Activists decry British plan to suspend key human rights convention

VOA reports: Rights activists and lawyers are up in arms over Britain’s plan to suspend an international human rights convention during times of war, a step the government said would protect British troops from “spurious” legal claims of torture and murder against them.

The move by British Prime Minister Theresa May followed years of mounting anger in the Conservative Party and the country’s tabloid press over thousands of cases filed against soldiers who served in Iraq. The British government has spent about $135 million since 2004 defending the cases, many of which were launched under the European Convention on Human Rights, and the government has paid out $24 million in the settlement of 326 cases without admitting liability.

Britain’s tabloid press has railed against what they see as meddling, unelected European judges, arguing they are wrecking British law.

Under the plan, Britain would temporarily suspend parts of the Human Rights Convention before planned military actions. The suspensions would mainly focus on Article 2, which imposes upon the 47 signatory states the duty to refrain from unlawful deprivation of life, to investigate suspicious deaths and to prevent avoidable deaths.

Established in 1953 and effective across Europe, the convention grew out of a continent-wide determination never to see again the appalling rights violations of the Second World War and was inspired partly by Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill. It was drafted in large part by the British Conservative politician and Nuremberg trials prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S. torture left legacy of damaged minds

The New York Times reports: Before the United States permitted a terrifying way of interrogating prisoners, government lawyers and intelligence officials assured themselves of one crucial outcome. They knew that the methods inflicted on terrorism suspects would be painful, shocking and far beyond what the country had ever accepted. But none of it, they concluded, would cause long lasting psychological harm.

Fifteen years later, it is clear they were wrong.

Today in Slovakia, Hussein al-Marfadi describes permanent headaches and disturbed sleep, plagued by memories of dogs inside a blackened jail. In Kazakhstan, Lutfi bin Ali is haunted by nightmares of suffocating at the bottom of a well. In Libya, the radio from a passing car spurs rage in Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi, reminding him of the C.I.A. prison where earsplitting music was just one assault to his senses.

And then there is the despair of men who say they are no longer themselves. “I am living this kind of depression,” said Younous Chekkouri, a Moroccan, who fears going outside because he sees faces in crowds as Guantánamo Bay guards. “I’m not normal anymore.”

After enduring agonizing treatment in secret C.I.A. prisons around the world or coercive practices at the military detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, dozens of detainees developed persistent mental health problems, according to previously undisclosed medical records, government documents and interviews with former prisoners and military and civilian doctors. Some emerged with the same symptoms as American prisoners of war who were brutalized decades earlier by some of the world’s cruelest regimes. [Continue reading…]

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Testing Obama’s transparency pledge, groups send list of drone strikes to investigate

The Intercept reports: A coalition of human rights groups is calling on the Obama administration to make good on an executive order issued this summer that requires the United States to investigate when civilians are harmed in lethal operations abroad, including drone strikes.

In a letter sent to the White House on Thursday, the groups press for investigations into several specific attacks that occurred on the president’s watch. The letter calls for public acknowledgement as well as “prompt, thorough, effective, independent, impartial and transparent investigations” into 10 incidents over the last seven years. A dozen groups signed on, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

The letter also calls for the methodology of those investigations to be made public, to include “only those redactions necessary to protect information that is properly classified” and to offer clear explanations for any discrepancies that might arise between the government’s conclusions and those reached by outside parties, including NGOs and journalists.

The executive order that Obama signed requires the government to investigate allegations of civilian casualties caused by U.S. operations, then take responsibility when they occur, and provide compensation to the family members of victims. [Continue reading…]

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Who murdered Giulio Regeni?

GIULIO-REGENI

Alexander Stille writes: When six senior Italian detectives arrived in Cairo in early February, following the discovery of the brutally battered body of 28-year-old Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, they faced long odds of solving the mystery of his disappearance and death. Egyptian officials had told reporters that Regeni had probably been hit by a car, but clear signs of torture on his body had raised an alarm in Rome.

The Egyptian authorities guaranteed “full cooperation”, but this was quickly revealed to be a hollow promise. The Italians were allowed to question witnesses – but only for a few minutes, after the Egyptian police had finished their own much longer interrogations, and with the Egyptian police still in the room. The Italians requested the video footage from the metro station where Regeni last used his mobile phone, but the Egyptians allowed several days to elapse, by which time the footage from the day of his disappearance had been taped over. They also refused to share the mobile phone records from the area around Regeni’s home, where he disappeared on 25 January, and the site where his body was found nine days later.

One of the Egyptian chief investigators in charge of the Regeni case, Major General Khaled Shalaby, who told the press that there were no signs of foul play, is a controversial figure. Convicted of kidnapping and torture over a decade ago, he escaped with a suspended sentence.

The Egyptians may well have hoped that the outside world, with no independent information, would have little choice but to accept their unsatisfying explanation for Regeni’s death. But in the digital age, getting away with murder has become more difficult. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisian men detail CIA black site torture involving electric chair and more

The Guardian reports: Two Tunisian men held in secret CIA prisons for more than a year have told a leading human rights organization they were tortured with gruesome and previously unknown techniques.

The men, who were released to Tunisian custody in 2015, described being threatened with placement in an electric chair at a black site prison in Afghanistan in 2002; being beaten with metal batons while their arms were suspended by a bar above their heads; and having their heads pushed into barrels of water.

One of the men, Ridha al-Najjar, was a pivotal detainee for the CIA, which believed him to be a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Najjar was the first man taken by the CIA to the black site, which was code-named Cobalt and was where at least one detainee is known to have died. His interrogation became a template for others at the site, according to the CIA inspector general. Najjar said the interrogators forcibly inserted something into his anus.

According to a footnote in the 2014 Senate intelligence committee’s investigation into torture, John Brennan, now CIA director, was among the senior CIA officials briefed in the summer of 2002 on the interrogation plan for Najjar. According to the Senate report, the plan included isolation, “‘sound disorientation techniques’, ‘sense of time deprivation’, limited light, cold temperatures, and sleep deprivation”.

“There was a barrel full of water, and they kept submerging [my head] in the water,” the other Tunisian man, Lotfi al-Arabi El Gherissi, told Human Rights Watch, which shared the two men’s accounts with the Guardian. [Continue reading…]

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The desegregation and resegregation of schools in Charlotte

Clint Smith writes: Recently, protesters and police clashed in the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, following the killing of Keith Lamont Scott, a forty-three-year-old father of seven, who had recently moved to the city with his wife and family. Scott was shot by officers who were searching for a man with an outstanding warrant. Scott was not that man. Officer accounts claim that Scott had a handgun and refused to comply when he got out of his car. Other witnesses say that Scott was actually holding a book, as he often read while waiting for the bus to return his son from elementary school.

The footage from Charlotte reflected a scene that has become all too familiar over the past several years: police cocooned in riot gear, their bodies encased in bulletproof vests and military-style helmets; protesters rendered opaque by the tear gas that surrounds them, scarves covering their mouths and noses to keep from inhaling the smoke.

These protests happened because of Keith Lamont Scott, but they also happened because Charlotte is a city that has long had deep racial tensions, and frustration has been building for some time. There are many places one might look to find the catalyst of this resentment, nationally and locally. But one of the first places to look is Charlotte’s public-school system.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and thus unconstitutional. The decision mandated that schools across the country be integrated, though, in reality, little actual school desegregation took place following the ruling. It took years for momentum from the civil-rights movement to create enough political pressure for truly meaningful integration to take place in classrooms across the country.

To understand what happened next, it helps to turn to a book published last year and edited by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Stephen Samuel Smith, and Amy Hawn Nelson, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte.” It uses essays by sociologists, political scientists, economists, and attorneys to illuminate how the city became the focal point of the national school-desegregation debate, with decisions that set a precedent for the rest of the country. [Continue reading…]

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Is America becoming a police state?

 

The Daily Beast reports: Documentary filmmaker Craig Atkinson wants everyone to know he doesn’t hate cops.

Far from it — he’s the loving son of a cop.

“My perception of law enforcement was always very favorable — and I still have a favorable opinion of police officers,” he told The Daily Beast. “I have great respect for my father. Growing up, I had a very biased view of my dad as an officer, and I knew he had a great deal of integrity as an individual. I assumed that all police officers operated in the same way he did.”

Yet Atkinson’s new movie, Do Not Resist — opening Friday at New York’s Film Forum and later nationwide — shows that actually they don’t. It depicts local police departments deploying military-grade equipment, in many cases armored vehicles gifted by the Homeland Security and Defense departments direct from Iraq and Afghanistan, while using brute force to control, and occasionally abuse, economically depressed minority communities.

Atkinson’s movie is especially timely as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to protest this year’s spate of police shootings of African American men — from Ferguson to Tulsa to Charlotte to, most recently, the suburbs of San Diego, where on Tuesday night cops shot Alfred Olango, an unarmed mentally ill person who was wandering in traffic. [Continue reading…]

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Freedom for some requires the enslavement of others

Maya Jasanoff writes: One hundred and fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, the nation’s first black president paid tribute to “a century and a half of freedom—not simply for former slaves, but for all of us.” It sounds innocuous enough till you start listening to the very different kinds of political rhetoric around us. All of us are not free, insists the Black Lives Matter movement, when “the afterlife of slavery” endures in police brutality and mass incarceration. All of us are not free, says the Occupy movement, when student loans impose “debt slavery” on the middle and working classes. All of us are not free, protests the Tea Party, when “slavery” lurks within big government. Social Security? “A form of modern, twenty-first-century slavery,” says Florida congressman Allen West. The national debt? “It’s going to be like slavery when that note is due,” says Sarah Palin. Obamacare? “Worse than slavery,” says Ben Carson. Black, white, left, right—all of us, it seems, can be enslaved now.

Americans learn about slavery as an “original sin” that tempted the better angels of our nation’s egalitarian nature. But “the thing about American slavery,” writes Greg Grandin in his 2014 book The Empire of Necessity, about an uprising on a slave ship off the coast of Chile and the successful effort to end it, is that “it never was just about slavery.” It was about an idea of freedom that depended on owning and protecting personal property. As more and more settlers arrived in the English colonies, the property they owned increasingly took the human form of African slaves. Edmund Morgan captured the paradox in the title of his classic American Slavery, American Freedom: “Freedom for some required the enslavement of others.” When the patriots protested British taxation as a form of “slavery,” they weren’t being hypocrites. They were defending what they believed to be the essence of freedom: the right to preserve their property.

The Empire of Necessity explores “the fullness of the paradox of freedom and slavery” in the America of the early 1800s. Yet to understand the chokehold of slavery on American ideas of freedom, it helps to go back to the beginning. At the time of the Revolution, slavery had been a fixture of the thirteen colonies for as long as the US today has been without it. “Slavery was in England’s American colonies, even its New England colonies, from the very beginning,” explains Princeton historian Wendy Warren in her deeply thoughtful, elegantly written New England Bound, an exploration of captivity in seventeenth-century New England. The Puritan ideal of a “city on a hill,” long held up as a model of America at its communitarian best, actually rested on the backs of “numerous enslaved and colonized people.” [Continue reading…]

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How the White Helmets of Syria are being hunted in a devastated Aleppo

Jared Malsin reports: It should have been a banner month for the White Helmets. The acclaimed Syrian volunteer rescue group is the subject of a documentary that was released on Netflix on Sept. 16. The organization is up for the Nobel Peace Prize next month, and a raft of celebrities including George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake petitioned the prize committee in support of the group’s nomination. On Sept. 22, the White Helmets, who are known inside Syria as the Civil Defense, won the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “alternative Nobel,” honoring the volunteers for their bravery in rushing to the aid of Syrian civilians under relentless bombardment. The group claims to have rescued some 60,000 people since 2013.

But now, the White Helmets have become the targets of that bombing. In the besieged rebel-held section of the city of Aleppo, at least three of the group’s four operations centers were damaged by airstrikes in one night. Many of their vehicles were destroyed. A fire station was heavily damaged. Even the rescue center featured in the Netflix documentary was destroyed.

The bombing was the heaviest in months, part of of a new military offensive by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against the rebel enclave. “Right now people are crying from under the rubble in al-Mashhad, in al-Sukari, in Ansari. We couldn’t respond because we don’t have any vehicles,” says Ammar al-Selmo, a civil defense captain, referring to three eastern Aleppo neighborhoods during a phone interview on Friday. He said two of the four civil defense centers were put out of operation. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian activist barred from travel after UK seizes passport at Assad’s request

The Guardian reports: British authorities have confiscated the passport of a prominent Syrian critic of Bashar al-Assad at the request of the government in Damascus, effectively preventing her from travelling and blocking her work as an activist.

Zaina Erhaim, an award-winning journalist and campaigner based in Turkey, had her passport taken away by UK border officials when she landed at Heathrow airport. After more than an hour of questioning, they told her that the document had been reported stolen.

The complaint came from the government she has been campaigning against for years. “I expect to be harassed inside my country,’ Erhaim told the Observer. “I know that if I went home I would be killed, but now I find that Assad’s arm can even reach to the UK. This is a dictator pursuing a journalist.”

A receipt that Erhaim was given for the passport states: “Document reported as stolen.” Erhaim, who is travelling to the UK for an event with the BBC’s Kate Adie at the Kew literary festival, said it contained her name, photograph and fingerprint. Erhaim had previously used the passport without problems to travel to the UK in April, when she collected the Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Journalism award for her work. She had also travelled on it without any problems across Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Why we are protesting in Charlotte

Rev Dr William J Barber, II writes: Since a police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday afternoon, the ensuing protests have dominated national news. Provocateurs who attacked police officers and looted stores made headlines. Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard joined police officers in riot gear, making the Queen City look like a war zone.

Speaking on the campaign trail in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Donald J. Trump offered a grave assessment: “Our country looks bad to the world, especially when we are supposed to be the world’s leader. How can we lead when we can’t even control our own cities?” Mr. Trump seems to want Americans to believe, as Representative Robert Pittenger, a Republican whose district includes areas in Charlotte, told the BBC, that black protesters in the city “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.

But Charlotte’s protests are not black people versus white people. They are not black people versus the police. The protesters are black, white and brown people, crying out against police brutality and systemic violence. If we can see them through the tear gas, they show us a way forward to peace with justice. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt freezes assets of several human rights advocates

The New York Times reports: An Egyptian court dealt a heavy blow to the country’s human rights activists on Saturday by freezing the assets of five prominent human rights defenders and three nongovernmental organizations.

The freeze is part of a criminal investigation into the funding and work of prominent activists, including Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, and advocacy groups, like the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which document state abuses.

The human rights defenders are accused of using money acquired illegally from foreign governments to spread lies and harm national security. The charges can result in a sentence of life in prison.

“We don’t regret what we did, and we won’t be silenced,” Mr. Bahgat, who was briefly detained by the military last year and now works as a journalist, told reporters outside the courtroom. “This order was expected, although we fought it.” [Continue reading…]

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