An Open Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry: Know Before You Go

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

Newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry arrives in the UK at Stansted Airport on February 24, 2013 in Stansted, England. Kerry is embarking on his first foreign trip as Secretary of State with stops planned in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar before returning to Washington on March 6th. (Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images)

Dear Mr. Secretary:

I know you have a lot on your plate as you begin your first trip overseas as Secretary of StateYou’ll be visiting America’s allies in Europe and the Middle East, by my count nine countries in eleven days. According to press reports, the on-going conflict in Syria is going to be at the top of your agenda, which is as it should be. The latest estimates by the United Nations indicate that at least 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since unrest beganHuman rights violations there have been appalling and wide-spread.

While you continue your important work on Syria, however, I hope that you can spare some time for the on-going human rights violations elsewhere in the Middle East.  Sadly, many of these violations are undertaken by America’s allies in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.


Indefinite Detention: 3 Conservative Voices of Reason

The House and Senate are locked in conference this week to thrash out the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2012. It’s a curious sign of the times that there are many conservative voices crying foul over the bill as well as progressive ones. Three in particular are worth noting.

Senator Rand Paul, cast one of the bravest votes last week against a bipartisan group that voted for the NDAA, one of the worst bills to cross the floor this year. It threatens to detain suspects indefinitely, undercuts the rights of US citizens, and sideline our best tools in countering terrorism in one fell swoop.

I don’t doubt the sincerity or passion of those on the opposing side, only their wisdom and their open ended faith in government. Those who place their blind faith and trust in government, and trust that authority will keep itself in check, are liable to find their liberties are eroded as surely as termites eat away an old wooden house.


Justice Is Exception Not Rule in India

Biliqis Yakoob Rasool

During the large scale violence in Gujarat, India in 2002, Biliqis Yakoob Rasool was gang-raped and saw her entire family, including her daugher, killed in front of her.

A recent report by the New Delhi-based organization, the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), documents India’s the sordid record when it comes to custodial and extrajudicial deaths. They report that since 2001, 14,231 people died in police or judicial custody in India. Some of the cases may not be due to misconduct, but according to the ACHR, “a large majority of these deaths are a direct consequence of torture in custody.”

Amnesty International has been demanding a thorough investigation into 31 unlawful killings by police in the state of Gujarat during 2002-2006. This is not to mention coming to grips with the massacres of minorities in the state that left hundreds dead.


Stop the Ayotte Amendment and Support Fair Trials

Update: We did it — thanks to your calls, the Senate successfully defeated Senator Ayotte’s amendment to ban fair trials for terror suspects! But the fight isn’t over. Please continue to help fight against other legislation that would keep Guantanamo open.

Sentor Kelly Ayotte R-NH ©Alex Wong/Getty Images

A new and dangerous amendment has been put on the appropriations omnibus bill on the Senate floor today — and now’s the time to pick up the phone and urge your Senators to vote no. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) has introduced an amendment to H.R. 2112 that would bar all federal trials for foreign terrorist suspects and goes further than any previous attempt to undermine the fight against terrorism.


Taliban Send 8-Year Old Girl To Her Death

While targeting civilians in Kabul, the Taliban allegedly tricked an eight-year old girl into carrying a package containing a remote-control detonated bomb.

Only the girl was killed in the blast, which occurred Sunday morning in the village of Uwshi in the Char Chino District, said Fazal Ahmad Shirzad, the police chief of Oruzgan Province.

The scene after a Taliban suicide bombing in Pakistan in May, 2011 © Hasham Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Shirzad said he believed the girl was unaware that the bag she had been given by Taliban insurgents held a bomb. Her body was “taken to a nearby security check post, and the police called her relatives,” he said.

As I write this I think of my two daughters and wonder what kind of people would find that acceptable?


Georgia: Execution Info Could Inspire Terroristic Acts

The nexus between human rights violations and government secrecy is well-known. The abuse of human beings thrives where there is no oversight or accountability. And the promiscuous use of words like “national security” or “terrorism” to justify secrecy is also well documented.

So maybe it’s no surprise that the state of Georgia, in refusing to turn over mundane information on its lethal injection procedures, has made the outlandish claim that such disclosure could “compromise security against sabotage, criminal or terroristic acts.”  A few months back, a similarly absurd claim was made in Texas, but thankfully, and to his credit, this nonsense was overruled by the Texas Attorney General. Georgia’s ridiculous position here should also be overruled.

Other states and countries have also tried to conceal execution information, but for a democracy to function, citizens have to be able to keep track of what their government is up to. It should go without saying that, of all things, the state’s killing of prisoners must be subject to public scrutiny.

Emanuel Hammond is scheduled for execution on January 25, and his lawyers have been trying, since November, to get information about the drugs that will be used to put him to death. The state’s refusal to comply, and its over-the-top reason for refusing, is an insult to the public’s right to know what is being done in their name.

Miscarriage of Justice

For continuous updates on human rights in South Asia, follow acharya_dude on twitter.

Binayak Sen being led to court in Chhattisgarh

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks so I’ve not been able to join the condemnation (until now) of the flawed conviction in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh of Dr. Binayak Sen, a pediatrician and human rights activist, of terrorism charges.  His conviction, if upheld on appeal, will mean a life sentence for a man who has passionately defended the rights of indigenous peoples in his state and has saved the lives of countless children in his medical practice.

Dr. Sen is a recognized human rights activist who has done some amazing work on behalf of the organization called the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL).  The PUCL is very much analogous to the ACLU or Amnesty International USA here in the United States and his arrest, imprisonment and now conviction is akin to one of us here in America being arrested for human rights or civil liberties work.  He was convicted of “sedition” and conspiracy under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act, 2005, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004.  After being convicted, Dr. Sen was taken into custody and is now considered a Prisoner of Conscience.


Kenyan Human Rights Defender Arrested in Wake of Kampala Attack

A police post in Kampala, Uganda(c) Amnesty International

As the world was watching every dribble, pass, and shot of the World Cup final match, a bomb exploded in Kampala, Uganda killing 76 people. Now, Uganda is making matters worse by arbitrarily arresting and detaining Al-Amin Kimanthi, the head of the Muslim Human Rights Forum (MHRF) in Kenya.  Kimanthi was arrested on September 15 as he flew to Uganda to observe the trial of six other Kenyans on trial for the bombing. He was charged with terrorism and murder six days later.

Uganda and Kenya both have not followed international standards nor human rights law in their handling of Kimanthi’s case.  Beginning with his arbitrary arrest and six day detention without being charged, Kimanthi’s charge sheet has no evidence linking him to the bomb attack. Furthermore, Kenya has ignored his right to habeas corpus in his incognito transfer to Uganda.  Both Kenya and Uganda have failed to respect extradition procedures which require reciprocal warrants of arrests in both countries and judicial hearings.

It seems as though Kimanthi was arbitrarily arrested for carrying out his legitimate human rights work – providing legal support to the suspects charged in connection with the bomb attack.

Amnesty is calling on the Ugandan government to release Kimanthi or specify the charges against him. The perpetrators of the July, 2010 bombing in Kampala must be brought to justice, but this must not come at the expense of international human rights law and standards.

US Media: American Waterboarding Good, Foreign Waterboarding Bad

According to a new study from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, since the beginning of the “war on terror,” and especially since the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the nation’s four widest circulated newspapers, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, have had a “significant and sudden shift in how [they have] characterized waterboarding.”

The study shows very interesting findings regarding the characterization of waterboarding in a number of articles over the last 70 years. From the 1930s and until 2002-2004, the Media that covered waterboarding considered it torture, or at least implied that it was torture. However, after it was clear that the U.S. was using this interrogation technique, those newspapers stopped referring, in most of the cases, to it as a form of torture.

Instead, they started giving it a “softer and less negative” connotation using words like “harsh,” “coercive” and “controversial.” For example, while the New York Times, between 1931 and 1999, considered waterboarding as torture in 81.5% of the articles that mentioned the practice, between 2002 and 2008, waterboarding was only considered as torture in 1.4% of the cases. The percentages of articles in the LA Times reflect almost the same pattern.

But ironically, when waterboarding was used in a country other than the United States, the newspapers under the study indeed referred to it as torture.

The study concludes that the change in waterboarding’s characterization is not due to the Media’s efforts “to remain neutral in the debate going on in the U.S.,” as some suggest. Rather, since waterboarding has always been considered as torture under American and international law, “the newspaper’s equivocation on waterboarding can hardly be termed neutral.”

Join our call for a full investigation into the US government’s use of torture.

When Will the Horror End?

When I returned home this evening, I saw the gruesome pictures showing yet more innocent people killed while preparing to worship in Lahore, Pakistan.  The Data Ganj Baksh is one of the most prominent mosques in Pakistan’s second largest city.  As a human rights activist, these attacks on innocent civilians provoke the most outrage.  Given that it comes just days after the last despicable terrorist attack in Lahore, I’m left asking, when will the horror end?  Raza Rumi, a prominent writer on Sufism says it better than I can:

This is a barbaric attack and should serve as a wake up call. Data Saheb’s shrine is not just another crowded place – it represents a millenia of tolerant Sufi Islam which is directly under attack by the puritans.Last year, there were threats and the government had closed the place for a day or two. This time the worst of nightmares has come true.

And when I hear, as was the case in this terrorist attack “the bombers used devices packed with ball-bearings to maximise the impact of their attack” you cannot help but be angry about this attack and to grieve for the families whose lives were snuffed out for no reason.  Let’s not spend justify it by blaming “outside forces”, let’s find the perpetrators.  We must stand shoulder to shoulder with the victims and their families in seeking justice for this heinous act.