse of America’s efforts to defeat Al Qaeda:

  • The case of Mohammed Jawad, conducted with the gloves off, is a disaster.
  • The case of Bryant Vinas, conducted within the law, appears to be triumph.

Mohammed Jawad was detained in Kabul in December 2002 after a grenade was thrown at US soldiers, injuring three members of a patrol. Jawad’s age has not been established with any degree of certainty but it is not disputed that he was a minor at the time of the attack. According to Afghan government, he may have been as young as twelve.

Although the US government has yet to produce any credible evidence that Jawad was responsible for the attack – in July 2009 US District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle described the government’s case as “an outrage” and “riddled with holes” – he was labeled as a terrorist and eventually transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Read Amnesty International’s report on Jawad’s case.

Jawad was subjected to a range of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques including forced sleep deprivation and physical abuse. Judge Huvelle, who eventually heard Jawad’s habeas corpus petition, threw out every statement he made in US custody as “a product of torture”. On July 30, she ordered that Jawad be released by August 21.

Jawad has been illegally detained for more than six and a half years. Worse still – the United States tortured a child. And for what? Jawad could offer no actionable intelligence. The government can’t even prove he committed a crime. His detention has cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is a lose-lose scenario emblematic of the dark side approach promoted by Dick Cheney.

Bryant Neal Vinas, alias Bashir al-Ameriki, a twenty-six year old Hispanic man from Long Island, converted to Islam in 2004 and travelled to Pakistan to make contact with Al Qaeda in late 2007 or early 2008.

Vinas received weapons training from Al Qaeda with a particular concentration on explosives. In September 2008, he took part in a rocket attack on a US military base in Afghanistan.

Vinas even agreed to undertake a suicide bombing, although his handlers let him off the hook. He was, in short, a terrorist who engaged in hostile acts against the United States.

In November 2008, he was arrested in Peshwar by the Pakistani authorities. Because Vinas was an American citizen he was not shipped to Guantanamo or Bagram but instead treated like an ordinary criminal and transferred to the custody of the FBI.

Vinas’ case was handled entirely within the American criminal justice system. He was interviewed by FBI investigators within the constraints of domestic US law and with all the protections that the US constitution affords US citizens.

Operating within these constraints experienced FBI agents were able to persuade Vinas to cooperate with the US authorities and provide valuable and timely intelligence regarding potential terrorist plot.

Federal prosecutors were able to build a strong case against Vinas successfully charging him with conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, providing information to a terrorist organization, and receiving “military-type training” from a Al-Qaeda.

Vinas eventually pled guilty to these charges. He has agreed to appear as a key witness in a number of other terrorist trials and is currently a protected witness in the federal witness protection program living inside the United States.

What a contrast exists between these two cases – one effectively and efficiently handled within the law and the other, a Kafkaesque nightmare in which a minor has been abused and incarcerated for more than six years to no purpose whatsoever.

These two cases could not make it any plainer. Our criminal justice system not only can handle complex terrorism cases, it actually does a substantially better job of it than the cack-handed shadow warriors unleashed by the Bush administration.

The real tragedy is that this lesson seems to be lost on the Obama White House. Jeh Johnson’s admission before Congress that the administration may consider detaining individuals acquitted by the Military Commissions seems to set the stage for further miscarriages of justice and for yet further damage to America’s battered international reputation.

We don’t need to keep going down this path. There is a better way. We know how to do this smarter and we know how do this right. Just ask Bryant Vinas.

Crisis in Honduras…Obama and Chavez agree?

Unrest in Honduras flared today as protesters spared with police over the recent exile of President Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya was ousted over the weekend by the Honduran military after disagreements among officials about a controversial constitutional referendum Zelaya had asked Hondurans to vote on last Sunday. The referendum would have changed the constitution to allow Zelaya an additional term as president — a move some have argued looks suspiciously close to the referendum Hugo Chavez proposed for Venezuela in 2007.

Amnesty International has issued a press release on the crisis arguing that President Zelaya must be allowed to return to Honduras immediately and safely. Amnesty also raised concerns about the safety of protesters and increased media censorship.

Interestingly, the Obama administration has tepidly stood on the side of leftist Zelaya — arguing that his exile was illegal and he should be reinstated to office immediately, a stance shared with Chavez. But as Paul Richter of the Los Angles Times points out, the U.S. has not gone so far as to remove its ambassadors from Honduras or declare the incident a coup d’etat.

However, I think Obama made a great statement today that shows some insight into U.S.-Latin American relations when he said, “The United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies, but over the last several years I think both Republicans and Democrats in the United States have recognized that we always want to stand with democracy, even if the results don’t always mean that the leaders of those countries are favorable towards the United States.”

As AI stated in their press release, I hope that this crisis will get resolved quickly and peacefully but am ready to roll up my sleeves and start writing letters if the situation gets worse.

The Hits Keep Coming from Obama

(As originally posted on Daily Kos)

And the hits just keep coming. Despite its pledge to reintroduce greater transparency to government the Obama administration reversed itself again this week, announcing that it would now seek to block the release of detainee abuse photographs sought by the ACLU.

Then yesterday the CIA announced, in a fine example of Orwellian double-speak, that it would not release memos cited by former Vice-President Dick Cheney because they are subject to a Freedom of Information Act suit being pursued by Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU.

Amnesty does not often find itself on the same side of an argument as the former Vice President but on this occasion we welcome his late conversion to the merits of transparency in government.

And finally, the President confirmed today that his administration will reintroduce Military Commissions to try terrorism cases that cannot be successfully pursued in a federal court. Of course, he put it slightly differently but that is what the decision amounts to. Reverse engineering courts to work around mistakes and abuses that have been committed in the past is not a sound basis for any system of justice.

A comment to a previous posting accused me of being “a one note Johnny” on this subject and I am afraid the charge is quite true. I truly wish it wasn’t. I wish I could report that things were improving on the human rights front and that in confronting terrorism the President was living up to the pledges he had made on the campaign trail.

Instead, sadly political pragmatism seems to be the order of the day. This might be sound political sense but it is not moral leadership. So it is particularly ironic to note today that Lakhdar Boumediene, the Algerian national arrested in Bosnia and falsely accused of plotting to blow up the US Embassy in Sarajevo, is finally today en route to France where he will be resettled.

This innocent man spent eight years detained in Guantanamo. He has been cleared of all charges since November 2008. He is only being released now because France has generously agreed – despite the “freedom fries” and “axis of weasel” jibes – to take him in. One might think a few apologies might be in order. One might also think that Boumediene’s case might give pause for reflection before we head back down the path of backwoods justice once again.

Voting Rights Equals Human Rights

Last night’s record voter turnout and victory for Senator Barack Obama are a powerful demonstration to me that the American people are passionate about hope for the future and are willing to work to bring about the change they desire. It was inspiring to witness so many people turn out to exercise one of the most fundamental human rights.

This historic election also reaffirms my belief in the strength and effectiveness of grassroots organizing and the power to build a decentralized movement for change. That is the model on which Amnesty International was founded, and still forms the core of our life-saving human rights work.

Now, as we move forward and begin to work on the challenges ahead, we can do so with fresh affirmation that when committed individuals stand together and work toward a common goal, fundamental change is possible.

As human rights activists, we have new opportunities to press the United States government to abandon existing policies and practices that led to violations of rights at home and abroad, as well as a decline in U.S. reputation.

I encourage President-elect Obama to put human rights at the heart of the new administration, and I encourage all of you to keep fighting for human rights–for everyone, everywhere.

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