Archive | December 2016

Obama urged to release U.S. political prisoners in waning days of his presidency

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Human rights advocates are urging Barack Obama to release the U.S. government’s political prisoners before he steps down as president on January 20, 2017.

Among the cases highlighted by human rights defenders include imprisoned U.S. whistleblowers and activists such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Jeffrey Sterling, and Leonard Peltier. Campaigners are also pressing Obama to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since exposing serious abuses and crimes by the intelligence community in 2013.

As one of its priority actions, Amnesty International is highlighting Peltier’s case as a clear-cut case of government overreach and misconduct, in which the government itself has acknowledged that it lacks any evidence. The Native American activist is currently serving two life sentences for the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.

“Amnesty International has studied [Peltier’s] case extensively over many years and remains seriously concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction,” the human rights organization says in an action alert. “Amnesty believes that political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.”

Amnesty points out that the U.S. Parole Commission has acknowledged that, “the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.”

The group recently produced a video on his case to draw attention to the injustice endured by this 71-year-old diabetic who is in dire need of medical care that is unavailable in prison:

Regarding political prisoner Chelsea Manning, who is serving a draconian 35-year sentence for exposing U.S. war crimes and other embarrassing state secrets, a coalition of human rights organizations has written to Obama urging the outgoing president to do the right thing and release this courageous whistleblower by commuting her sentence to time served.

In a Dec. 5 letter to the president, groups including the ACLU, Lambda Legal, League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Organization for Women, and the Transgender Law Center wrote:

We support commuting her court-martial sentence to time served. Ms. Manning is currently in the seventh year of a thirty-five year sentence for disclosing classified information to the media with the intention of raising public awareness about issues she found concerning, including the impact of war on innocent civilians. Our organizations may be of differing opinions concerning Ms. Manning’s actions; however, we stand united in our support for her clemency petition.

As Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, pointed out,

Transparency activist Chelsea Manning has already spent more time behind bars than any other whistleblower in U.S. history. She’s been systematically mistreated, subjected to torture, and denied access to desperately needed health care while serving a 35 year sentence in an all-male military prison. … If President Obama does not grant Chelsea’s clemency request before he leaves office, he is condemning her to a nightmarish fate.

Earlier this month, a petition asking President Obama to commute Manning’s prison sentence reached the 100,000-signature threshold to receive a response from the White House.

The international advocacy group Index on Censorship provides details on other U.S. political prisoners that Obama is being urged to pardon:

Jeffrey Sterling

Considered to be a whistleblower by some, Jeffrey Sterling, who worked for the CIA from 1993 to 2002, was charged under the Espionage Act with mishandling national defense information in 2010. Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his contributions to New York Times journalist James Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which detailed the failed CIA Operation Merlin that may have inadvertently aided the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Risen was subpoenaed twice to testify in the case United States v Sterling but refused, resulting in a seven-year legal battle.

On 11 May 2015, at Sterling’s sentencing, judge Leonie Brinkema stated that although she was moved by his professional history, she wanted to send a message to other whistleblowers of the “price to be paid” when revealing government secrets. …

Edward Snowden

Although the most famous whistleblower on this list has not been tried and sentenced, Edward Snowden could face up to 30 years in prison for his multiple felony charges under the World War I-era Espionage Act. Snowden was charged on 14 June 2013 for his role in leaking classified information from the National Security Agency, notably a global surveillance initiative.

Snowden has expressed a willingness to go to prison for his actions but refuses to be used as a “deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations” as so many whistleblowers often are.

Barrett Brown

The political climate in the US has become so hostile towards leaks that even journalists can face repercussions for their involvement with whistleblowers. American journalist and essayist Barrett Brown’s case became well-known after he was arrested for copying and pasting a hyperlink to millions of leaked emails from Stratfor, an American private intelligence company, from one chat room to another. The leak itself had been orchestrated by Jeremy Hammond, who is serving 10 years in prison for his participation, and did not involve Brown. Brown faced a sentence of up to 102 years in prison, once again for sharing a hyperlink, before the 12 counts of aggravated identity theft and trafficking in stolen data charges were dropped in 2013.

Although the dismissal of these charges was heralded as a victory for press freedom, Brown was still convicted of two counts of being an accessory after the fact and obstructing the execution of a search warrant. On 22 January 2015, Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay $890,250 in fines and restitution to Stratfor.

Barrett Brown was released from prison last month, after serving four years under harsh and punitive conditions.

While incarcerated, Brown wrote award-winning columns about an endless stream of abuses he endured in prison, including misconduct by prison officials seeking to silence him and violate his rights and the rights of other inmates. This included multiple stints in solitary and restrictions on his access to the press and use of email.

While there is no single internationally agreed upon designation of what constitutes a political prisoner, the intergovernmental organization Council of Europe in 2012 agreed upon one of the most useful and balanced definitions ever put forward.

The resolution adopted  by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria: a person is considered a political prisoner “if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of,” or “if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.”

Amnesty International’s definition is a bit broader, and it is clear that under its criteria all of these cases would qualify as political prisoners. As Amnesty has previously explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;

a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

Although the United States would never acknowledge that it holds political prisoners, it is clear that under commonly used definitions of the term, many cases in the U.S. certainly apply. Chelsea Manning is a political prisoner, as her harsh sentence was applied for purely political motives, as was made clear during her sentencing.

“This court must send a message to those who release confidential information,” prosecutor Army Capt. Joe Morrow said to Judge Denise Lind during the sentencing phase of the trial. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”

So, Manning, just like Sterling and others, is rotting in prison simply to send a “message” to other would-be whistleblowers. It is long past time for Obama to show some integrity and let these prisoners go.

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To bring U.S. elections in line with international standards, abolish Electoral College

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The U.S.’s long national nightmare of Election 2016 is one step closer to coming to an end, with electors gathering across the country today to cast ballots in the Electoral College. This in all likelihood will result in billionaire Donald J. Trump becoming the country’s 45th president, solidifying the descent of the United States into a bona fide oligarchy, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a government by the few … in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.”

It also serves as a stark reminder of the archaic and undemocratic nature of U.S. elections, in which the winner of the popular vote – in this case Hillary Clinton – can be denied the presidency because of an indirect electoral system conceived in the 18th century as a way for slave states to maintain political hegemony. By counting enslaved African Americans as three-fifths of a person, while simultaneously denying them the right to vote, wealthy white landowners in the South were able to maintain disproportionate political control over the federal government for generations.

electoral-college-2Now, for the second time in the young 21st century, the popular vote loser is assuming the White House solely due to this antiquated, undemocratic system of choosing presidents. In both cases, the Electoral College has handed the election to a Republican with authoritarian tendencies, meaning that without this controversial electoral method, there would have been no Republican presidents this century, and the world would probably be a very different place.

While it is impossible to predict what Al Gore (who received half a million more votes than George W. Bush) would have done as president, in all likelihood there would have been no Iraq War, no torture regime, no Guantanamo Bay – all of which have been instrumental in facilitating the descent into lawlessness and international chaos that is coming to define this century. It is clear, at least, that the undemocratic nature of U.S. elections, including but not limited to the problematic Electoral College, has real-world implications that reverberate well beyond the borders of the United States.

If the United States hopes to bring its procedure for choosing its leaders in line with international standards for democratic elections, a good place to start would be to abolish the Electoral College. International election observers have noted what an oddity this system is, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observing that “the system allows for a candidate to win the popular vote nationwide while falling short of the majority of Electoral College votes.”

Observers from the Organization of American States, in their recent assessment of the November elections, pointed out that

The U.S. electoral system presents several characteristics that make it unique in the hemisphere. One of these aspects is the Electoral College by which the President is elected through an indirect vote consisting of the accumulation of electoral votes tallied state by state, as opposed to the most common electoral practice of direct election through popular vote.

Although there are a dozen or so recognized electoral systems around the world and while the United States is not bound to ensure that its electoral practice follows the accepted procedures of other democracies, there are certain principles to which the U.S. has agreed, which may be violated to varying degrees by the Electoral College system.

The electoral commitments the United States has signed onto in such landmark international agreements as the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights include such widely accepted international norms of “equal suffrage” which is fundamentally undermined by the Electoral College, in which the popular vote is discounted.

electoral-college-1In the ICCPR, for example, the signatories agreed that “Every citizen shall have the right … [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

In the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, the United States agreed that it would hold “free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives.”

This does not happen in the U.S. electoral system. The free expression of opinion of the electors is irrelevant in fact, since nearly three million more Americans chose the Democrat over the Republican, but the Republican is assuming the presidency anyway, due to the arcane and undemocratic Electoral College.

It is long since passed time to abolish this system and move towards direct elections under the principle of one-person-one-vote.

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