Massive Syrian Refugee Crisis Visible From Space

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, March 2013. Click to explore. Image © DigitalGlobe 2013 © Google Earth

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, March 2013. Click to explore. Image © DigitalGlobe 2013 © Google Earth

The massive displacement crisis stemming from Syria’s ongoing conflict is increasingly visible from space. Satellite images on Google Earth reveal the growth of what in some cases looks like the emergence of whole new cities over the last two years.

A new project published today by one of our volunteers, Richard Cozzens, presents some of the most compelling images, providing a grim snapshot of the dire humanitarian situation in and around Syria. The satellite images show camps in the countries that are most affected by the influx of refugees, such as Turkey and Jordan. For example, what was an empty spot in the desert in September 2011 is now the huge refugee camp Zaatari in Jordan.


Repression Goes Global: Syrians in US Targeted By Syrian Embassies

Syrian Embassy in London

Syrian Embassy in London

While the United Nations Security Council keeps bickering and remains inactive, Syrian authorities go global with their repression of free speech and assembly.

By now it’s well documented by both NGOs and the United Nations that crimes committed by Syrian security forces against peaceful protesters may amount to crimes against humanity. Since mid-March, more than 2,200 people are reported to have been killed and thousands of others have been arrested.

However, now Syrian authorities are taking it to the next level. In more than four years of working on international human rights crises, I have never seen a foreign government systematically targeting peaceful protesters globally, which is exactly what the Syrian government is doing.


The Four Biggest Death Penalty Trends in 2010

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

The Death Penalty Information Center released its Year End Report today.  While there were no major turning points for the U.S. death penalty in 2010, the unworkable and degrading nature of capital punishment continued to reveal itself throughout the year.  There were lots of executions early – the first three executions took place on the same day, January 7 – but the pace slowed considerably, and the last two months of the year saw only two executions total.  There were 46 executions in all, in twelve different states.  Here are four major themes that emerged in 2010.

1. TEXAS AND OHIO LEAD THE (WRONG) WAY:  Texas, as usual, led the way with 17 executions (though this was significantly down from last year), while Ohio put 8 men to death.  Ohio’s execution proliferation caused one judge, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who also happens to be one of the people who wrote Ohio’s death penalty law, to worry that his state was becoming too much like Texas, and to call for all death sentences in the state to get a second look.  He told the Columbus Dispatch: “There are probably few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas.”

No such second guessing was allowed in Texas, where a hearing looking into whether Cameron Todd Willingham might have been wrongfully executed and another hearing considering whether the danger of executing the innocent made Texas’ death penalty unconstitutional were both put on ice by state appeals courts. One or both of these important hearings could resume in 2011, but it is more likely that the Texas death penalty will continue to skate by without serious examination, despite the exonerations and wrongful executions we already know have happened.  (Silver lining: The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports that there were just 8 death sentences in the Lone Star State in 2010, the lowest since capital punishment was re-instated in 1976.)


A Moral Quagmire

On Tuesday the British government announced that it had reached a settlement to pay compensation to sixteen former Guantanamo detainees for the abuses they suffered in US custody. Shaker Aamer, a UK resident still held in Guantanamo, will be one of those receiving an, as yet, undisclosed financial payment.

At least six of the individuals had lodged civil claims for damages against the government in the UK. The complaints included British complicity in unlawful detention, extraordinary rendition and torture. One detainee, Binyam Mohamed, alleged that British intelligence officers had supplied questions to his Moroccan interrogators who at one point cut his penis with a knife to get him to talk.

The British government has denied any wrong doing and the Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke told the House of Commons that “no admissions of culpability have been made in settling these cases.” The stated reasons the government decided to agree to the settlement were to avoid protracted litigation, diverting resources from vital counterterrorism investigations, and estimated legal costs that could have exceeded $80m.

However, an equally pressing concern was the government’s desire to protect classified information from disclosure in court. Much of this classified information related to CIA reporting on its interrogation and treatment of the detainees in its custody.


Arizona: Execution Drugs Came From Great Britain

Arizona’s Attorney General Terry Goddard has reportedly confirmed that his state’s stash of non-FDA approved sodium thiopental came from Great Britain.  The state continues to try to kill Jeffrey Landrigan with this drug, and continues to try to keep details of their supplier a secret, using a law that shields the Arizona’s execution team from public scrutiny.  So an as yet unnamed British pharmaceutical company is now a member of Arizona’s execution team. 

As our allies in Europe are dragged into this sordid execution mess, Arizona soldiers on with its attempt to carry out this execution (in defiance of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).  The full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court are likely to weigh in later today.

But whatever the outcome, two important points are worth mentioning.  First, many people are now ashamed to be associated with the death penalty, and that includes those charged with carrying it out.  Though ostensibly for the purpose of protecting execution team members from harassment by death penalty opponents (who rarely do anything more than deliver petitions and sternly worded letters), the real purpose of the Arizona law (and similar laws in others states, and an even more extreme effort in Texas), is to drive capital punishment into the shadows.  The death penalty is not as popular as it used to be, because people are realizing that it involves things like states acquiring non-approved pharmaceuticals in shady and secretive ways and then using those drugs to kill people.  Of course such efforts to hide these ugly realities only draw more attention to them.

It also bears mentioning that the judge who passed the death sentence on Jeffrey Landrigan now says she was wrong.  When the US Supreme Court rejected Landrigan’s bid for a hearing on his lawyer’s failure to present important mitigating evidence, Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, asserted that the mitigating evidence would have made no difference.  The judge who was actually there has said the exact opposite – that the mitigating evidence would have made all the difference. 

Even our highest courts don’t always get things right, especially when they try to predict the future.  All supporters of fairness in our justice system, whether opposing capital punishment or not, should be disturbed by the slipshod way this case has been handled, and by the ongoing collateral damage our death penalty continues to do.

Fighting Crime Without the Death Penalty


This was the answer given by Former Detective Superintendent Bob Denmark of Lancashire, England when asked what people in the UK thought about the execution of Teresa Lewis. “[People] are no safer now than we were before her death,” added Ronald Hampton, a former D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Community Relations Officer and past Executive Director of the National Black Police Association.

Denmark, who has investigated over 100 homicides in the U.K. as well as genocide in Africa, and Hampton were joined by Police Chief James Abbott of West Orange, New Jersey and Senior Portuguese Public Prosecutor Antonio Cluny at the National Press Club yesterday to share European and American law enforcement perspectives on fighting crime with and without the death penalty.  They discussed whether the death penalty helps or hurts in keeping citizens safe, healing victims, and using crime-fighting resources efficiently.

The short answer to those questions: no. We are no safer because the death penalty is enforced, victims are not healed due to the long and drawn-out process of the death penalty, and our financial resources are not being used effectively. They should be used to train and educate police forces and communities, instead of for “deterrent” purposes.

We are inundated with facts and statistics that tell us the death penalty serves no deterrent function.  What is more powerful, though, is listening to a man who has investigated over 100 homicide cases tell you that he thinks the deterrence argument for the death penalty is “ridiculous.” A child molester, Denmark elaborated, is not deterred from his crimes by the fact that a homicidal terrorist is on death row for his murders. Offenders don’t premeditate getting caught.

But we’ve heard the deterrence argument before, and the obsolete nature of the death penalty goes far beyond its uselessness in preventing crime. Cluny noted that in Portugal, where the death penalty was abolished in 1864, violent crime rates are significantly lower than in other countries, including retentionist countries. Yes, murder still occurs in Portugal, but no one has tried to reintroduce the death penalty. “The first human right,” Cluny said, “is the right to live.”

Alex Trimble contributed to this post.

The Road Not Taken

More disappointing news emerged on Monday for those who believe that US law and professional ethics should actually mean something.

The long awaited Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility report into the quality and probity of the work produced on coercive interrogation by John Yoo and Jay Bybee while working in the Office of General Counsel has reportedly undergone internal revisions neutering its findings.

David Margolis, a career civil servant who served in the Justice Department throughout the Bush administration, has reportedly downgraded criticism that Yoo and Bybee violated their professional obligations concluding rather that they merely exercised poor judgment.

This is no semantic distinction – it means the difference between potential disciplinary action before state bar associations, and in Bybee’s case potential impeachment as federal judge, and little more than a minor flurry of professional embarrassment.

Once again, we see key players in one of the darker chapters in America’s recent history squirm their way out of trouble scot-free, not a stain in their character. What a contrast to a spectacle unfolding across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom.

On January 29th the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was summoned to appear before the Chilcot commission established to investigate Britain’s decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

Blair spent a whole day being cross-examined by a blue ribbon panel of independent experts about his decision to take the country to war.

The committee conducting this inquiry consists of two of Britain’s most prominent academics, Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert and military historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, two former career civil servants, Sir John Chilcot and former Ambassador to Russia Sir Roderic Lyne, and Baroness Prashar, a prominent humanitarian.


"Come on Auntie Beeb…Get on With It!

The BBC continues to draw sharp criticism for its refusal to air a charity event for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The famed UK station refused to air an emergency appeal put on by the Disaster Emergency Appeal (DEC) stating that it did not want to appear to be “backing one side over the other,” in the words of BBC director Mark Thompson. In a blog entry on the BBC site, Thompson wrote, “The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story.”

More than 50 MPs have written to the BBC urging it to reverse its decision and to air the fundraiser by DEC, an umbrella group that includes notable charities such as Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Red Cross. Criticism has also poured in celebrities such as Oscar nominee Samantha Morton who, according to the BBC, said “she was embarrassed to earn money from a corporation that would take such a ‘horrific’ and ‘disgusting’ decision.” Joining this chorus of criticism was Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York who recently said “Come on Auntie Beeb. Wake up and get on with it.”

Protests outside the BBC have been held and the BBC has recieved over 10,000 emails urging the BBC to air the program. Two prominent journalists unions in England called the decision “cowardly and in danger of being seen as politically motivated” and added “far from avoiding the compromise of the BBC’s impartiality, this move has breached those same BBC rules by showing a bias in favour of Israel at the expense of 1.5 million Palestinian civilians suffering an acute humanitarian crisis.”

The Guardian reports that “fury” is building at the BBC over this decision and quoted one annoymous BBC staffer as saying, “Feelings are running extremely high and there is widespread disgust at the BBC’s top management. There is widespread anger and frustration at the BBC’s refusal to allow people to speak out about it.”

Meanwhilte Sky News has come to the BBC’s defense and refused to air the charity appeal for Gaza as well. John Ryley, the head of Sky News, defended their decision, saying “That is why, after very careful consideration, we have concluded that broadcasting an appeal for Gaza at this time is incompatible with our role in providing balanced and objective reporting of this continuing situation to our audiences in the UK and around the world.”

The BBC’s decision is bound to disappoint the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the largest humanitarian actor in Gaza, who described the “huge and overwhelming need” for aid in Gaza. Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesman, said the estimated cost of “rehabilitation and repair” was $345m, with $230m unfunded. “We are massively underfunded, and I think the figures involve illustrate the sheer scale of the need involved here,” he said.

UPDATE: Click here to watch the video that the BBC and Sky News refused to show