31 July 2013

Rights groups react to Bradley Manning verdict

On July 30, in a military trial at Fort Mead, Maryland, war crimes whistleblower Bradley Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy (the most serious charge against him) but was found guilty of 19 other charges. While serving as a Private First Class in the U.S. Army, Manning had released hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks which exposed U.S. war crimes and other government misconduct. Doing so led to his court-martial.

In response to the verdict, Amnesty International suggested that the U.S. government needs to reassess its priorities: "The government's priorities are upside down. The U.S. government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence," said Widney Brown, Amnesty's senior director of international law and policy. "Yet they decided to prosecute Manning who it seems was trying to do the right thing - reveal credible evidence of unlawful behavior by the government. You investigate and prosecute those who destroy the credibility of the government by engaging in acts such as torture which are prohibited under the U.S. Constitution and in international law... It's hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning's trial was about sending a message: the U.S. government will come after you, no holds barred, if you're thinking of revealing evidence of its unlawful behavior."

In other words, U.S. policy is to shoot the proverbial messenger.

The lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) agree. The CCR had filed a case challenging the lack of transparency around the Manning trial. Now, in the wake of the verdict, the CCR has released a statement condemning the charges against Manning related to the Espionage Act: "[T]he Espionage Act itself is a discredited relic of the WWI era, created as a tool to suppress political dissent and antiwar activism, and it is outrageous that the government chose to invoke it in the first place against Manning. Government employees who blow the whistle on war crimes, other abuses and government incompetence should be protected under the First Amendment."

The CCR statement goes on to question the future of journalism and the First Amendment itself: "We now live in a country where someone who exposes war crimes can be sentenced to life even if not found guilty of aiding the enemy, while those responsible for the war crimes remain free. If the government equates being a whistleblower with espionage or aiding the enemy, what is the future of journalism in this country? What is the future of the First Amendment?"

Indeed. And it's not just journalists and whistleblowers who should be worried.

30 July 2013

Will PA court cases overturn state DOMA?

Last week, D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills for Montgomery County, PA, in the Philadelphia suburbs, started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couple in protest of a state law that mirrors the now-defunct federal Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

In defending his actions, Hanes said, "I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law."

While I believe that DOMA - whether at the federal level or at the state level - is inherently unfair, my first impression when I heard the news last week was that Hanes was breaking the law. So, as much as I admired his bold act of civil disobedience, I was uncomfortable about it.

Then today happened.

State officials are suing Hanes in hopes of getting a court order to stop him from issuing marriage licenses.

Meanwhile, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the state's marriage law.

Just as the federal lawsuits against DOMA resulted in that law being overturned, I am hoping that one or both of these state-level suits result in a similar ruling at the state level.

Much of our progress in America through the decades was the result of brave people boldly engaging in civil disobedience. With that in mind, I am no longer uncomfortable with Hanes's actions. Indeed, I applaud him for going there, and I hope to someday shake his hand.

26 July 2013

Portugal condemns Texas's 500th execution

On June 26, Texas executed its 500th death row prisoner since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that reinstated the death penalty as an option in this country.

Texas is the execution capital of the U.S. And the U.S. is one of only two industrialized democracies (the other being Japan) which still have the death penalty. The rest of the world is becoming much more civilized.

Especially Portugal, where the last execution took place in 1846.

Last week, the Portuguese government stood up for human rights and issued the following statement on its website condemning Texas's 500th execution:

Portugal strongly regrets the execution of Kimberley McCarthy on 26th June in Texas, USA. This brings the number of persons executed in Texas to 500 since capital punishment was re-established in the State in 1982.

While recognizing the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated and extending our deepest sympathy to the families of the victim, Portugal opposes the capital punishment in all cases and without exception. Capital punishment represents an irreversible loss of human life and there are numerous studies that demonstrate that it has no deterrent effect.

Portugal calls on the State of Texas to reflect on the continued use of the capital punishment and to reconsider this policy in light of the worldwide trend towards abolition, as was the recent case of the State of Maryland which repealed capital punishment in March this year.

I applaud the Portuguese government for openly condemning this barbaric practice.

20 July 2013

Guns for George Zimmerman

A few days ago, there were reports that George Zimmerman would get his gun back - the one he used to kill Trayvon Martin - now that the trial is over and he's been acquitted.

However, in the meantime, the Justice Department stepped in and put all the trial evidence - including the gun - on hold pending its own investigation of the case.

I can imagine that Zimmerman might feel insecure without his gun. But he needn't worry for long. A Florida gun store has offered Zimmerman a free gun.

"We currently have the same model in stock, or he could (choose) another weapon suitable for concealed carry," said a letter from Pompano Pat's motorcycle and gun shop to Zimmerman's attorney.

The letter continues: "We have read numerous reports of death threats against your client and believe no good would come from harming him."

Pompano Pat's wants to ensure that Zimmerman can continue to stand his ground against scary, skittle-carrying teenagers.

Because they care.


19 July 2013

Texas executed two prisoners this week

Not something to be proud of:

On Tuesday, July 16, Texas executed John Quintanilla, Jr.

Then on Thursday, July 18, Vaughn Ross received a lethal injection in the same Texas death chamber.

That's two executions just two days apart.

The next one is scheduled for July 31.

They like to keep that grisly production line humming.

16 July 2013

Would Trayvon be alive if he lived in Pennsylvania?

My home state of Pennsylvania has a "Stand Your Ground" law that was modeled after the Florida law. "Stand Your Ground" laws allow a person to use deadly force in self-defense against someone whom you believe presents a serious threat to you. I opposed the law when it first came before the State Assembly, and I oppose it now. It makes it too easy to kill or seriously harm someone who might not actually pose a threat at all, just because you might be paranoid enough imagine that they look suspicious.

However, I just learned that the Pennsylvania law contains a caveat not present in the Florida law, which might have made all the difference if Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman had lived in Pennsylvania rather than in Florida.

According to Philadelphia's CBS affiliate, the Pennsylvania law "requires that outside the home, a person invoking 'Stand Your Ground' must see a deadly weapon, not merely feel threatened."

So, since Martin was carrying nothing more lethal than a pack of Skittles candy and a can of iced tea, Zimmerman might have chosen not to shoot. Or, if he did, he might have had a lot more explaining to do.

15 July 2013

Stop the threats to Zimmerman

I am as disappointed as anyone regarding George Zimmerman's acquittal over the weekend in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. But, at the same time, I strongly condemn the actions of some other disappointed individuals who are going overboard and wishing harm on Zimmerman.

For example, some graffiti was discovered in the Philadelphia suburbs with the message "Kill Zimmerman". And this is just a drop in the bucket.

Incidents like this will only fuel the right-wing media's sensationalistic speculation about violent race wars in the wake of Saturday's verdict. And these incidents only make the perpetrators look no better than Zimmerman.

Violence and property damage will not change the verdict, nor will they bring Trayvon Martin back to life.

Those of us who feel that justice was not served will get our message across most clearly if we do so in a reasonable, peaceful, and dignified way. I think that's surely what Trayvon's parents - both of them the embodiment of grace and class - would want.

14 July 2013

Racial profiling in the post-Trayvon era

The jury in the Florida case of George Zimmerman has found him not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. So now Zimmerman walks free, and will likely be rewarded with book deals and other lucrative offers. And people around the country - and the world - have been shown that you can shoot an unarmed black teenager and get away with it.

Zimmerman's acquittal appears to make a case for racial profiling. And that is very, very dangerous. Zimmerman pursued Martin because he thought the young black man seemed out of place in the neighborhood, and therefore threatening. I doubt he would have caught Zimmerman's eye if Trayvon were a white kid dressed in a preppie sweater.

Furthermore, Zimmerman's supporters have been all over social media in recent weeks defending the unfair profiling. For example:

beachcomber @anniebrown00
It is not racial profiling, it is situational profiling. So many blacks are criminals.

FreeDegree @LawatStPenn
@msnbc If NAACP want no profiling, change way young men act n their attire!

The above tweets (two drops in a very big bucket) propagate the myth that blacks are more prone to bad behavior, and that racial profiling is therefore justified. This mindset is not only inaccurate but downright dangerous.

Crime statistics are often misinterpreted and misunderstood, as African-American writer Chauncy DeVega explained in an essay last year:

The black people commit more crime canard is a fallacy of both process and outcomes. African Americans are subject to discrimination in the legal system at every level. As documented by The Sentencing Project, and detailed in such works as Race, Crime and the Law, and The New Jim Crow, African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police without cause, to be more aggressively questioned, receive longer and more severe charges for the same crimes as white defendants, and to have fewer resources to defend themselves in court.

As compared to white neighborhoods, black and brown communities are also subject to more severe surveillance and aggressive police tactics. Moreover, the disproportionate number of minorities in the criminal justice system can be largely explained by the War on Drugs. In total, if white communities were subject to the same type of aggressive police tactics as black and brown communities, the number of white people in prison would skyrocket.

The data is very telling here. While people of color are the prime targets of such policies as "stop and frisk" and racial profiling, it is in fact white people who are far more likely to be both drug users and to be in possession of narcotics at a given moment. This reality signals to a larger social phenomenon: black individuals who commit crimes are representative of their whole communities, crime is racialized, and there is no qualifier of individual intent. All black people are deemed suspicious and guilty because of the deeds of the very few.

In contrast, white people who commit crimes are unique individuals: the criminals who destroyed the global economy, a group of white men, were not taken as representative of the entire white community. There is a long list of crimes such as domestic terrorism, serial murder, child rape, sedition, treason, and financial fraud that are almost exclusively the province of white people. But again, whites as a group are excluded from suspicion or indictment as a "criminal class."

Racial profiling is a waste of time and can make us less safe. Multiple studies have shown that when police focus on factors such as race, they tend to pay less attention to actual criminal behavior. This is a dangerous trend that can inhibit effective law enforcement and ultimately endanger the lives of all persons who depend on law enforcement for protection.

Furthermore, a 2004 report by Amnesty International provides overwhelming evidence that racial profiling is not only ineffective and counterproductive in finding the real criminals, but that it also encourages hate and undermines national unity. The report was based on six public hearings nationwide and more than a year of intensive research. And, given the racial tension we see in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's death, it is as timely now as ever.

We will be much better protected if law enforcement and security personnel (including neighborhood watch volunteers like Zimmerman) focus on what people are actually doing, and not on what they look like.

13 July 2013

Zimmerman was not standing his ground

The jury in the George Zimmerman case in Florida is now in its second day of deliberations.

Zimmerman pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting death last year of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, on grounds that he was defending himself under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. The problem with that, as I see it, is that Zimmerman was not standing his ground. He was aggressively pursuing Martin.

Even after the 911 dispatcher instructed Zimmerman to stop following Martin, Zimmerman loaded his gun, exited his car, and went out actively looking for trouble.

Therefore, I cannot imagine how the jury could possibly settle for anything less than a manslaughter conviction.

If they do, I will certainly want to hear their reasons why.

11 July 2013

PA Attorney General will not defend state DOMA

Yesterday I wrote about a new lawsuit brought by the ACLU challenging a Pennsylvania state law that excludes same-sex couples from marriage.

And today there is already some good news regarding the case:

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has announced that she will not defend the discriminatory law. (Not unlike how President Obama and AG Holder chose not to defend the federal DOMA.) Kudos to Kane for standing up for fairness and equality!

But the lawsuit doesn't end here. According to Philadelphia's NBC affiliate, "Pennsylvania law says it is the attorney general's duty to defend the constitutionality of state laws. But it also says the attorney general may allow lawyers for the governor's office or executive branch agencies to defend a lawsuit if it is more efficient or in the state's best interests."

Governor Tom Corbett is a conservative Republican, so I expect him to pick up the ball that Kane bravely dropped and run with it himself.

Stay tuned.

10 July 2013

ACLU sues for right to same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Now it's time to take on similar state-based laws that promote inequality.

To that end, on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Pennsylvania state law that excludes same-sex couples from marriage.

Below is an excerpt from an ACLU press release about the Pennsylvania case:

The lawsuit alleges that Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act and refusal to marry lesbian and gay couples or recognize their out-of-state marriages violates the fundamental right to marry as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This lawsuit comes in the wake of the ACLU's victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor, which requires federal recognition for lesbian and gay couples who are married in their home states. Plaintiffs argue that the court should closely scrutinize this discriminatory treatment because the state's Defense of Marriage Act burdens the fundamental right to marry and because it discriminates based on sex and sexual orientation.

"We only want what every married couple wants - to express our love and commitment in front of friends and family and the security and protections that only marriage provides," said plaintiff Deb Whitewood, who has been together with her spouse Susan Whitewood for 22 years. "Our life is built around our relationship and the family we have made."

The plaintiffs include 10 couples, two minor children of those couples, and one widow who recently lost her partner of 29 years.

>> Read the full press release.

And stay tuned for updates.

Meantime, I hope to see many similiar actions spring up around the country. Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia legally recognize same-sex marriage. That leaves 37 states to go. That's way too many, so we must get busy!

03 July 2013

Amnesty International says U.S. must not persecute Snowden

On July 2, Amnesty International issued the following comments addressing the case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden from a human rights perspective:
The US authorities' relentless campaign to hunt down and block whistleblower Edward Snowden's attempts to seek asylum is deplorable and amounts to a gross violation of his human rights Amnesty International said today.

"The US attempts to pressure governments to block Snowden's attempts to seek asylum are deplorable," said Michael Bochenek, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International. "It is his unassailable right, enshrined in international law, to claim asylum and this should not be impeded."

The organization also believes that the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower could be at risk of ill-treatment if extradited to the USA.

"No country can return a person to another country where there is a serious risk of ill-treatment," said Bochenek.

"We know that others who have been prosecuted for similar acts have been held in conditions that not only Amnesty International but UN officials considered cruel inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of international law."

Senior US officials have already condemned Snowden without a trial, labelling him both guilty and a traitor, raising serious questions as to whether he'd receive a fair trial. Likewise the US authorities move to charge Snowden under the Espionage Act could leave him with no provision to launch a public interest whistle-blowing defence under US law.

"It appears he is being charged by the US government primarily for revealing its - and other governments' - unlawful actions that violate human rights," said Bochenek.

"No one should be charged under any law for disclosing information of human rights violations. Such disclosures are protected under the rights to information and freedom of expression."

Besides filing charges against Snowden, the US authorities have revoked his passport - which interferes with his rights to freedom of movement and to seek asylum elsewhere.

"Snowden is a whistleblower. He has disclosed issues of enormous public interest in the US and around the world. And yet instead of addressing or even owning up to these actions, the US government is more intent on going after Edward Snowden."

"Any forced transfer to the USA would put him at risk of human rights violations and must be challenged," said Michael Bochenek.

But, of course, it seems that the U.S. government pays attention to human rights groups like Amnesty only when it suits a predetermined agenda.