A presidential pardon would not preclude accountability

The worth of a law is in its enforcement; if a law is not enforced, then it has no more value than a platitude, aspiration, or preference.  Because of this reason, one of AIUSA’s CTWJ campaign goals 100 days goals for the new administration is “accountability.”  Or in other words, AIUSA will demand that the government account for illegal or wrongful conduct of its employees or agents in the “war on terror.”

At first glace, a general presidential pardon (which seems likely in some form) threatens the accountability process.  But as I explain below, a pardon will likely only have a limited affect upon accountability.

As a general matter, a pardon precludes the US from prosecuting someone for criminal acts covered by the pardon.  However, accountability comes in many forms, not the least of which is a process resembling a truth commission.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa


Congress has authority to summon witnesses to testify in hearings and a pardon does not limit this congressional power.  First, witnesses will have few, if any, 5th amendment rights protecting them from self-incrimination if those witnesses previously received a pardon.  If a witness has immunity, then there is no legal justification for that person to invoke the 5th amendment.  Second, a pardon does not protect a person from prosecution for future crimes.  If a person subject to a pardon refuses to testify, then congress can institute contempt proceedings against that individual.

There is also a question whether a pardon really protects US citizens from criminal liability.  Genocide, torture, or other violations of the law of are grave breaches of international law.  Grave breaches of international law trigger a doctrine called “universal jurisdiction,” meaning a person may be prosecuted by any country that obtains control over the person to be tried.  So, a person subject to a pardon for grave breaches of international law may be immune from prosecution in the US but remain subject to prosecution in any other country.  And if a person has received a presidential pardon but is detained overseas, then that county cannot extradite the American citizen back to the US for prosecution because the US will be precluded from trying the individual in American courts due to the broad application of the pardon.

So while a presidential pardon may create procedural or legal challenges to the accountability process, a pardon will not derail the accountability process.

3 Steps for President Obama

© AP Graphics Bank

© AP Graphics Bank

Please be sure to take our new “100 Days Action,” urging President-elect Obama to take three essential steps in the first 100 days of his term to close Guantanamo, eradicate torture and end impunity for human rights abuses:

> Announce a plan and date to close Guantanamo;

>Issue an executive order to ban torture and other ill-treatment, as defined under international law;

>Ensure that an independent commission to investigate abuses committed by the U.S. government in its “war on terror” is set up.

These three steps are part of a “checklist” of actions Amnesty International is asking the new U.S. President to take during the first 100 days in office.

We have to keep the pressure on, no matter who’s in power!

A Success Story on a Small Island

Jennifer with her Amnesty action

Jennifer with her Amnesty action

In the middle of all the interest in the American election, there was an election halfway around the world last week that got me thinking about a brave young woman from the Maldives named Jennifer Latheef.

I met her at an Amnesty meeting two years ago where she spoke at a panel of former prisoners of conscience.  I didn’t know where the Maldives were or anything about the islands, other than they are a popular resort for celeb weddings.  (I’m sure I’m not alone — here’s the google map link.)

It was one of those meetings that Amnesty International makes possible that can change a volunteer’s outlook on life.  Jennifer’s story was that behind the facade of a resort island, the Maldives is run by a dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who stands by passively as many on the island become addicted to drugs.  Political opposition is treated as a crime.  Her father was jailed, and so was she.  (She was convicted on terrorism charges in 2005 after she participated in a peaceful street demonstration and sentenced to 10 years in jail.) Amnesty International USA adopted her as a special focus case, and she was released in 2007.  She particularly credited Amnesty’s work in her release. (Read about her case in Amnesty magazine here.)

Once released, she continued her work to bring human rights to the Maldives.  Anyone who met her at the Amnesty conference understood that given her bravery and determination, the threat of jail wouldn’t deter her.  And now, the news brings a surprise that indicates that her work has borne fruit.

In late October, a coalition of opposition groups defeated the ruling party and threw Gayoom out of power for the first time in three decades. The Maldives being so small, the news received the scantiest of mentions in even the largest of the newspapers.  However, we are so used to dictators using any methods to remain in power that we may forget to celebrate when human rights and democracy activists such as Jennifer actually achieve that result peacefully.  But celebrate we should.

And we should remember one value of Amnesty International is that it reminds us that human rights are important even halfway around the world and on the smallest of islands with the smallest of populations — even if many of us can’t find it on the map.

Voting Rights Equals Human Rights

Last night’s record voter turnout and victory for Senator Barack Obama are a powerful demonstration to me that the American people are passionate about hope for the future and are willing to work to bring about the change they desire. It was inspiring to witness so many people turn out to exercise one of the most fundamental human rights.

This historic election also reaffirms my belief in the strength and effectiveness of grassroots organizing and the power to build a decentralized movement for change. That is the model on which Amnesty International was founded, and still forms the core of our life-saving human rights work.

Now, as we move forward and begin to work on the challenges ahead, we can do so with fresh affirmation that when committed individuals stand together and work toward a common goal, fundamental change is possible.

As human rights activists, we have new opportunities to press the United States government to abandon existing policies and practices that led to violations of rights at home and abroad, as well as a decline in U.S. reputation.

I encourage President-elect Obama to put human rights at the heart of the new administration, and I encourage all of you to keep fighting for human rights–for everyone, everywhere.

Posted in USA

Get Ready to Close Gitmo and Stop Torture

President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act, October 17, 2006.

President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act, October 17, 2006.

As soon as the next president of the United States is elected, we’ll go live with an action calling on him to take immediate steps in the first 100 days of his term to close Guantanamo, eradicate torture and ill-treatment, and end impunity for human rights abuses.

Stay tuned and be ready to take action. We’ll need you to send emails and write letters to the president-elect.  Check back here or go to www.amnestyusa.org/100days

Need inspiration? Check out The Video the CIA Doesn\’t Want You to See

Want to take action now? Help the Uighurs