Attorney General Caldwell: Let the Ruling Stand

Today, Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell has the chance to end a nightmare.

More than four decades ago, two young black men were convicted of the murder of a prison guard at Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison. The life sentence handed down to Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace would not only put the men behind bars – it would plunge them into a nightmare of cruel inhuman and degrading treatment for the next 41 years of their lives.

Despite the fact that no evidence tied Woodfox or Wallace to the crime, the two men were placed in solitary confinement after their 1972 conviction; 23 hours a day isolated in a small cell, four steps long, three steps across. Robert King, who was investigated for the crime, but charged and convicted instead of the murder of a prison inmate, was “lucky” to be released after 29 years of this dehumanizing treatment. The other two members of the so-called “Angola 3″ have remained there, waiting for the arc of the universe to bend slowly toward justice.

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Iraqi prisoners on hunger strike demand better conditions

Dozens of prisoners at Al-Hilla Prison in Iraq went on hunger strike on Sunday demanding better prison conditions including a solution to overcrowding, according to Al-Sharqiyah Television. Conditions of other prisons across Iraq and Kurdistan are not much better, with shortages of clean water and inadequate sanitation facilities, as well as poor ventilation, all of which continue to cause serious health risks.

Al-Hilla prison’s capacity is 750 but it currently holds over 1500 prisoners. This is a recurring problem in Iraq. In 2008 one prison was so overcrowded that detainees had to sleep in shifts. In 2010 about 100 detainees were crammed into two windowless vans designed to carry 20 people each, for a trip that took about one hour. As a result 22 detainees collapsed and seven died of asphyxiation.

In addition to poor prison conditions many prisoners report that they have no access to doctors or to needed medications. One example is Ibrahim ‘Abdel-Sattar who died in al-Kadhimiya prison on 29 October 2010. He was not treated for stomach cancer and was only taken to the hospital the day before he died.

Take action to improve prison conditions in Iraq by writing to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Send letters to the Iraqi Embassy at 3421 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20007.

Indonesian Prisoner Yusak Pakage Released!

Yusak PakageIndonesian prisoner of conscience Yusak Pakage has been released from prison! Along with fellow political prisoner Chosmos Yual, Pakage was released this morning from the Doyo Baru prison. Pakage was sentenced to a 10 year jail term for raising the Morning Star flag in December 2004. He, along with Filep Karma, was found guilty of “rebellion” for flying the outlawed symbol of Papuan independence as a sign of peaceful protest of Indonesian government policy.

Pakage has expressed his thanks to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for all the work put towards demanding his release. Amnesty supporters took action by petitioning the Indonesian government, holding vigils, and standing in solidarity on his behalf.

While we welcome this great news, fellow prisoner of conscience Filep Karma still remains in prison. We must continue to take action in demanding Karma’s release.  Call on your Members of Congress to support House Resolution 1355 calling for the release of Indonesian political prisoners. Additionally, you can stand in solidarity by contributing messages of hope and support and writing directly to the president of Indonesia.

Pakage’s release is a huge success, but we need your continued support to demand that Indonesia uphold international laws of free and peaceful expression!

Former witnesses against Troy come clean

By Laura Kagel, Georgia Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International USA

Savannah was tranquil and warm in the early hours when people started lining up to get passes for the evidentiary hearing in the Troy Davis case. The police seemed prepared for some major disruptions, but a courteous atmosphere prevailed everywhere.

Across from the courthouse Amnesty International was a presence, along with the NAACP, under the dense foliage of Wright Square. Inside the pleasantly air-conditioned courtroom the public seemed full of anticipation and the sight of box after box of court documents entering the chamber was a sudden visual reminder of the gravity of the event.  Just before the proceedings began, Troy entered the courtroom in the company of corrections department employees. He looked straight ahead and then took a seat at the end of the row of defense lawyers and facing the witness stand. His legal team began calling witnesses straight off, because the judge had requested that they skip opening arguments.

(c) Scott Langley

The testimony of the witnesses called by the defense team really underscored the fragility of the state’s case against Troy Davis.  It was amazing to hear their stories. Over the course of the morning, the witnesses affirmed that their testimony implicating Davis was built on lies and often explained their recantations in moving ways, recounting the pressure they felt to point the finger at Troy.

Antoine Williams, who said he could not read the statement he allegedly made to the police because he can’t read, talked about being haunted with nightmares about it.  Kevin McQueen testified that he implicated Troy because he was mad at him.  When asked what he hoped to gain by his testimony today, he stated simply, “peace of mind.” When pressed about his earlier – now recanted – testimony, McQueen said adamantly, “The man did not tell me he shot anyone. Period.”

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The Story of Troy Davis’ Sister

By Laura Kagel, Georgia Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International

As part of the Freedom School that Amnesty International is sponsoring in Savannah this week, Kim Davis, Troy Davis’ sister, came today to speak to a group of young activists about how the death penalty affects the families of death row inmates. Towards the end of a day spent learning about and discussing the death penalty in the United States and abroad, the group focused in on the Troy Davis case.  I took them through a history of the case and tried to explain how he got to where he is today, awaiting an imminent hearing on evidence of his innocence after almost nineteen years on death row.

Kim Davis, Troy Davis' sister, speaks to students in Savannah - (c) Scott Langley

The day was packed with new information and the audience was getting tired, but everyone revived when Kim announced: “Troy is actually my hero.” She described a close-knit family involved in church and sports. As a teenager, she was excited to join her older siblings in the local high school, where she played basketball, ran track, and was in the marching band. The listeners became riveted as she told about how she collapsed one day, was taken to the emergency room of the hospital, and woke up the next morning totally paralyzed due to multiple sclerosis. She remained that way for a year.

When she was ready to go back to school, Kim had to go to one that was accessible by wheelchair, and so she couldn’t be with her siblings anymore. Her mother had to come home from work to get her ready for school and later to take her to her physical therapy. It was wearing her out. Without any prompting, Troy dropped out of school and enrolled in a night school program so that he could take care of his sister during the week and spare his mother the trouble. He did more than just drive her to physical therapy; he coaxed and prodded her to get out of her wheelchair and relearn to walk, and he taught her to play basketball in her wheelchair, and inspired her to participate in the Special Olympics. “He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” she recalled.

Kim noted that many people who have written to Troy to offer encouragement find that they themselves receive words of encouragement.  After his mother’s first visit to death row in Jackson, she reported back to the family, “Troy said, I’m going to be alright. I want you all to be strong. I’m strong no matter what.” Amazingly, the same Troy who pulled the wheelchair away from his little sister and said, “If you want your wheelchair, you’ll have to walk to it,” continues to inspire his family and others from prison.

Laura Kagel is the State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Georgia for Amnesty International USA.  She is currently in Savannah to observe Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.

The Nightmarish Detention of U.S. Immigrants

(Originally posted in the Bell Gardens Sun)

Coming to the United States was a “dream come true” for Deda Makaj. Now 42, Deda fled Albania 20 years ago after enduring five years in a hard labor camp, the culmination of years of persecution he and his family suffered due to their anti-communist beliefs. He escaped to Greece in 1992 and, with the help of a charity in Athens, made it to California, where he was granted refugee protection and became a lawful permanent resident.

Over the next five years, he cobbled together his American dream, beginning with a minimum-wage job and eventually buying a dollar store. He met his wife Nadia, a refugee from Afghanistan, and they had three children.

Then a combination of bad luck and naïveté tore Deda’s American dream apart. He unwittingly bought a stolen car, and he falsified his income on a home loan application upon the encouragement of his loan officer. After serving 16 months in jail for his crimes, he was immediately placed in immigration detention in Arizona. There, he spent the next four years fighting deportation until he was finally released on bond late last year.

Deda bore witness to the human rights catastrophe that is the U.S. immigration detention system: immigrants imprisoned for months before getting a hearing and sometimes years before a decision; abuse from criminal prisoners; suicides. By the time Deda was released, his business had failed.

Amnesty International’s recent report, Jailed Without Justice, details the U.S. immigration detention system, a purgatory of legal limbo where the core American value of due process does not apply. On any given night, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) warehouses more than 30,000 immigrants in prisons and jails—a number that has tripled in the past 12 years. Among them, surely, are immigrants who have committed deportable offenses or are undocumented—but the jailed also include large numbers of legal permanent residents, individuals seeking protection from political or religious persecution, survivors of torture and human trafficking, U.S. citizens mistakenly ensnared in immigration raids, and parents of U.S. citizen children.

Investigative news reports have exposed a litany of human rights abuses in the detention facilities, including physical violence, the use of restraints, and substandard medical care. While in detention, immigrants and asylum seekers are often unable to obtain the legal assistance necessary to prepare viable claims for adversarial and complex court proceedings. Sometimes they cannot even make a simple phone call to obtain documents that would prove they should go free. Some immigrants become so desperate at the prospect of indefinite detention that they agree to deportation despite valid claims.

Amnesty International has launched a campaign to pressure our government to honor its human rights obligations. Legislation is needed so that detention is used only as a measure of last resort, after non-custodial measures, such as reporting requirements or reasonable bond, have failed. Lawmakers who fear anti-immigrant backlash might consider the secondary benefits to honoring our moral imperative: the average cost of detaining a migrant is $95 per person/per day, while alternatives to detention cost as little as $12 per person/per day and yield up to a 99 percent success rate, according to ICE, as measured by immigrants’ appearance in immigration courts for removal hearings.

Congress should also pass legislation to ensure due process for all within our borders, including the right to a prompt individualized hearing before an immigration judge. Currently, ICE field office directors have the power to decide whether to detain someone; yet to incarcerate an individual for months, or even years, before a court makes a judgment on the individual’s case is an absurd negation of our nation’s stated commitment to the rule of law.

Finally, the U.S. government must adopt enforceable human rights standards in all detention facilities that house immigrants. These standards can only be overseen and enforced by an independent body that has the power to hold ICE accountable.

For more than a decade, the federal government has underwritten the unchecked expansion of ICE’s power. The result is a detention system riddled with inconsistencies, errors and widespread human rights violations. Tens of thousands of lives hang in the balance. The time has come for the U.S. government to apply the rule of law to those within its own borders.

Posted in USA

Life Inside a North Korean Prison Camp

The news has been buzzing with reports of the two U.S. journalists who were sentenced to 12 years imprisonment with hard labor in North Korea.  Laura Ling and Euna Lee were convicted of an unspecified “grave crime” after they were arrested in March while investigating human rights abuses of North Korean women.

Amnesty's T. Kumar on CNN's American Morning

Amnesty's T. Kumar on CNN's American Morning

The conviction is outrageous and Amnesty International is calling for the pair’s immediate release.  The U.S. government is also scrambling to negotiate their release.

But in the mean time, what do Lee and Ling face in a North Korean labor camp?  Amnesty’s own T. Kumar was asked just that by John Roberts on CNN this morning.    His responses show the horrifying fate in store for anyone sent to one of these camps.  Here is an excerpt from Kumar’s interview:

John Roberts: If they were sent to one of these prison camps or hard labor camps, what kind of conditions would they encounter based on the studies you’ve done?
T. Kumar: We have to divide the situation into two categories. First is about the living conditions. The living conditions are extremely harsh. It’s overcrowded, very little food and very little, if any, medical attention. Then every day they have to work for more than ten hours. Very hard labor starting from breaking stones to working in the mines. And very little food again during the day.
Roberts: Very high rates of death in detention among these prisoners?
Kumar: Yes. It’s a combination of facts why the deaths are occurring. Number one, it’s hard and forced labor. Second, it’s lack of food. And unhygienic environment…There is no medical attention at all in many cases. So combined of all of these issues, [there is a] very large number of people who die in these prison camps.

Visit cnn.com to read the full interview.

Azerbaijani journalist: "They could not handcuff my tongue"

Released Azerbaijani journalist Mirza Sakit Zahidov
Image source (edited)

After three years of prison, famous Azerbaijani satirist and poet Sakit Zahidov (aka Mirza Sakit) is free.

In the words of an Amnesty International USA press release:

…Sakit Zahidov was pardoned under an amnesty act passed in March by the country’s parliament, the Milli Mejlis.

Serious doubt had been cast on Sakit Zahidov’s conviction and imprisonment after the authorities’ failed to clarify ambiguities in the evidence and irregularities in trial procedures. Amnesty International considered him to be a prisoner of conscience.

[…]

Reporters Without Borders has hailed the release:

“This is great news. It is a significant development for press freedom in Azerbaijan, a country ruled by President Aliev with an iron hand. We share the joy of Zahidov’s family, lawyers and support committee, who had been awaiting his release since last month, and we urge the authorities to free the three other journalists still in prison. They include Zahidov’s elder brother Ganimat, who was given a four-year sentence in March 2008.”

In an interview, Mr. Zahidov said:

I was really nervous, when they handcuffed me. But they could not handcuff my tongue. It is clear that it was instruction from the “top.” But the administration had a headache after that during a long period of time.

Talking about his future plans, he added:

I am going to publish my poems. There are also some plans, which can be carried into life through electronic media. I would like to say that it is not a tragedy to get into prison, but release from prison is not happiness, either. However, I feel happy, because I am free today and because I was in jail yesterday

In the words of Reporters Without Borders:

The three other journalists still in prison are Ganimat Zahidov of Azadlig, Eynulla Fatullaiev of Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan and Mushfig Husseynov of Bizim Yol. Azerbaijan was ranked 150th out of 173 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. President Aliev is on the organisation’s list of “Predators of Press Freedom.”

Immigrants Locked Away in Legal Limbo

New research shows immigrants, including asylum seekers fleeing torture and long-time lawful permanent residents, are being unjustly detained in the U.S. Tens of thousands of people sit locked up in a broken and cruel system of detention with no right to even a hearing to determine if their detention is warranted.

A detained immigrant visits with his son and family members in a California detention center.

A detained immigrant visits with his son and family members in a California detention center.

Many languish separated from their families, commingled with people serving criminal sentences, and sometimes denied access to attorneys, family members and adequate medical care. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could issue new regulations that would quickly solve many of these problems. But instead, just three weeks ago, the office in charge of these policies testified before Congress that it plans to detain almost a hundred thousand more immigrants this year than last.

The new research outlined in the Amnesty International report released today, Jailed without Justice, shows that:

Lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, and survivors of torture are being detained while they fight for protection
• US citizens and lawful permanent residents can be detained for years without any review of their custody
• Meaningful oversight and accountability for abuse or neglect in detention is almost nonexistent
• Individuals in detention often lack treatment for their medical needs and 74 people have died while in immigration detention over the past five years

Our findings are similar to what I’ve seen working in the immigration system for a decade. Before I joined Amnesty International’s staff, I represented immigrants and asylum seekers in San Francisco. I never met the first detained person whom I represented. He was a nineteen-year-old from Sierra Leone who had witnessed the murder of his father and neighbors. I will call him Joseph. The night of the massacre, he slipped into a cargo ship not knowing where he was going or how long he would be at sea. Joseph was discovered by the ship’s captain and turned over to immigration authorities upon arrival in the U.S. He was detained in Texas and applied for asylum without the help of an attorney. His case was denied. To be granted asylum, a person must show that he fears persecution on account of a protected ground: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Joseph belonged to a particular tribe and his village was targeted for this reason. Under immigration law, a tribe is often considered either a race or nationality for purposes of asylum protection.

In detention, Joseph was unable to secure documents to support his claim and in representing himself, he did not know what was important to share with the immigration judge and government attorney. I learned of Joseph’s case through a pro bono program and agreed to write his appeal. In the appeal I asked that the case be reopened so that Joseph could submit documents supporting his claim. Joseph’s appeal was denied. The Board of Immigration Appeals thought Joseph had not provided evidence that he was persecuted on account of a protected ground. I believed this decision was wrong and advised Joseph to appeal, but he couldn’t face months or years more in detention with an uncertain outcome. He was deported.

In San Francisco I could meet my clients in jail, but communication was very difficult. Oftentimes they were despondent and we spent a lot of time talking about why it was worth it to continue fighting. Preparing a detained client for court was extremely difficult because often the client’s wrist was shackled to the table, there was very little privacy, and we had limited amount of time together. Securing documents could take an exceptionally long time.

When I joined Amnesty International, immigrants in detention were never far from my mind. As part of the research team assigned to look at immigrant detention, I went back to San Francisco to document detention practices in the Bay Area. It was disturbing to see that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies on detention had not improved, and in many instances, seemed more draconian. Detained immigrants still faced an indefinite number of months and years behind bars; securing affordable counsel was exceptionally hard; and immigrants were forced to wear prison jumpsuits, shackled to each other or a table when they were outside their cells, and their time was limited when spouses and children came to visit. It was heartbreaking and unnecessary.

Depriving people of their liberty without any right to a hearing is contrary to the constitution and American values. As the Supreme Court found in the Guantanamo cases, the constitution does not permit the U.S. to lock people up and throw away the key. Yet, that is exactly what is happening to tens of thousands of immigrants (and some US citizens) as they go through deportation proceedings in the U.S. The law must change to reflect international human rights standards and U.S. values.

Posted in USA