Congress Seeks to Improve Prison Conditions Around the World

For years, we’ve documented horrendous conditions in prisons all around the world in our Annual Report. Detainees are often held in inhumane prison conditions, including overcrowding and inadequate food, water and medical care, and are often subjected to other forms of ill-treatment and torture. Family members and legal counsel are often barred from visiting, and juveniles can be detained with adults. Every day, prisoners around the world die in prison due to ill-treatment, in contravention of international human rights standards.

But I’m happy to report that the US Congress is finally paying attention. Just a little over two weeks ago, Senators Patrick Leahy and Sam Brownback and Congressmen Bill Delahunt and Joseph Pitts introduced the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2010 (S.3798 in the Senate and H.R.6153 in the House of Representatives).

On any given day, millions of people are languishing in foreign prisons, many awaiting trial not yet having been formally charged or proven guilty of anything, deprived of their freedom for years longer than they could have been sentenced to prison if convicted. Others convicted of crimes, often after woefully unfair trials, including for nothing more than peacefully expressing political or religious beliefs or defending human rights. Regardless of their status they have one thing in common. They are deprived of the most basic rights and necessities–safe water, adequate food, essential medical care, personal safety, and dignity.

Anyone who has been inside one of these facilities, or seen photographs or the press reports of what they are like, understands that I am talking about the mistreatment of human beings in ways that are reminiscent of the Dark Ages.

- Senator Patrick Leahy, introducing the bill on September 16, 2010

The bill would help ensure that countries receiving US assistance do not operate prisons and other detention facilities under inhumane conditions and would provide assistance to countries making significant efforts to improve conditions in their prisons. Most importantly, the bill would mandate that the US government reprogram, restructure or even decrease US assistance to countries unwilling to improve prison conditions.

So take action today by asking your Members of Congress to co-sponsor the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act. Your voice will help ensure that this Congress takes action on this important issue and that we don’t have to wait any longer to see improvements in prison conditions around the world.

A real chance for accountability for private security contractors

At the end of December, the human rights movement had some disappointing news. Federal Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the charges against the five Xe (Blackwater) guards accused in the shooting death of at least 14 innocent Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in September 2007.

While his decision indicates the need to examine more closely the conduct of the Justice Department’s prosecutors as well as the State Department’s practice of immunizing contractors’ statements given in the course of investigations, there is now reason for hope. On Tuesday, Rep. David Price and Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced companion bills under the short title of the Contractor Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) of 2010 in the House (HR 4567) and Senate (S2979). The legislation closes gaps in U.S. law to ensure that contractors can be prosecuted for crimes committed overseas.

One of the single biggest hurdles to holding military and security contractors accountable for criminal acts committed overseas has been the duality of systems in place for Defense Department (DOD) contractors versus those working for other government agencies. DOD contractors implicated in crimes are subject, in theory, to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s judicial system, and the jurisdiction of federal courts by way of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA). But what about Blackwater, which was fulfilling the State Department’s Worldwide Personal Protective Services (WPPS) contract at the time of the Nisour Square shootings? Well, many feared that the Justice Department wouldn’t or wouldn’t be able to pull off a case against the shooters because of unsettled evidentiary and jurisdictional issues.

We – the human rights community, Congress, the President, the media, and othershave known about this inconsistent patchwork of laws for some time now. In fact, in 2007 Rep. Price and then-Senator Barrack Obama joined forces to try to amend MEJA to clarify that there would be no impunity for government contractors who commit crimes. While the House version of the bill passed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 389 to 30, it fizzled on the Senate side.

Two years on, we don’t need any more evidence to indicate the importance of acting decisively to make CEJA law. The DOS is about to release the Request for Proposal for WPPS III. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be asking you to call on your members of Congress in the House and Senate to endorse CEJA and end impunity for rights violators. Let’s make sure that the framework is in place to hold military and security contractors accountable for human rights violations before we send out the next round of armed guards in the name of the U.S. government.

Mexico: Merida Funds Must be Withheld Until Human Rights Conditions Are Met

Amnesty International today urged the US Congress to honor its commitment to withhold 15% of funding of the Merida Initiative until the Mexican government fulfils its human rights obligations. The Mexican government has failed to make sufficient progress in the investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses by security forces. According to the Washington Post, Senator Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, is well aware of the grave human rights situation in Mexico, and does not intend to allow the transfer to go forward if things do not improve.

The Merida Initiative is security co-operation and assistance program through which the USA provides Mexico and Central America with equipment, training and technical assistance to support law enforcement operations. In June 2008, the US Congress stipulated that 15% of the funds to be provided by the US to Mexico in the context of the Merida Initiative must be subject to key human rights conditions, including:

  • Human rights violations perpetrated by military and police personnel to be investigated, prosecuted and tried by civilian prosecutors and judges;
  • Confessions obtained under torture or ill treatment not to be used in the justice system;
  • Civil society to be regularly consulted to make recommendations regarding the fulfilment of the Merida Initiative;
  • Improvement of transparency and accountability of the police force, and establishment of an independent mechanism to denounce abuses.

In addition to a State Department report on the broader human rights situation in Mexico, the US Congress also requested information on the investigation of the killing of US videojournalist Brad Will, whose case Amnesty has worked on for some time. The investigation of Mexico’s Federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) led to the arrest of man in October 2008. However, the evidence on which the prosecution is based has been disproved by extensive forensic studies carried out by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and Physicians for Human Rights. As the time for the approval of Merida Initiative funding approached, the PGR commissioned a team of Canadian experts to carry out a new forensic report. The report, which has no legal standing in the criminal case, was leaked in July 2009 to the press and confirmed, in an almost word-by-word fashion the conclusions of the PGR. Both the CNDH and Physicians for Human Rights have stated that the report has no scientific validity, and Brad Will’s family has issued a statement denouncing the biased PGR investigation.

Given the situation of Brad Will’s case, the continued impunity of those responsible for other serious human rights violations, and the alarming escalation of reports of new abuses, additional US aid would only make things worse. Let’s hope Mexico takes notice and makes some big changes.

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.

Sri Lanka: Nowhere Safe

The war in Sri Lanka has escalated this past weekend but one thing about the 26 year conflict has not changed; Tamil civilians bear the brunt of the attacks, injuries, and deaths. 70,000 civilians have been killed. The Red Cross reports that hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed or wounded in fighting since last week.
Vanni area in Northern Sri Lanka, including Puthikudiyiruppu and many Internally Displaced People’s camps.

Vanni area in Northern Sri Lanka, including Puthikudiyiruppu and many Internally Displaced People’s camps.

“The origins of the conflict arise from decades of the Sinhalese majority’s systematic discrimination against the Tamil minority, and its denial of the Tamils’ meaningful participation in the political process. The Sri Lankan army is almost exclusively Sinhalese. Successive Sinhalese-dominated governments have failed to effectively address these longstanding injustices.” Senator Patrick Leahy.

Civilians are sitting ducks, with 250,000 Tamil civilians trapped in the Vanni area conflict zone.  The Sri Lankan government called a 48 hour safe passageway last Friday to allow civilians to escape; only 236 emerged from the conflict zone.

“People are on the move because they are looking for a safe place. But there is no safe place,” ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad

Those still trapped in the conflict zone and displaced from their homes are reliant on humanitarian aid that is waiting on the edge of the conflict zone.

The civilian toll rose with strikes on February 1st, 2nd, and 3rd on the hospital in Puthikudiyiruppu hitting the pediatric unit. Twelve civilians have been killed and 30 wounded due to artillery strikes over the past two days. The government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels have denied responsibility for the assault.

Bits of news from inside the conflict zone come from the Red Cross and healthcare professionals; journalists are barred from entry. Sixteen journalists have been killed since 1992 and 3 imprisoned in Sri Lanka since the beginning of the conflict. Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader, predicted his own death:

“It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended,” he wrote in the column titled, “And Then They Came for Me.”

Civilians must be protected under international humanitarian law, be they women, children, journalists or healthcare workers. Humanitarian aid must reach civilians trapped in conflict zones and the international community should be allowed access to assess the damages.

“We are deeply troubled by comments by the Sri Lankan Government threatening to expel foreign diplomats, aid agencies, and journalists. Reporters have already experienced physical attacks and intimidation, including the latest brazen assassination of renowned journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga. Together, we urge the Government of Sri Lanka to protect all of its citizens and conduct swift, full, and credible investigations into attacks on journalists and other civilians.” Senator John Kerry and Senator Richard Luger.

Written by Ally Krupar, Edited by Zahir Janmohamed