Calling for Justice Does Not Make Us "Whores"

By Tzili Mor, Amnesty USA Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group

Every day around the world, women challenge the status quo of poverty, exploitation, impunity, and war; they question oppressive customs and harmful traditions; they fight tirelessly for human rights.

And while they may not label themselves as women human rights defenders, their beliefs and activism often subject them to marginalization, prejudice, violence, and threats to their safety and wellbeing.

They are sidelined, abducted, made to “disappear,” and killed as a consequence of their work. They face gender-specific repercussions and risks, such as sexual harassment and rape, often with no recourse for personal justice.  Their aggressors may be state actors, police, military, politicians, corporations, their community, and even family members.


Senate Hearing on Accountability

Senator Pat Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) told today’s Judiciary Committee hearing on “Getting to the Truth through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry” that he had received 65,000 emails and letters from members of the public supporting his call for a Commission to investigate human rights abuses in the War on Terror.

Senator Leahy added:

“Nothing has done more to damage America’s place in the world than the revelation that this nation stretched the law and bounds of executive power to authorize torture.”

Senator Leahy’s call for a Commission of Inquiry received strong support from Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) and Russ Feingold (Democrat, Wisconsin). Senator Feingold went further also calling for prosecutions were crimes had occurred and expressing the hope that a Commission of Inquiry would not consider offering immunity in return for testimony. Senators Arlen Specter (Republican, Pennsylvania), Ted Kaufman (Democrat, Delaware) and John Cornyn (Republican, Texas) were also in attendance.

One of those invited to testify at the hearing was former United Nations Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who last month had worked with the coalition of human rights organizations calling for the establishment of a non-partisan commission of eminent persons to investigate the conduct of the Bush administration in this area. AIUSA has played a leading role in the coalition. Ambassador Pickering provided powerful testimony concerning the damage the Bush administration’s policies had done to America’s standing around the world.

Other news comes from the Senate Armed Services Committee where Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) is calling for the Department of Justice to open an independent investigation into the use of torture and other coercive techniques by military personnel and other government agents.

The Armed Services Committee is close to releasing a substantially updated version of its December 2008 bipartisan report on the “Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody”, expanded to include newly declassified material. The first version of this report identified a chain of culpability leading up to the highest levels of the Bush administration. With hard facts still in short supply we are confident that the release of this updated report will further drive calls for accountability.

Momentum on accountability issues continues to build

It has been a busy week with developments on multiple fronts concerning the abuse of detainees held in the War on Terror. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) has announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings next Wednesday to explore ideas on how best to establish a commission to examine past national security policies.

In an interview broadcast on MSNBC House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California 8th District) expressed support for the Commission of Inquiry proposed by Senator Leahy but only if it were to conduct its business without offering immunity to those who appear before it:

“Some of the issues involved here, like the services part, politicizing of the Justice Department, and the rest, they have criminal ramifications, and I don’t think we should be giving them immunity… No one is above the law.”  

News also emerged that  the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California), is considering launching an inquiry into the “extreme” interrogation practices used by the CIA under the Bush administration.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Finnish diplomat Martin Scheinin, delivered a report concluding that foreign agents committed “an internationally wrongful act” by participating in interrogations at Guantanamo even if they acted solely as observers. Intelligence Officers from 18 different countries have been granted access to their nationals detained at facility.

Scheinin also called on the Obama administration and Congress to press charges against anyone suspected of breaking US laws against torture and other crimes:

“We have had a witch hunt for alleged terrorists for the past 7 1/2 years. Now I think the witch hunt is over and it is time for the law to step in.”

Finally, one chilling reminder of just how important these issues remain comes from the legal charity Reprieve which represents 31 of the Guantanamo detainees, including British detainee Binyam Mohamed released earlier this week. 

Defense attorney Ahmed Ghappour reported that his clients are telling him that abuses at the facility have escalated sharply since the inauguration of President Obama as guards seek “to get their kicks in” before the camp is closed. Ghappour stressed that he believed that this abuse was not directed from above but reflected the frustrations and prejudices of individual guards, some of whom had served in Iraq and were scarred by their experience. In one of the six main camps at Guantanamo all of the detainees Ghappour knew of were on hunger strike and subject of forced feeding.

The Pentagon review of the Guantanamo facility led by Admiral Patrick Walsh also concluded this week. While the Admiral reported that the inmates were being treated in line with the standards laid down in the Geneva Conventions, he also acknowledged documenting 14 substantiated incidences of abuse including the “preemptive use of pepper spray” on detainees.  

The objectives of the Counter Terror with Justice campaign remain as vital and urgent as ever. We need AI sections across the country to keep up their good work pressing for accountability. With your help real reform may just be in reach.

Vigilance Alone is Not Enough

The big news today is the announcement from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) that his committee plans to hold a hearing in the near future to consider possible approaches to investigating the use of torture during the Bush administration.

Committee member Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) told that he was convinced that a torture commission would be soon be established:

“When push comes to shove, we are the legislative branch of government. We have oversight responsibilities. And we don’t need the executive branch’s approval to look into these things just as a constitutional matter… The ultimate goal in this is protect and enhance American democracy.”

Senator Whitehouse, who also sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, firmly rejected arguments put forward by former Vice-President Dick Cheney and other dead-enders from the Bush administration that so-called enhanced interrogation methods had proved to be a vital intelligence tool that had kept Americans safe over the past seven years:

“The exact opposite was true…. the career, tough, serious military interrogators said that this just was not effective. But it is important to prove the point, because they keep saying, ‘we saved lives. We interrupted plans. We did this, that and the other.’ Well, when you drill down, there is never a fact there. It turns into fog and evasion.”

The rhetoric coming from the White House is leaving little room for the Obama administration to oppose the creation of an investigative commission. When he addressed the joint session of Congress last night President Obama told lawmakers:

“To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend – because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists – because living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.”

The abolitionist Wendell Phillips famously remarked that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but vigilance alone is not enough. Justice is not a spectator sport. To lead, to set an example, one must also act. If the President genuinely wishes to restore the integrity of the United States in the eyes of the world, he must go beyond fine words. He must act to ensure those that committed such heinous crimes our name are held to account.

Major General Backs Torture Commission

Major General Antonio Taguba speaks with about why he supports a commission to examine torture:

“You can’t sweep unlawful activities under the table and just forget about it. I feel strongly about this because we have future generations who will be the beneficiaries of these actions… We have a lot of unanswered questions on accountability, questions that need to be answered and hold responsible officials — civilians and military — accountable. These include contractors… We have an integrity issue to contend with if we are to prevent this matter from recurring.”

Read the entire interview on here.

Momentum is building on accountability. Last week, Amnesty International members called their Senators in Congress to urge support of an independent commission, and Amnesty International joined Major General Taguba, former FBI Director William Sessions and 17 human rights organizations in a public statement urging President Obama to set up  a non-partisan commission on detention, treatment and transfer of detainees. Yesterday, Salon reported encouraging news that the “Senate will advance torture commission.”

We need to keep the pressure on to make sure a commission happens–and happens the right way. Let President Obama know that you support accountability. Take part in Amnesty International’s 100 Days Action now.

Maryland Abolition Takes Another Step Forward

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has announced, via a Washington Post article among other places, that he intends to personally sponsor a death penalty repeal bill and will “do ‘everything in [his] power’ to abolish capital punishment in Maryland.”

This doesn’t mean ending the death penalty in Maryland will be easy, but a serious investment of that kind of political capital into an issue can only be helpful.  And the Governor’s personal support comes after the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment issued its final report last month, which also recommended abolition.  In the General Assembly, by most accounts, the votes are there, except in the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee, where it fell just one vote short two years ago.

The Commission report clearly illustrates the problems with Maryland’s death penalty (problems which are common to all the other capital punishment states).  The Commission concluded that the death penalty in Maryland is racially and geographically biased, more costly, and not a deterrent.  The Commission also found that the death penalty was more harmful to victims’ families than the alternatives and that there is a “real possibility” of executing an innocent person in Maryland.

Maryland has had only 5 executions in 30 years, and there are only 5 men currently on Maryland’s death row, so you have to wonder:  what is it death penalty supporters are clinging to?  As Senate President and death penalty supporter Mike Miller suggested to the Post:  “When you’re middle-aged, your mind is pretty much set on issues like this.”  It appears that Governor O’Malley is determined to change at least a couple of those minds.

Maryland Commission Calls for Abolition

Today, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment made it official, formally recommending in its Final Report that Maryland repeal the death penalty.

The report’s final recommendation concludes:

“For all of these reasons—to eliminate racial and jurisdictional bias, to reduce unnecessary costs, to lessen the misery that capital cases force victims of family members to endure, to eliminate the risk that an innocent person can be convicted—the Commission strongly recommends that capital punishment be abolished in Maryland.”

The Maryland General Assembly (which created the Commission) will take up the issue when its 2009 session begins about a month from now, on January 14.  The session ends in April, so we should know fairly soon whether Maryland will become the 15th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty.