20-year sentence for Sri Lankan journalist

I was shocked this morning when I heard the news that J.S. Tissainayagam, the detained Sri Lankan journalist, was sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment by the Sri Lankan High Court.  Tissainayagam has been detained for the last 18 months and was tried under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act for writing two magazine articles in 2006 critical of the government’s conduct of the war against the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Amnesty International considers Tissainayagam to be a prisoner of conscience, detained and prosecuted solely for his legitimate work as a journalist, and has been calling for his immediate, unconditional release.

Tissainayagam was one of the journalists singled out for praise by President Obama this past May in his statement in honor of World Press Freedom Day.

Organizations working in defense of press freedom reacted strongly to today’s sentence.  The International Federation of Journalists condemned the sentence, calling it “brutal and inhumane.”  The Committee to Protect Journalists announced today that it will honor Tissainayagam with a 2009 International Press Freedom Award.  The group Reporters Without Borders said it was “appalled” by the “shameful” sentence; the group also announced today that Tissainayagam had been selected as the first winner of the newly created Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism.

Please write to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and ask that J.S. Tissainayagam be released immediately and unconditionally. Thanks for any help you can give.

A Medicare-like Public Plan For All: Still Crucial

Over the weekend, the Obama administration may have weakened its support for a “public option” as one part of the health care package emerging from Washington.

On Sunday, Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius told CNN that a public option is not “essential”, a day after President Obama, at a town hall meeting in Colorado, said that a public option is “just one sliver” of reform. Major media outlets wrote up what they saw as a shift in position: “Key Feature Of Obama Health Plan May Be Out”, blared the Washington Post; “‘Public Option’ in Health Plan May Be Dropped”, said the New York Times. But some commentators, like liberal bloggers Jonathan Cohn and Ezra Klein, voiced doubts that this represented a substantive change in administration policy.

Whether or not the Obama camp has changed positions, the real Washington action on health care right now isn’t at the White House — it’s further down Pennsylvania Avenue, at the Capitol. With House staffers now reconciling the three versions of its bill, the key battleground is the Senate. The Senate Finance Committee remains locked in negotiations on its version of the mainstream health care package, and now says it will pass its bill by September 15; merging that piece of legislation with the very different Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill will be a contentious process.

And no matter what way the winds of political calculation are currently blowing in Washington, the human rights position hasn’t changed. A Medicare-like public plan for all remains crucial for realizing the human right to health care in the the United States. Health care is a public good, not a commodity. Public financing and administration is the best vehicle for care that’s truly accessible and accountable. Setting up a new Medicare-like public plan in the current round of reform is a key aim for human right to health care advocates.

Senators Baucus, Dodd and Reid — the Finance chair, the HELP vice chair, and the Senate majority leader — need to support a public plan. Urge them to do that today!

Welcome Back Laura Ling and Euna Lee!

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two US journalists who had been held by North Korean officials since March on charges that they had entered the country illegally to document human rights conditions, were released by the North Korean government subsequent to a visit by former President Bill Clinton and released. The world witnessed an emotional and long-awaited reunion early this morning on the runway of Burbank airport in Los Angeles as the two journalists returned home to their families. After being in prison for 140 days, Laura Ling embraced her husband Iain Clayton tightly as Euna Lee reunited in tears with her husband Michael Saldage and her 4-year-old daughter, Hanna. For a video of the reunion, click here.

As our several previous posts have explained, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested while filming footage on North Korean refugees for California-based TV media venture Current TV. They were later found guilty of illegally entering the country and sentenced to a 12-year sentence of hard labor, consisting of 10 years for “hostile acts” as well as an additional 2 years for illegal entry.

It is clear that the North Korean government requested the visit from former President Clinton, though the details of their agreements have yet to be revealed. According to BBC news, former President Clinton plans to brief President Obama’s National Security team on the visit. President Obama allegedly praised Clinton for his “extraordinary humanitarian effort” in the case of these journalists. After the reunion with their families on the runway, the two journalists spoke briefly to the press about their experience. Laura Ling tenderly shared, “The past 140 days have been the most difficult and heart-wrenching times of our lives.” They also expressed ‘surprise’ at the release. For a video of this, click here. Thanks to everyone who took action on their behalf!

Obama Embracing Bush Legacy

The Obama administration is reportedly close to finalizing the outlines of a new preventative detention regime likely to be crafted along the lines proposed by Matthew Waxman in a paper released last week by the Brookings Institute.

Waxman’s paper tries to reconcile the supposed need for some form of administrative detention without trial with the Supreme Court’s Boumediene v Bush decision affirming the habeas rights of Guantanamo detainees and he proposes introducing legislation to create a new category of administrative detention subject to periodic judicial review.

An increasingly familiar pattern is once again being repeated. The administration ‘discovers’ that the issues it is facing are tougher than it had anticipated, sees some merit in the approach adopted by the Bush administration, promises to make some minor adjustments to preexisting conditions, and finally undertakes to implement this revised policy with a sensitivity the previous administration lacked.

However, such changes amount to little more than putting lipstick on a pig. Closing Guantanamo was always going to require taking some unpopular and morally courageous decisions but the President who declared in his inaugural address that he rejected the false choice between our safety and our ideals has sadly gone AWOL.

To codify administrative detention would be to perpetuate a system that has to date incarcerated more innocent people than it has men of violence on the basis of half-truths and innuendo.

The ordered release last week of Syrian-born detainee Abd Al Rahim Abdul Rassak al Janko provided further proof of the flimsy grounds on which many of the detainees at Guantanamo have and continue to be held.

Al Janko freely admitted staying for five days at a guest house run by Al Qaeda in 2000 and for a further 18 days at an Al Qaeda-run camp as a refugee making his way towards Europe. However, Al Qaeda militants suspected Al Janko of being a US spy and he was detained for three months and tortured until he admitted to these charges.

Al Janko was then handed over to the Taliban and imprisoned for a further 18 months. Having nowhere else to go, he remained behind in the prison after it was abandoned by the Taliban and was discovered there by US forces when they occupied Kandahar in the fall of 2001.

US soldiers also found a video which showed Al Janko being tortured by members of Al Qaeda. In true Kafkaesque style the video has been used by government lawyers as proof of his association with the group.

The Al Janko case demonstrates that arguments that the Obama administration will do a better job of separating the wheat from the chaff than their predecessors hold little water. In his scathing dismissal of the case, District Court Judge Richard Leon described administration lawyers as “taking a position that defies common sense” and it should be noted that this administration has fought Al Janko’s release tenaciously through the courts despite its manifest flaws.

We should not ignore the fact that it took a real court to make an effective determination about Al Janko’s status, and that this administration flunked that same test. Creating a legal framework for indefinite detention is a profound mistake. Since 1783 there has only been one standard in the United States for incarceration and that is conviction in a court of law.

Twice before in our history this standard has been ignored in times of crisis – during the Civil War and during World War II. The suspension of habeas corpus and the internment of Japanese Americans left a lasting stain on two of America’s most successful presidencies. The detention regime created at Guantanamo by President Bush added a third to a rather less illustrious presidency.

It is not too late to prevent the Obama administration repeating this mistake. Amnesty International USA has launched an online action campaign to petition President Obama to reconsider. We need your help to prompt a change of direction before fear mongering once again overcomes the angels of our better nature. Please visit our site today and add your voice to the thousands already raised in protest.

Israel Offers a Temporary Settlement Freeze

Israeli senior officials yesterday said that Israel is open to a 3-6 month complete settlement freeze (including natural growth) in order to allow for Palestinian negotiations to take place. Officials asked they not be named, as the issue is so “explosive” within Israel that they do not wish to be associated with the idea yet.

Despite the officials’ claims, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who meets with US envoy George Mitchell this week, has shied away from the subject, saying “the matter mentioned in the headlines has not been finalized.”

This freeze, however, would allow for existing settlement construction to continue. Currently, over 2000 new buildings are under construction across the Palestinian West Bank.  While not meeting US calls for a complete freeze, a brief halt to new settlements is indicative of the Israeli desire to move on from the current tension between the two countries.

Settlements are illegal under International Law. Last month, President Obama and Secretary Clinton made vocal requests for Israel to completely end its creation of new settlements in the West Bank.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

U.S. must stand firm on settlement freeze when meeting with Quartet in Trieste

The Middle East Quartet are set to meet this Friday, June 26, in Trieste, Italy.  The meeting comes at a critical time with hopes of re-starting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  President Obama has repeatedly stated his position that the Jewish only settlements in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem are ‘illegitimate’ to the chagrin of Israeli officials use to a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ policy where they do what they want concerning settlement activities while the U.S. looks the other way.  This tacit behavior was the norm during past administrations.  The U.S. position on the illegitimacy of settlements is in line with international law and international consensus which has long viewed settlements as illegal.  Israeli authorities, including Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly stated their intentions to continue what they call ‘natural growth’ building.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Trieste soon and AIUSA has sent a letter to her and cc’d Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell  urging her to stand firm in the U.S. position on a complete settlement freeze and also containing a few more pressing concerns that we hope Sec’y Clinton remembers in discussions with other members of the Quartet (the EU, the UN and Russia).

The letter to Clinton not only re-iterates the illegality of the Jewish-only settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but outlines the effect that settlements have had and are having on the local Palestinians living there.  Not only have settlements negatively impacted the Palestinians’ standard of living, housing, education, health and work, but are inherently discriminatory in nature.  Settlements, land surrounding settlements and by-pass roads built for easy commutes to Israel are exclusively for Israelis.  Not only is water accessed in the OPT being re-directed to settlers and Israel at a 4:1 ratio, security measures taken by Israel, including over 600 roadblocks, checkpoints and the wall/fence much of which is being built on Palestinian territory have long been detrimental to any peace negotiations.

AIUSA believes previous attempts at resolving the conflict failed in part because they did not address these key issues.  And actions must include more than just dismantling recently established settlements, referred to as “unauthorized outposts”.  Israel should never have transferred its civilian population into the OPT and given that successive Israeli governments have consistently encouraged Israeli civilians to move to the OPT, Israeli authorities should now provide compensation for settler evacuations and assist them to re-settle.  A study conducted by Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) in 2003 found that the majority of Israelis living in settlements would re-locate if offered an adequate economic incentive.

The letter also addresses our continuing concerns about human rights violations in areas under Palestinian Authority control despite training provided under the leadership of Lt. General Keith Dayton, U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Arbitrary detentions, disregard for due process and ill-treatment and torture of detainees in PA detention centers continue to be reported.

We asked that these issues be raised and that U.S. training of PA security forces results in a professional force that respects human rights while providing security.

UPDATE 6/26/09:  Ha’aretz, an Israeli daily, published ‘Quartet to urge Israel:  Freeze all settlement activity’.  A European diplomat said that the Quartet would tell Israel Friday to put a freeze on all settlement activity, including “natural growth”.

Obama, the Federal Death Penalty, and Race

The death penalty is a difficult issue for just about any politician.  Most prefer to avoid it as much as possible.  But the time may soon come when President Obama will have to take a stand on this question.  In a recent article on Politico.com, Josh Gerstein outlines the challenges that President Obama may face in the near future regarding the federal death penalty, as several cases inch a little closer to crossing his desk. Obama has previously stated that he supports the death penalty in cases that involve “heinous” crimes, but has not made it clear exactly where he draws the lines between which crimes are heinous and which are not. Attorney General Eric Holder has likewise given few clues about his specific stance on this issue. He has stated that he personally opposes capital punishment, but he has also authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in four cases since he has taken office. 

Compared to some states, the federal death penalty has been used relatively sparingly, and executions at the federal level have been halted for several years due to challenges to the constitutionality of lethal injection. In April, 2008 the Court ruled that lethal injection is constitutional, clearing the way for some pending executions to go forward. There are several cases making their way through the federal appeals process now, including the cases of 6 African Americans from the Washington area all of whom are nearing the end of their appeals. 

That all six of the inmates involved in these cases are African-American is sadly symbolic of the racial disparities inherent in the federal death penalty.  Currently there are 57 prisoners on federal death row, 35 of which are people of color, and 28 of which are African-American. According to a recent survey of the Federal Death Penalty  System, during the years 1995-2000 U.S. Attorneys recommended that the death penalty be sought in 44.3% of cases involving a black defendant, but only 26.2% of cases involving a white defendant. Also, in a 2007 report titled The Persistant Problem of Racial Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty the ACLU found that the death penalty is reduced to life sentences during plea bargaining almost twice as often for white defendants as for black defendants.

These statistics not only reflect serious racial bias on their own, but they are also disproportionate to the rest of the nation: in 2003 the United States Government, and the U.S. military, had higher percentages of non-white prisoners on their death rows (77% and 86% respectively) than any single state except Colorado.   At the beginning of this year, those figures still stood at 60% and 78%, way out of proportion with the population as a whole.

Hold Your Applause

Source: Peace Now

President Obama’s strategy of “reaching out to the Muslim world” over the past few weeks has inspired strong sentiments of both praise and derision from across the US to the Muslim world itself. Supporters see him heralding a brilliant new vision for American foreign policy while critics view this vision as little more than naïve pandering.

Among what is widely seen as a departure from the past, the president has stood steadfast on the issue of Israeli settlement expansion, calling for a complete freeze on settlements being built in the West Bank, including “natural growth”. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this is the same position taken by the Bush Administration in 2003’s Road Map to Peace. By demarking expansion (natural or not) as the only settlement issue, he legitimizes already-built settlements as permissible—though they are anything but. International Law clearly states that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”, so in order to comply with this, all settlements must be disassembled.

Settlements continue to grow at a staggering rate, with settlement populations in East Jerusalem growing faster than the general population in 2008: 4.5 percent compared to 1.5 percent. There are currently close to 500,000 settlers living in the West Bank.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Obama Must Prosecute Bush-Era Torture Enablers

(Originally posted on the Christian Science Monitor)

With Dick Cheney and the infamous torture memos making headlines, President Obama and our nation face a choice.  Should they prosecute or protect those responsible for the torture of detainees in secret CIA detention centers? If our leaders wish to steer our country back to the right side of the law, they must act immediately and unequivocally to prosecute.

The problem is that leading senators want the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to complete its investigation into the treatment and interrogation of detainees (which could take between four and six months), before any prosecution is launched. Yet such a delay would potentially risk running out the clock on certain types of prosecution.

The federal Anti-Torture Act, for example, is subject to a statute of limitations after only eight years.  For the prosecution of crimes committed in the months leading up to September 2002 – when Bush administration lawyers produced the first of the “torture memos” that purported to make torture legally permissible – that expiration date is spring 2010.

But there is no need to wait that long.  There is already ample evidence that shows the previous administration concocted, approved, and implemented a torture policy.  What’s more, there is no legal imperative holding the Department of Justice or federal prosecutors back from launching a criminal investigation, beginning with the task of identifying who is responsible for the crimes that have already been documented.

Although the Senate Intelligence Committee report may eventually provide some insights, it cannot be a substitute for the criminal investigations required for prosecution. But given the committee’s possible complicity in allowing torture to continue despite multiple Central Intelligence Agency briefings, we should not expect its report to break much new ground.

When Mr. Obama rescinded the torture memos upon taking office, he took an important first step toward repairing the damage wrought by the previous administration on our country’s commitment to human rights and rule of law. But his statement in April to forgo prosecution of those CIA agents who carried out torture is a breach of international law.

Some critics argue that a full investigation might lead the US public to ultimately side with torture and thus prosecution could be politically counterproductive. Others argue that prosecuting hundreds of people would waste resources during a war on terror, and that it should stay focused on going after terrorists.

However, the International Convention Against Torture, adopted by the United States in 1994, compels the US to prosecute everyone who is responsible for torture, all the way up the chain of command to top government officials who authorize it. Obama himself said in April that he’s “a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards, and to remind ourselves that we do have very real security threats out there.” At the same time he also said that “nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen.” The law allows no exceptions.

Congress also has an urgent and important role to play: It must eliminate a loophole written into the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act. That piece of legislation contains provisions that were crafted to provide legal cover to torturers. This includes the defense that those who committed torture believed the acts were legal at the time, since they had been interpreted as such by the White House torture memos (none of which carried the force of law).

Legislators must also attend to the back end of the accountability process by eliminating or extending the statute of limitations beyond 2010, as Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan has proposed.

Efforts to hold torturers and torture enablers accountable have been launched abroad, most notably in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón, a central figure in the prosecution of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is an example of a quick, effective actor. He recently launched an investigation into the Bush administration last month over the alleged torture of four Spanish nationals at Guantánamo under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction.

He also has ordered an inquiry into whether or not six former Bush administration lawyers created a legal framework to permit torture.

Should the Spanish court ultimately indict anyone pursuant to these claims, it is unclear whether the Obama administration would extradite former US officials. But such a development might, at the very least, prevent those former officials from traveling anywhere in the European Union and further discredit their already tainted legacies.

The Obama administration promised a new era of international cooperation and respect. It now faces the first major test of its rhetoric. If the US fails to prosecute those responsible for torture, we can take our place alongside countries we have long criticized for privileging politics over justice and accountability by letting criminals go free.

Beyond the United States’ global standing, the former administration’s policies also made Americans less safe by providing recruiting tools for terrorists. The Obama administration must show that such abuses won’t stand.

Obama's Speech and the Arab Reaction

In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s speech today in Cairo, the heavy web traffic of discussion among Arab activists was divided essentially into two camps.  One person claimed that the speech could have been given by George W. Bush.  Another compared it to Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem.

It’s not that either opinion is wrong – either may be proved right – but it was the nature of this talk from the very beginning that its meaning won’t be known for years down the road.  For what will make it historic (or not) is not the rhetoric of the speech but the policies that follow it (or don’t).

For one, I don’t believe this was a talk that George W. could have given, although it did share much of the same language on democracy that Bush stubbornly adhered to long after his own policies made shreds of any hope for it.

Midway through Obama’s speech, he digressed to condemn the belief in “a world order that elevates one nation or group of people.”  That is something that the worldview of American exceptionalism held by Bush and many of his presidential predecessors would never agree to.  I hope that this radically different worldview may result in a new path of policies.

And it was promising that Obama addressed a broad range of issues – democracy, women’s rights, Israel and Palestine and economic development – with an understanding that they all affect the human rights situation and all have to be addressed.

One thing that stood out was when it came to economic development, Obama announced a long line of initiatives that hold promise.  But in each of the other areas, particularly on Israel and on democracy, the rhetoric wasn’t matched by specifics.  I hope that doesn’t imply that he thinks that action on economic development is more important than in the other areas.

Amnesty International welcomes Obama’s comments, but we now expect him to follow up with policies to match the rhetoric.  He should begin with ending all practices that make the U.S. complicit in the various abuses that he denounced, such as extraordinary renditions and secret detention.  He should insist that Israel and the PNA to cooperate with the UN’s fact-finding mission looking into violations of international law during the recent Gaza war.  And he provide a public and independent report of America’s war on terror practices, a step he has opposed to date.

These would be just a first step, but an important step.  It would start us on a path that could turn his speech today from a remarkable moment into an historic event.