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Amnesty finally discovers the ugly side of life in the ‘land of the free’

Waseem Shehzad

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organisation, has just discovered that there are widespread human rights abuses in the United States. And it launched a one-year campaign to press for penal reforms in a country that habitually lectures others about their human rights record.

As part of its campaign, Amnesty released a 153-page report on October 6 which paints a grim picture of how police officers, prison officials and immigration authorities abuse people. Those seeking asylum in the US as refugees are locked up in jail with common criminals. Not surprisingly, the US has refused to sign a number of international rights conventions, including the Convetion on the Rights of the Child.

‘We felt it was ironic that the most powerful country in the world uses international human rights laws to criticize others but does not apply the same standards at home,’ said Pierre San, secretary general of Amnesty at a pre-launch press conference in New York. He dismissed US excuses about countries that had signed the convention but were not abiding by its terms as ‘irrelevant’.

A few days later, San used much stronger language. ‘We want to bring to light the hypocrisy of the US government. The US government uses international law and international justice when it suits it and disregards the very same international laws and international justice when it doesn’t suit it,’ he said while visiting Mexico City on October 9.

The report, titled Rights for All, not only gives instances of abuse but also makes the more serious charge that the authorities, even when made aware of such misconduct on the part of their personnel, do nothing to preven repetition. Blacks and visible minorities are especially targeted.

‘I think in terms of severity of what is happening in the US, more or less, people are aware,’ San said. ‘They are aware that in the States police can be brutal. They’re aware that prisons are not the best place to be in. But what we are concerned with is the lack of action and the complacency [about sanctioning those who commit these abuses].’

Of America’s 1.7 million prisoners, more than 60 percent are from racial or ethnic minorities. Blacks, who constitute about 12 percent of the US population make up more than half of all its prisoners. Lest this gives the impression that blacks are more prone to crime, the Amnesty report points out that the judicial system is greatly biased.

This is most clearly illustrated by how the death penalty is handed down. ‘The death penalty is often enacted in vengeance, applied in an arbitrary manner, subject to bias because of the defendant’s race or economic status, or driven by the political ambitions of those who impose it,’ the report says. Since the death penalty was reinstated by the US supreme court in 1976, 460 prisoners have been executed. Another 3,300 are on death row, the highest number in the world.

There are also an estimated 3,500 child convicts held in prisons for adults, in violation of the international convention on civil rights. Life in US prisons is harsh and brutal. ‘In US prisons and jails,’ the Amnesty report says, ‘inmates are physically and sexually abused by other inmates and guards.’ Even when such abuse is brought to the attention of prison authorities, punishment for those responsible is rare.

American prison guards are sadistic and brutal. They use excessive force to restrain inmates including electric shock stun guns, leg irons, pepper spray and restraint chairs. Some women prisoners have given birth in shackles.

Amnesty’s report comes more than a year after a similar campaign was launched by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Three special investigators, known as rapporteurs, have visited the US since September 1997 to examine capital punishment, religious discrimination and mistreatment of women in the prison system, much to the chagrin of US officials and congressmen.

One of the most vocal critics of the UN Human Rights Commision’s focus on America is Jesse Helms, senator from North Carolina, a state notorious for mistreating minorities and blacks. While the US owes billions of dollars in arrears to the UN, the international body is treated as a branch of the US State department.

When it was reported that the UN had spent approximately $130,000 between September 1997 and June 1998 investigating the US, Marc Theissen, spokesman for Helms, said, ‘One dime spent on this is a waste of money. With people rotting in prisons in Burma and Havana and Beijing, the United Nations seems to think that they can focus their attention on the freest, most democratic nation on the planet.’

Perhaps the ‘freest, most democratic nation’ ought to look in the mirror and see its true face. Not surprisingly, many people around the world call it ‘the ugly American.’ But UN officials are treading carefully. Aware of American sensitivities, they point out the US was not being singled out, and that the rapporteurs choose their own missions and itineraries, which are then approved by the 53-member Human Rights Commission, of which the US is also a member.

The investigators, most of whom are lawyers and other professionals, are unpaid and independent and usually work for the world body only a few weeks a year. The organization pays their travel and living expenses while on assignments, according to the UN. The US allows them free entry but investigators are not always allowed access to certain facilities. For instance, Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan lawyer and women’s advocate, who completed a two-week investigation of the treatment of women in federal and state prisons in six states last June, was denied access to facilities and officials in Michigan. According to the UN Human Rights world wide web site ‘sexual misconduct appears to be pervasive’ in the Michigan facility.

Bacre Waly Ndiaye, a human rights lawyer from Senegal, visited death rows in September 1997 and examined how the death penalty was dispensed. His report said many states pursue the death sentence more vigorously for minorities and the poor, and he held that the US was one of the few countries in the world that executed juvenile offenders, women and the mentally compromised.

Ndiaye’s report, released last April, aroused the US’ wrath because it coincided with an attempt by the government of Paraguay to block Virginia’s planned execution of a convicted murderer because he had been denied a consular visit as required by the Vienna Convention.

Muslims in the US are quite familiar with the brutal nature of the US government, its officials - police, immigration, FBI and others - because they are at the receiving end of the American version of ‘freedom.’

Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 17

Rajab 11, 14191998-11-01

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