President Obama signs Tribal Law and Order Act

I am thrilled to share with you a deeply moving moment in a long-awaited, hard-fought, and historic victory for Native American and Alaska Native peoples in the United States.  Last Thursday afternoon, I had the privilege of attending a special ceremony at the White House where President Obama signed into law H.R. 725 – the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. This law entering into force marked an important step forward in beginning to address some of the many continuing injustices that Native American and Alaska Native communities – particularly women – face in this country.  It was especially meaningful to stand not just along aside my Amnesty International colleagues but with our Native partners who for so long have fought to stop the horrific violence and human rights violations inflicted on Native American and Alaska Native women.  It is their courage and determination that made this historic advance possible.

The Tribal Law and Order Act is a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation that tackles the complex jurisdictional maze that allows violent crime against Native American and Alaska Native peoples to flourish.  In particular, it seeks to put an end to the epidemic rates of rape and sexual assault perpetrated against Indigenous women in the US.  As many of you know from your years of activism and support for AIUSA’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign, the situation we found Native women facing in this country when began our research in 2005 was truly appalling.  As detailed in our 2007 reported entitled Maze of Injustice, Native women are 2.5 times more likely than other women in this country to be raped. Women from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas told us that they couldn’t think of a single woman who hadn’t been sexually assaulted.  More than one in three Native women will be raped at some point in their lives, 86 percent of them by non-Native perpetrators. The fact that the majority of these crimes occur with total impunity points clearly to the legacy of discrimination that Native communities had faced for many generations.

Among other things, this legislation means that every Native American and Alaska Native woman now finally has the chance to get a police response, have access to a rape kit, the opportunity to see her case prosecuted and see justice served for crimes committed against her. It standardizes the much needed sexual assault protocols within the Indian Health Service to ensure that survivors of sexual assault will receive proper treatment and care and that crucial forensic evidence will be collected.  The Act also clarifies who is responsible for prosecuting crimes in tribal communities and restores authority, resources, and information to tribal governments.  While taking initial steps to restore power to tribal governments to take more direct action in cases of violent crime, it will also hold federal authorities accountable for failure to prosecute.

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Congress passes Tribal Law and Order Act provisions in H.R. 725!

HUGE thanks and a heartfelt congratulations to everyone who has been involved in Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women work, and in particular, the work to end sexual violence and rape against Native American and Alaska Native women in the U.S.

The House just passed H.R. 725, to which the Tribal Law and Order Act was attached as an amendment, by a vote of 326 yays to 92 nays. This historic and long-overdue legislation will now go to President Obama to be signed into law!!

This will be the major solution for the long-overdue problem of disturbing rates of sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women.

In 2007, Amnesty International published a report titled Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA that exposed the disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence that Native American and Alaska Native women suffer in this country. Additionally, it detailed the complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that often allows perpetrators, 86 percent of them non-Native men, to rape with impunity. This maze currently dictates that authorities need to establish whether the crime took place on tribal lands and whether the perpetrator was Native or non-Native before prosecuting, meaning that critical time is lost. This leads to inadequate investigations or a failure to respond.

The provisons of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 will remedy this maze as it will enhance the criminal justice system by improving coordination and communication between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies as well provide beginning steps to empower tribal governments to take more direct action in cases of violent crime. In time it will decrease the high levels of rape and finally provide Native women with effective recourse if they are sexually assaulted. This is a major victory for Native women as it is a critical step toward ensuring that Native women’s human rights are recognized.

Our deepest respect, appreciation and congratulations to all of our members and activists, tribal leaders and Native advocates, friends, family and colleagues – without you this incredible victory would not have been possible.

Atenco: Getting Closer…But We Still Need Justice!

After over four years of detention based on unjust convictions, twelve Mexican activists were ordered released last week following a ruling by Mexico’s Supreme Court that admitted that the activists had never been granted a fair trial.  They had been arrested for allegedly kidnapping police officers during protests in San Salvador Atenco in May 2006 during which police officers violently abused both men and women for their activism.  While it is wonderful that Mexico’s judiciary has freed these twelve activists, much more still needs to be done for justice to be served in the events surrounding the Atenco protests.

“This welcome move by the Supreme Court shows that state prosecutors and judges in Mexico State relied on the denial of due process as well as illegal and fabricated evidence to secure the conviction and imprisonment of the accused,” said Rupert Knox, Amnesty International’s Mexico researcher.

Simply releasing the activists is not enough: Mexican authorities need to take their actions a step further and end impunity in their country by prosecuting the officers responsible for committing crimes against protestors in May 2006 along with those who misused the justice system to secure convictions of the twelve protestors.

One of Amnesty International USA’s Special Focus cases is centered around the female victims of police abuse during the Atenco protests (see the Women of Atenco case page).  Federal authorities actually conducted an investigation that resulted in a list of 34 names of police officers who were suspected of being responsible for the sexual assault and torture of the women in the aftermath of the protests, but more than four years after the events, neither these officers, nor any of the senior officials who failed to stop or prevent the abuses, have been held accountable.

Hopefully, the release of the twelve activists is just the beginning of the government’s acceptance of responsibility for the case, and the beginning of the end for the impunity that has pervaded Mexico’s justice system.  Amnesty International will continue to pressure the federal government of Mexico to protect the human rights of its citizens, and this necessarily includes that Mexico ends impunity for police officers.

Write-a-thon Series: The Women of Atenco

This posting is part of our Write-a-Thon Cases Series. For more information visit www.amnestyusa.org/writeathon/

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You’ve read before on this blog about the women of Atenco, who were arrested without explanation during a police operation in response to protests by a local peasant organization in San Salvador Atenco, in Mexico State. Dozens of them were subjected to physical, psychological and sexual violence by the police officers who arrested them.

In the case of one of the women, Bárbara Italia Méndez, police officers pulled her hair, beat her, and forced her into a state police vehicle with her shirt pulled over her head. She was made to lie on top of other detainees, and during the journey to the prison, police officers sexually assaulted her repeatedly.

 

More than three years later, these brave survivors are still waiting for justice. None of the officials responsible for their abuse have been held accountable. One of the women was able to identify her attacker, and he was tried on the watered-down charge of “libidinous acts” and sentenced to time served plus a small fine. He appealed the ruling, and was acquitted, thus avoiding even that weak punishment.

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Fighting Back Against Sexual Assaults in Western Sahara

Hayat Erguibi. Photo courtesy of the Sahrawi Organization of Human Rights Defenders

Hayat Erguibi. Photo courtesy of the Sahrawi Organization of Human Rights Defenders

Many young women in Western Sahara are believed to have suffered sexual assaults and other abuses at the hands of Moroccan occupying forces and police, but Hayat Erguibi is different.  She refused to remain silent.

Given the stigmatism of rape or molestation within the conservative Islamic culture of the Western Saharans or Sahrawis, such humiliation at the hands of foreign occupiers prevents victims from stepping forward. It has also been charged that women are threatened by Moroccan forces if they dare to speak out.

Erguibi so dared.  On Feb. 24, she went to a local human rights organization a statement detailing accusations against Moroccan police of detaining, intimidating and sexually violating her on Feb. 22.   A Norwegian NGO later confirmed the story.

The Moroccan government, responding to the claim, fiercely denied the accusations to Reuters several days later.

But Erguibi didn’t stop there. She has allowed local Western Saharan rights groups to disseminate her photo and a video of her testimony was recently posted (with Spanish subtitles). In her testimony, she recalled that Moroccan police threatened to kill her if she publicized her attack.

Amnesty USA has long been concerned about Moroccan abuses in the part of Western Sahara under its control. Amnesty’s position with respect to the Western Saharan territorial dispute between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front is neutral.