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Amnesty targets U.S. abuses

NCR Staff

Amnesty International, whose previous worldwide campaigns have targeted such well-known human rights violators as China, Rwanda and Guatemala, has now turned its attention on the United States. For the first time in its 37-year history, human rights abuses in a major Western country will be the focus of a yearlong Amnesty International country campaign.

The London-based human rights organization launched the campaign Oct. 6 with the release of a 153-page report, titled “Rights for All,” (http://www.rightsforall-usa.org/) detailing cases of police brutality and violence against prisoners, among other violations of international standards.

“Human rights violations in the U.S. occur in rural communities and urban centers from coast to coast,” said the Nobel Peace Prizewinning organization, which monitors human rights in over 170 countries. “They are committed by sheriffs and judges, by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials and by police and corrections officers in jails and prisons across the country.”

While Amnesty International has previously published reports about specific human rights concerns in the United States, this is its first comprehensive country campaign directed at abuses in the United States. Over 1 million Amnesty members worldwide are expected to participate in the U.S. campaign.

Curt Goering, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, said the organization expects “overwhelming support” from its 300,000 U.S. members for the campaign. “Our interest is not to embarrass, it is to highlight these issues and make recommendations.”

‘We welcome their scrutiny’

State Department spokesman James Foley said the U.S. government does not object to the Amnesty probe. “We welcome their scrutiny of human rights in the United States in keeping with our recognition of the universality of human rights and our openness as a democratic society,” he said in published reports. “We are proud of our political and judicial systems, which we believe are the envy of the world.”

Amnesty is calling on its members to help publicize the issues contained in the report by distributing the organization’s publications, raising the issue with other groups and writing to the press.

The campaign will also include a letter-writing push to President Clinton, urging him to promote human rights in the United States, and to U.S. diplomatic representatives throughout the world, asking them to relay Amnesty’s concerns to U.S. authorities.

William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said that the United States’ role defending human rights worldwide is weakened by its own abuses. “When the U.S. house is not in order, it makes it harder for the U.S. to take the kind of leadership role in international human rights that many of us in Amnesty would like to see it take,” he said.

Amnesty said its report on the United States “is played out against a national background of economic and racial injustice, a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and front-page stories of violent crimes committed by children.”

Law enforcement abuses were featured prominently in the report, which documents a “widespread and persistent pattern of police brutality.”

As part of the USA Campaign, Amnesty International is recommending that the United States:

  • establish independent monitoring bodies to investigate allegations of police brutality and abuse in jails and prisons;
  • ban the use of stun belts, hog-tying and other dangerous restraint methods;
  • ban the routine use of restraints on pregnant female inmates and all restraints during labor;
  • restrict and regulate the interactions of male staff with female inmates to prevent sexual abuse;
  • ratify, without reservations, the Conventions on the Rights of the Child and on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women;
  • detain asylum-seekers only as a last resort and never with criminal defendants;
  • ban the death penalty for juvenile offenders as a first step toward total abolition;
  • adopt a code of conduct covering all transfers of military, security and police equipment, services and expertise to other countries.

“Responsibility to uphold human rights lies with the federal government, lies with the Congress, lies with authorities in the different states,” Pierre Sané, secretary general of Amnesty International, told The New York Times. “I think that what our research has found is a generalized failure of the systems of monitoring, of accountability for the police, for the prison guards, for immigration officials.

“The vast majority of complaints relate to police officers beating people during arrests, searches, traffic stops or street incidents -- especially in inner cities with large minority groups,” Amnesty said. Among the cases cited were those of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who suffered serious internal injuries after New York police officers allegedly beat and tortured him, and Caroline Sue Botticher, who died after police fired 22 rounds at a car in which she was an unarmed passenger.

High tech repression

Amnesty noted the growing use of “High tech repression methods” in law enforcement, including electroshock devices, which are authorized for use in many police departments and correctional institutions. Deaths have been reported following the use of stun guns and tasers -- a device with two prongs that emit a high-voltage shock.

Also in use in prisons and jails are remote-controlled stun belts, devices that can be activated by a guard at the push of a button, sending a powerful electric current through the prisoner and inflicting severe pain and incapacitation. The stun belt is used by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshall’s Service, more than 100 county agencies and at least 16 state prisons.

Law enforcement officials also resort to Oleoresin Capsicum spray, also called pepper spray, to incapacitate suspects. Some research has indicated that pepper spray can be harmful to people with respiratory problems, such as asthma, and with heart disease.

The report also said that pepper spray “has sometimes been applied in a deliberately cruel manner to suspects who are already restrained.” In an October 1997 nonviolent anti-logging demonstration in Humbolt County, Calif., sheriff’s deputies swabbed pepper spray directly into the eyes of protesters, which Amnesty condemned as “tantamount to torture.” In another peaceful environmental protest in Eugene, Ore., in June 1997, police officers were videotaped hitting a protester repeatedly and spraying pepper spray on his legs and genitals.

The U.S. response to crime currently relies on the imposition of harsher punishments, resulting in one of the largest prison populations in the world, now at 1.7 million, Amnesty said.

The report noted the “disturbing development” of high-tech security units, where inmates are placed in long-term or permanent isolation. In one such unit in Texas, dangerous or disruptive prisoners are isolated in windowless cells for 23 or more hours a day, the report said.

It said that prisoners, many of them mentally ill, are frequently placed in restraints for hours or even days. Deaths in custody have resulted from chokeholds or hog-tying -- in which the ankles and wrists are tied together behind the back -- in Georgia, California, Mississippi, Tennessee and New York, the report said. Deaths have also resulted from the restraint chair, the report said. It noted specifically the case of Michael Valent, who died as a result of a blood clot after being held for 16 hours in a restraint chair in the Utah State Prison.

Furthermore, the report said that though the use of chains or leg-irons as restraints is prohibited by international standards, the use of chain gangs has been reported in U.S. prisons in Alabama, Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin.

Children may be held in adult prisons in 20 U.S. states, and are “at extreme risk of physical and sexual abuse by adults,” Amnesty said. While no official figures were available, Amnesty believes that more than 3,500 children under 18 have been convicted as adults and are being housed with adult inmates.

Women, who make up over 10 percent of the jail and prison populations, are at risk of rape and sexual assault in confinement, the report said. Suits against the states of Arizona, California and Michigan charge that women in prison have been beaten, raped and sold by guards for sex with male inmates.

In Connecticut and California, prisoners have reported being shackled and in full restraints while pregnant. Elsewhere, women have reported being shackled while in labor, Amnesty said.

The report charged that racial discrimination is a factor in U.S. law enforcement. “Police unjustly target young black, Latino or Asian males, especially in inner cities, and automatically see them as potential criminal suspects,” the report said. More than 60 percent of prisoners come from racial minorities, and up to one-third of all young black men are in jail or prison, or on parole or probation, Amnesty said.

Racist death penalty

Another of Amnesty’s longtime concerns highlighted in the report is the application of the death penalty, which, it said, “is now a political campaigning tool in the USA, and it is being applied in a racist way. Black and white people are the victims of violent crime in roughly equal numbers, yet 82 percent of people executed since 1977 have been convicted of killing white victims.”

With more than 3,300 people on death row, the United States has the highest known death row population in the world, Amnesty said. Twenty-four states permit the execution of those who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. Only five other countries were known to have executed juveniles since 1990 -- Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Amnesty also noted that more than 30 mentally impaired people have been executed in the United States since 1989.

Amnesty also reported that growing numbers of asylum-seekers are incarcerated after arriving in the United States.

“People who have been persecuted and tortured in their homelands frequently arrive in the USA sick, disoriented, unable to speak English and deeply traumatized,” Amnesty said. “For reception, they are likely to be shackled and thrown into jail by the [Immigration and Naturalization Service]. Many asylum-seekers are jailed with convicted criminals, subjected to solitary confinement and body searches, yet denied what most criminal suspects are routinely granted -- parole.”

Amnesty said that asylum-seekers are often prevented from meeting with lawyers, interpreters and asylum organizations. The report also noted a lack of accommodations for children of asylum seekers, “who according to international law should be kept together with their families and never be held in detention.” In addition, because of their lesser numbers, women asylum-seekers are more likely to be detained with criminal offenders, Amnesty said, and are at risk of sexual assault and mistreatment.

In the international arena, the United States contributes to human rights abuses abroad by supplying arms, equipment and training to governments and armed groups “known to have carried out torture, political killings and other abuses,” Amnesty said. Among the weapons exported are the electroshock devices used in the United States -- devices that are banned in Canada and some European countries.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998