Remembering 9/11

On September 11th, 2001, my wife and son were in Logan Airport waiting to board a flight to New York. I was almost 4,000 miles away working in Mostar, Bosnia.

At the time I was a war crimes investigator working for the United Nations and I was in Mostar to take a statement from a former Bosnian Prisoner of War who had been tortured by his captors.

When we finished for the day I went next door to a small café and my eye was drawn to the television in the corner, which was running footage of emergency crews responding to some kind of major disaster.

It took a few minutes for the full story of what had happened in New York to unfold and, as it did so, my blood ran cold.


Using Border Agents as Translators Has Tragic Consequences

Border Patrol Agent

© Getty Images

Guest post by Erica Schommer, border immigration attorney

This May, in a police stop gone wrong, Benjamin Roldan Salinas and a companion were detained by the U.S. Forest Service for picking salal (a plant used in floral arrangements), without a license.

Because Salinas did not speak English, the Forest Service called in Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to translate. Events escalated rapidly when Salinas, in fear of being apprehended by immigration agents, ran from the agents to a nearby river.

After days of searching, Salinas’ body was found near the river on June 4. His companion remained with agents, but was subsequently arrested by the CBP for a suspected immigration violation and placed in removal proceedings.

Salinas’ fear was due to a phenomenon in which the CBP is called on by outside law enforcement agencies under the guise of translator. Once on the scene, however, the CBP does not limit itself to translating and will question a person about potential immigration violations if it suspects the person of an infraction. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Investigate War Crimes In Sri Lanka!

This week marks the second anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, between government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  The Tigers were seeking an independent state for the Tamil minority on the island.  As documented by Amnesty International and a recent U.N. panel report, there are credible reports that both sides committed gross abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law, including war crimes.  Yet no one has been held accountable for these crimes.

We know that the Sri Lankan government won’t effectively investigate these abuses.

So Amnesty International has been campaigning for an international war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka.  On March 15, we took to the streets in Chicago to demand justice in Sri Lanka.  In New York City, Amnesty International activists gathered outside the Sri Lankan Mission to the U.N. on April 8 as part of “Get on the Bus – New York.”  On April 15, we demonstrated outside the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington as part of “Get on the Bus – DC.”  More recently, as shown in the photos above, Amnesty members in other parts of the U.S. have joined in calling on the U.N. to hold an international investigation on war crimes in Sri Lanka.

It would be a great help if we can get the U.S. government to publicly support our call for an international war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka.  Please write the U.S. government today, so that the victims and their families can finally receive truth and justice.

Montana Senate Votes to Abolish Death Penalty

By a 26-24 vote, the Montana Senate yesterday voted to repeal the death penalty.   Twenty-two Democrats and 4 Republicans voted for the measure (SB 185), which now goes to the House.   This is the second straight legislative session in which the Montana Senate has endorsed repeal. 

This year, an abolition bill has already passed in Illinois, where it awaits action from the Governor.  And other repeal bills have been filed in states across the country, from Maryland to Connecticut to Kansas to Washington.

Abolition has become more appealing to state legislators in recent years as they have become more aware of capital punishment’s exorbitant financial cost, the dangers of executing the innocent, and the grueling toll the death penalty process takes on victim families.

The Great Experiment?

In a recent report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  the US touted its human rights record and argued that:

The American experiment is a human experiment; the values on which it is based, including a commitment to human rights are clearly engrained in our own national conscience…

Yet US commitment to the death penalty, which only a shrinking minority of other nations still supports, belies these grandiose words.  A commitment to executions fundamentally conflicts with a commitment to human rights.

There have been around a thousand executions since former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously declared that “the death penalty experiment has failed,” arguing succinctly that “…the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.”

A new short Amnesty International document illustrates just how pervasive these errors are, drawing just on cases from this month.  In Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and Washington state we have seen executions scheduled, and sometimes carried out, despite blatantly atrocious lawyering, clear racial bias, and defendants whose diminished capacity should have made them ineligible for the death penalty.  These cases show that our capital punishment system continues to be “little more than a lottery, with outcomes affected by issues such as prosecutorial resources, electoral politics, race, defence representation, jury composition, and so on.”

And just yesterday we saw an inmate, Brandon Rhode, rescheduled for execution three days after his life was saved following a suicide attempt.  The cruelty and absurdity, and completely arbitrary nature of American capital punishment has been on full display this month.  If the US wants its “commitment to human rights” to be taken seriously, it will have to give up its experiment with the death penalty.

(Trying Not to) Remember Tiananmen

© 1989 Hei Han Khiang

© 1989 Hei Han Khiang

It seems Chinese authorities were busy today. While people around the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of the pro-democracy demonstrations and ensuing massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, police reportedly swarmed into the sqaure, in order to nip any potential protest in the bud. Numerous websites were blocked, including Twitter, Hotmail, and Flickr, along with many Chinese blogs and other sites. A former Tiananmen protester was sent on a government-sponsored “vacation” to keep him from carrying out a hunger strike.

Although the Chinese government seems to be doing all it can to help people forget about the people who died in the massacre, that didn’t stop 150,000 people from attending a vigil in Hong Kong, and it didn’t stop supporters in Washington, DC, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, from speaking out about human rights in China.

Regardless of what one thinks of the demands the protesters were making 20 years ago today, no one can deny that there was a massacre, and nothing can justify killing peaceful protesters. The country may have come a long way economically since 1989, but China’s human rights record still leaves a lot to be desired.

Who Wants To Know?

Yesterday, the Seattle Times reported that Washington State’s execution team resigned, out of concern that their identities might be revealed during the course of a pending lawsuit over that state’s execution protocol.  This follows the resignation at the end of last year of the chief physician for Washington’s Department of Corrections, who quit out of concern that participation of his staff in executions would be unethical.

In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s Baze decision, which found lethal injection to be constitutional (not cruel and unusual punishment) as long as it is properly administered, lawsuits and investigations have focused on how, in fact, executions are carried out.  Inevitably, this focuses a spotlight on the men and women drawn in by our capital punishment system to actively participate in the killing of prisoners.  Efforts to shield the identities of these people, under the specious argument that their physical safety might be compromised if their names were revealed, have met strong resistance from those who believe that in a democracy we have a fundamental right to know who is carrying out policies in our name, particularly policies as profound as taking the lives of those on death row.

In Washington, a spokesman for the Attorney General said, absurdly:  “We believe the court can confirm the constitutionality of the lethal-injection procedure without knowing the qualifications, training and experience of each of the lethal-injection team members.” (emphasis mine)

Really? How?  How can any court assess an execution procedure without looking at the “qualifications, training and experience” of those carrying it out?  What if, shielded from the courts and the public, the state of Washington were to appoint a team of roller-skating lemurs to administer lethal injections; how could a court assess that protocol’s constitutionality, without knowing about the lemurs?

The fact it, as the death penalty becomes more and more unpopular, efforts to hide its ugly realities from the public are only going to increase.  All the more reason for us, as citizens in a democracy, to demand the full truth about executions carried out in our name.

Washington Execution Stayed

Two separate courts (a County Superior court and a Federal District court) have issued stays of execution for Darold Stenson, who was scheduled to be put to death by the state of Washington on December 3.   According to media reports, these stays will be appealed by state and county officials who are still hopeful that the execution can take place.

The Federal court’s decision was based on a lethal injection challenge, while the County court has ordered new DNA testing which might shed light on Stenson’s claims that he is innocent.  The question of the utter arbitrariness of the death penalty in Washington, which I wrote about on Monday, remains unaddressed.

No Rational Explanation

Washington State flag

Washington State flag

The death penalty isn’t as popular out West as it is down South. For example, there hasn’t been an execution in Washington since 2001, and there have been only four total in the 30+ years since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Not that there are never any serious crimes in The Evergreen State.  Gary Ridgway was convicted of 48 murders … but he avoided the death penalty.  This has led many to recognize that capital punishment in Washington is extremely arbitrary, which in turn led to an important Washington Supreme Court decision in 2006.  Four Washington Supreme Court judges said that “No rational explanation exists to explain why some individuals escape the penalty of death and others do not.”  The other five Supreme Court judges said that the question of “whether the death penalty can, in fairness, be proportional” was an important one that the state’s Legislature was in the best place to answer.  So far this important question has yet to be adequately addressed.

Which brings us to Darold Stenson, who is scheduled to be executed on December 3 (really one minute after midnight on December 2).  The crime he was convicted of, two murders, was certainly terrible (although he is refusing to petition for clemency and continues to try to get more DNA testing to challenge his conviction).  But as long as the capital punishment remains as arbitrary as it is in Washington, Governor Gregoire should not allow executions in her state to proceed.