Internment in the US? Not on Our Watch


A few weeks ago the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was condemned by Senator Reid as so draconian that he could not bring it to the floor. Now it’s back and with an authoritarian vengeance.

The bill has the necessary but perpetually complex objective of outlining the budget and expenditures of the Department of Defense.

This time around, a dubious, ill-informed, and unwise “agreement” has been reached between Senators Levin and McCain to include detention provisions that threaten to bring back internment for the first time since the McCarthy era at the height of the red scare.


Illegal Execution Of Mexican National Pending In Texas

Humberto Leal faces execution on July 7 in Texas for the 1994 murder of a 16-year-old girl in San Antonio.  As a Mexican national, Leal was supposed to be informed that he could contact his diplomatic representatives for legal assistance, but he was never told this.

The Vienna Convention of Consular Relations (VCCR) is a treaty that requires any foreign national arrested outside their own country to be notified of their right to contact their consulate or embassy for help.  This applies to US citizens traveling in Mexico (or anywhere else) just as much as to Mexican citizens inside the USA.  Obviously for Americans abroad this is a pretty important protection. Unfortunately, US authorities don’t always respect this right when arresting non-US citizens; and some, like Leal, have ended up on death row.

Leal was one of 51 Mexican nationals on US death rows who challenged this pattern of neglect in the US, and in 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in Mexico’s favor.  Executing Humberto Leal now would be a flagrant violation of international law.


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.

Leahy and the Accountability Call

Senator Leahy made headlines yesterday by calling for an independent commission at a speech at Georgetown law School, to examine alleged wrongdoing during the Bush administration.  “We need to come to a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past,” Leahy said.

His statements were echoed by Senator Whitehouse who has said Congress should discharge its “independent responsibility” to investigate:

“[Senator Leahy] understands that the trust we hold for future generations can be safeguarded only when honesty, freedom, justice and compassion guide our institutions of government; that where that trust has been violated, the cost is incalculable; and that the path to recovery leads through disclosure.”

There are many voices out there, and they strike different notes, but they are essentially calling for the same thing and what is critical is to begin a process of accountability.  These are great steps forward, but it’s a long road.  Without more information in the public arena and more pressure the debate and the call for the truth is going to fall by the wayside.

The further the Bush years fade in the rearview mirror, the easier it will be to put up the kind of straw arguments that former officials have already paraded.  Yes, we are in a massive financial crisis, and yes there are many very important challenges we need to address, but the truth isn’t something we buy with spare change from our economic growth.  Truth, justice and rule of law are the very foundations of our way of life. This isn’t easy to ask for and many people would rather hide their eyes, but it’s never to late or too early to do the right thing.

The administration has to follow the facts, but we need make sure that the facts are laid out there for the public to see and debate.  As Senator Leahy eloquently put it – you have to read the page to turn the page.

This is why is important to have Amnesty members call and talk to their Senator to explain what you care about.

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