Supreme Court to Hear Amnesty FISA Challenge

us supreme courtThe United States Supreme Court decided yesterday to hear an important case related to warrantless government surveillance and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008:  Amnesty et al v. Clapper.

Amnesty, other NGOs, journalists and attorneys are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Clapper” refers to James R. Clapper, Jr., the Director of National Intelligence.

The issue before the Court is whether we can challenge the constitutionality of the FISA Amendments Act, which basically allows “dragnet” surveillance of emails and phone calls without warrant and without sufficient independent judicial oversight.

Our argument is that we have standing to challenge the law’s constitutionality because as human rights advocates, journalists and attorneys, we rely on confidentiality in our international communications with victims of human rights abuses, whistle-blowers and government officials–and our work is severely impacted by the law. 

The Obama administration claims that we don’t have standing in the case because we can’t prove that we are impacted—i.e., subject to surveillance. But how can we prove such a thing when the information about who the government monitors is secret and the process of surveillance is designed to be undetectable?

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Texas Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional; Appeal Likely

No one seems to think it will hold up on appeal, but yesterday a recently elected judge in Houston, Texas ruled that the Lone Star State’s death penalty is unconstitutional.  According to the Houston Chronicle, the Judge, Kevin Fine, stated that:

“Based on the moratorium (on the death penalty) in Illinois, the Innocence Project and more than 200 people being exonerated nationwide, it can only be concluded that innocent people have been executed. It’s safe to assume we execute innocent people.”

And:

“Are you willing to have your brother, your father, your mother be the sacrificial lamb, to be the innocent person executed so that we can have a death penalty so that we can execute those who are deserving of the death penalty? I don’t think society’s mindset is that way now.”

The ruling came in response to a pre-trial motion filed by attorneys for John Edward Green, who is charged with a June 2008 murder.  Green has pleaded not guilty.

Reaction from the Texas pro-death penalty establishment was swift. Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos issued a statement proclaiming that: “Words are inadequate to describe the Office’s disappointment and dismay with this ruling.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott responded with familiar talking points.  He condemned the ruling as “judicial activism,” and he lamented that the judge’s decision “delays justice and closure for the victim’s family,” as if an execution were right around the corner rather than at least 10 years away (assuming, of course, that Green is convicted).

Like other elected officials in the state, elected judges in Texas have traditionally been enthusiastic and active promoters of executions. Perhaps judge Fine’s ruling will encourage his fellow judges to take a more critical and independent look at the death penalty in Texas.

Soccer, Terrorism, Repression and Constitutions in Angola

Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos

Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos

The new decade started off with a bang in Angola-literally. Fireworks exploded in the night sky at the opening games of the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament on January 10th; and, sadly, gunfire shattered the day as the Togo soccer team was attacked on their way to participate in the tourney.

The attack on the Togo national team occurred at they traveled through the Cabinda province. Cabinda is a small spit of land separated from the northern territorial borders of Angola by the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is rich in oil and struggled with a separatist movement for many years now. Those who live in the region wish for autonomy and there is an armed rebel faction, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), that claimed responsibility for the attack on the Togolese team.

However, there are many individuals in the Cabinda region engaging in peaceful measures to demand autonomy. Journalists, lawyers, priests and citizens argue for the right of self determination. The Angolan government has harshly suppressed these individuals, denying them right of free expression and association by dispersing peaceful protests, arresting individuals and banning organizations. One journalist, Fernando Lelo, was imprisoned following an unfair trial because of his criticisms of the president.

In the wake of the Togo bus attack, the Angolan government has used anti-terrorism policies as an excuse to crack down further on peaceful activists in the region. Francisco Luemba, a prominent lawyer and former member of banned human rights organization Mpalabanda, was arrested on January 17th and charged with crimes against the state. Mpalabanda, the only human rights organization previously operating in Cabinda, was banned in 2006 following charges that the organization incited violence and hatred.

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Women of Zimbabwe Arise March for Education, Member Jailed

Women of Zimbabwe Arise take to the streets in Zimbabwe.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise take to the streets in Zimbabwe.

UPDATE January 25th: Today a delegation of 200 women and men marched again in Bulawayo to deliver the WOZA report regarding the collapse of the education system in the country. Once the ministry of education official had attended and received the report, members began to disperse. As they dispersed, seven riot police officers ran out of the police drill hall and started to beat the peacefully dispersing activists, innocent bystanders and vendors. One member who tried to avoid arrest by walking into the passport office was followed and beaten, after being beaten she was then told to ‘run’ to the drill hall whilst being beaten all the way there. It was finally determined that a total of eleven WOZA members were arrested, however they were released within hours without charge or explanation.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets recently demanding education reform in Zimbabwe. In a report published by the organization, WOZA calls for teachers to quit demanding extra money from parents to supplement their income, the Education Ministry must improve the quality of the curriculum including the addition of human rights education, the examination system must be re-vamped and no increase in school fees in 2010.

Over 800 WOZA members marched in Bulawayo on January 13th, singing and chanting the WOZA MOYA! slogan. The demonstration proceeded without violence or arrests but they were not able to deliver their report at the government complex as police dispersed the demonstrators upon arrival. On January 18th-MLK Day, the members of WOZA marched to the Education Ministry offices in Harare and were dispersed, this time by riot police. One WOZA member, a journalist and a bystander were arrested. The demonstration was broken up before WOZA members were able to deliver the report to education minister David Coltart.

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Haiku Anniversary Zimbabwe's GPA

Prime Minister Tsvangirai (left) and President Mugabe

Last week Zimbabwe’s Global Political Agreement (GPA) turned one year old. The GPA was negotiated as a political compromise following the violence and contested elections of March-June 2008. And how did the proud parents (the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, which brokered and now guarantees the agreement) and family members (President Mugabe of ZANU-PF, Prime Minister Tsvangirai of MDC-T and Deputy Prime Minister Mutambara of MDC-M) celebrate this milestone? Well, they didn’t. But since every birthday should be commemorated, here’s my retrospective on the year. In haiku.

Mugabe no sign
Gono, Tomana stay on
No rule of law yet

Abuse rise, fall, rise
WOZA beat, arrest
NGOs out, in, threatened

Cholera kills quick
Doctors, teachers strike two times
Still not enough food

Mugabe birthday
MDC
turns 10, remain in GNU?
Press opens slightly

Bank, “yes, stole money
Bank pays money back in poo
Zim struggles for aid

Inflation down, good
Can’t get dollars for food, bad
Unemployment same

Tribunal withdraw
Diamonds, companies stolen
Parliament new vote

Constitution 2010?
Zim turns 30 in 2010, big party?
Growing pains to come

Zimbabwe: A Sturdy Constitution or Just Indigestion?

Zimbabwe recently began to hold public hearings in the constitutional reform process mandated by the Global Political Agreement (GPA) signed last September. According to the timeline laid out in the agreement brokered between the former majority party ZANU-PF, the current majority party MDC-T and splinter party MDC-M, a new constitution must be voted on by the Zimbabwe people in a referendum held around July 2010.

However, there is already disagreement as to how the process should unfold. According to the GPA, there are to be open hearing where input by the people is to shape the constitutional process before being ratified by Parliament and then sent to a vote by the people. However, the ZANU-PF party wants to use as a basis for the constitution a draft drawn up in September 2007 called the Kariba Draft. This document was negotiated by the three political parties. The MDC-T feels that this document should be scrapped and the process should start anew because the Kariba Draft was only meant to apply to the time frame of the last elections in March 2008; because ZANU-PF discarded the Kariba Draft in December 2007, the MDC feels the document has no legitimacy and therefore no basis from which to proceed.

Finally, civil society members in Zimbabwe feel that the voice of the people was silenced in both the Kariba Draft and the current proceedings and that stronger input is needed by the people of Zimbabwe for any new constitution to have legitimacy and truly reflect the will of the people. Considering the sacrifices members of civil society make every day to fight for civil and human rights, I think they more than anyone are in the best position to say which rights should be enshrined and protected in a document that will govern their lives and manage their peace. Either way, it looks like bumpy roads are still ahead in Zimbabwe.