Sunday, December 20, 2009

Civil Trial Against Charles Taylor Jr.: Day 3

We concluded the fact witness portion of the trial last Wednesday (thanks for your patience the past few days - it's been a busy time!) and have only the testimony from our expert witness to go. Our expert will testify in January 2010. With help from the US Embassy in Liberia, we were able to connect a second witness to testify from Liberia in the courtroom in Miami Wednesday morning. The last of our five plaintiffs gave her testimony in the afternoon and included a detail for which other plaintiffs expressed appreciation, saying it was a very important point to understand: she noted to the judge that Liberians never expected Taylor Sr. to do to them the horrible things he did. Some witnesses hail from Nimba County - an area that supported Taylor Sr. before he became president. Once he assumed that role and began to wreck havoc on the nation, some blamed Nimba County residents for backing him in the first place. Her words and her tears explained that her people never dreamt he was capable of the terror he inflicted. Her trust - and desperation - were so deep that she hand-carried a letter during the war to soldiers' army barracks, asking for help to support her family after her husband was forced into exile. With this bravery, it is no surprise that she had the courage to come forward with her story. On a final procedural note on Wednesday, the judge denied the defendant's motion to vacate the default judgment entered against him in May 2009.

If you'd like to read more about coverage of the trial in general, click here or here, for more about the first day, click here, here or here. (You may have noted other articles have suggested that all five plaintiffs are men. This is not accurate - two are women.)

Thanks to all of you who followed the trial! We will be back with more news in the new year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Civil Trial Against Charles Taylor, Jr.: Day 2

The second day of trial went smoothly. We completed testimony from one live witness and were able to connect via video with help from IT at the Court and at the U.S. Embassy to complete testimony from another witness in Liberia. Some of the testimony was difficult for many in the courtroom to hear. Even ten years after the events at issue took place, the harms our clients suffered are painful. The trial resumes today at 10 am.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Civil Trial Against Charles Taylor, Jr.: Day 1 (cont'd)

Our civil trial began today after we addressed several preliminary matters raised by Defendant Taylor. With assistance from the Public Defenders in his criminal case, Defendant Taylor moved to vacate the default judgment entered last May and postpone the trial. After ensuring that Defendant Taylor understood his requests and his rights, the judge denied Defendant Taylor's motion to postpone the trial. The judge then granted our request to have two of our clients who were not able to travel to the United States testify by video conference. (The first such testimony should take place Tuesday.)

Then, after the Court certified an interpreter to assist with testimony (Liberian English differs from American English), the trial got underway with testimony from our first witness. His testimony addressed the physical abuse he endured at the hands of Defendant Taylor and his ATU soldiers. This witness also testified about the lasting physical, emotional, and financial impact he still suffers today.

We will update you on the trial's progress tomorrow. In the meantime, our clients are adjusting to the new time zone and two tried their first hamburger (and liked it!) last night. We have discovered that habenero peppers are nearly hot enough to substitute for Liberian pepper in cooking. And, miraculously to those of us who cannot cook, one client was able to make perfect rice in the small frying pan provided in the kitchenettes of the hotel where we are staying.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Civil Trial Against Charles Taylor, Jr.: Day 1

The civil trial against Charles Taylor, Jr. begins today in the Southern District of Florida. Three of the five plaintiffs safely arrived in the United States to participate in person. We will be providing accounts from the trial at this site over the course of the next few days and a more detailed account once the trial has concluded.

For an AP Article by Curt Anderson regarding the case, please click here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cost-free giving!

Looking for a quick, easy, and affordable way to help your favorite non-profits this holiday season? Now is the chance to give at no cost!

Facebook and Chase Community Giving have partnered together to give away $5 million to 100 small organizations like Human Rights USA, and they want YOU to vote for the organizations that matter most to you!

This is your chance to support the organization that:
If you're going to give this holiday season, why not give Human Rights USA the recognition and resources it needs to continue its ongoing mission to secure justice for victims of human rights abuses?

Here's how it works:
  • Round 1: From Nov. 15, 2009 to Dec. 11, 2009 (11:59pm EST), Facebook users can vote for any Charity that is part of the Chase Community Giving application. Chase will donate $25,000 to each of the 100 Charities receiving the most votes in Round 1.
  • Round 2: From Jan. 15, 2010 to Jan. 22, 2010, participants may vote for the 100 Round 2 Charities. Chase will donate $1,000,000 to the Round 2 Charity receiving the most votes and will donate $100,000 to the five runners up.
(A full list of rules may be found at the Chase Community Giving fan page on Facebook.)

Vote for human Rights USA and then get friends and others on Facebook to do the same.

Voting is simple:

1. Sign up for a Facebook account if you don't already have one. Signing up is easy, and it's free!
2. Become a fan of Chase Community Giving on Facebook (required in order to vote).
3. Cast your vote for Human Rights USA by either clicking here or searching for "World Organization for Human Rights USA" on the Chase Giving page.
4. Post information about the contest to your wall, and invite your friends to vote!

That's it! No messy credit card transactions. No complicated forms to fill out. And all it took was a minute. Not a bad investment of your time, huh?

Voting for Round 1 ends on December 11, so hurry!

Monday, December 7, 2009

CAUTION: Human Rights USA Name Being Used in Internet Scheme (12/7/2009)

It has recently come to our attention that the names of the World Organization for Human Rights USA and at least one of our staff members are being used in an internet scheme designed to deceive individuals into sending their personal information (including passport numbers) to a designated e-mail address. While we do host events from time to time, we have no conferences planned in the near future and are in no way affiliated with this scheme, which we believe to be a scam or fraud.

If you have already sent your personal information to the designated e-mail address, we suggest you use this link to report the fraud to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)

Please feel free to contact us if you have questions about whether an email message that appears to be from Human Rights USA is authentic.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Human Rights USA Blogs on Liberia: Progress

Hello again! I've returned to the U.S. (and just in time to enjoy an evening Thanksgiving dinner and be thankful for safe travel). I look forward to speaking with you tomorrow (Monday) and answering any questions you have about Liberia and our work there.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some fun pictures from Monrovia. You'll see some work in progress on buildings and roads in the area. I've also included a picture from one of the markets and one of an afternoon bath that is too cute not to share.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia: "Bye Bye for Now"

My time in Liberia comes to an end today and I’ll be packing to leave this afternoon. I want to thank everyone who followed this blog - sharing the experience with you was a lot of fun and I look forward to talking with you next Monday. Before I go, I would also like to thank the many people who made this trip a smooth, successful experience. (I use initials where I thought that person might prefer not to be identified.)

  • John Hummel, Carter Center Director (and host extraordinaire)

  • Musu, David, and all of the talented staff at the Carter Center

  • “L” at JFK Hospital

  • Professor Rice for the helpful insights

  • Peter Chapman (Carter Center) and Fin Young (ABA) for the terrific legal research

  • Frederick Jayweh and ALLA for pre-travel information

  • Jennifer Hazen for helpful referrals and going out on the town in Monrovia

  • "G” for sanity-saving workouts

  • Ralph Bunche for the pre-travel advice and referrals
I sincerely appreciate how generous each of these people was with their time and/or resources in making this part of Human Rights USA’s work possible. So as I head to the airport, I’ll say to you and Monrovia what one of our clients always says to me, “Bye, bye for now!”


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia, Day 8: Election Day

Today was an election day in Montserrado Country, where Monrovia is located, to select a new Senator to replace the one who passed away a few weeks ago (and whose memory was being celebrated the night I arrived, a few doors down from where I am staying). The day was a holiday, meaning all restaurants were closed (or at least so it seemed) and I owe my host a can of peanuts.

The Senatorial candidates, Geraldine Doe and Clemenceau Urey, are now in a run-off after neither won a majority among the multiple candidates two weeks ago. (I try to imagine the U.S. with ten strong parties and wonder if we’d get some fresh ideas or if it would look much like last year’s Democratic debates where everyone spent most of their 90 seconds to speak repeating, “Yeah, what s/he said…”) Some see today’s election as a referendum of the Sirleaf government and, since the vast majority of the Liberian population lives in Monrovia, a harbinger of the 2011 Presidential election. (Despite a population of over one million in Monrovia alone, Montserrado County has 496,508 registered voters - and 989 polling places.

Most agree that the 2011 election will be critical in determining whether Liberia continues on a path to stability or retreats into conflict again. Some say that President Sirleaf and George Weah have done so much speaking on behalf the candidates that Doe and Urey haven’t gotten much of a word in edgewise and it’s hard to know the candidates’ stance on various issues. Since that’s about the extent of what I’ve gathered during my week here, I’ll direct you to more authoritative sources for more info, below:
Click here for statements from the US Ambassador, urging peace, patience and honesty in the election process, quoted in The Analyst.

More calls for peaceful elections by

Last week’s coverage in the Daily Observer addressing accusations of buying votes. (Signs around town read: to have good Senators, you must be a good voter - don’t sell your vote!)’s coverage of the initial by-elections and some problems that arose:

Waiting to hear tomorrow who won….

(Update - still waiting, but very interesting reaction from people I've asked about the election. Turnout was low because, it seems, people have truly lost all faith in all politicians here. The problems seem to be two-fold - one, there are few debates, so people don't know for what the candidates truly stand and two, regardless of who is elected, they become "self-interested" and don't work on behalf of the people. Even in the time they are granted to go to talk to their constituents, most apparently jaunt off to Europe and the U.S. People are truly disheartened and have little faith in the system. An extremely bright young man today told me that he'd rather go into the private sector than politics as "politics is dangerous here in Africa." He was quite the young JFK, saying people should not ask what their country would do for them, but what they can do for their country.)

Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial. Feel free to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia, Day 7: Women in Liberia

From my short time here, it appears to me that Liberian women are strong, elegant, and too often disrespected. As in many places in Africa, women (and many men, too) carry items on top of their heads. And by items, I mean to tell you I’ve seen HUGE baskets of shoes placed just so such that other shoes can be piled on top balanced on top of a woman’s head….while she had a baby tied to her back….while carrying items in both arms….while gliding over unpaved roads….then leaping buildings in a single bound. Ok, ok, I exaggerate - but only about the last part. The dress here varies for everyone - some wear business attire and others more traditional dress - gorgeous lapas (a long piece of cloth tied around the waist and reaching to ones lower leg or ankles) and dresses that are colorful and classy. Many wear casual t-shirts that would make vintage shirt fans drool. Seeing a guy wearing an “Everyone loves an Irish girl” shirt was fun, and there are “Obama Girl” shirts at every turn, but my favorite is the picture attached here - “A Wise Man Once Said: I don’t know, go ask a girl.” As the woman carrying this container on her head approached to sell a newspaper page full of peanuts to my fellow traveler, I knew I needed a picture.

While the shirt brought a smile to my face, many signs here have not. In a country that elected the first female President in all of Africa, you would hope not to need billboards reading “No Sex for Jobs” or “Stop Rape - It Could Be Your Ma.” Someone involved in training the military here told me that female candidates had to be told to stop washing the clothes of the male candidates. (I wonder if they had to be told more than once?) From what I hear, treatment of women in the interior is much worse than that in Monrovia. There, men can beat “their woman” and then pay the police to not bring any case against them.* The schools in the interior need vast improvement and children there are often needed to help with the farming. As such, most young women living outside of Monrovia do not receive as much education and often have children at a much younger age. And in other areas, it’s not uncommon to have more than one wife at the same time.

As you have probably gathered by now, I like to leave you with a more hopeful note, so will share that I have also had the pleasure to meet a few young women in Monrovia who are enrolled in school and love it. Murals are a popular way of spreading messages here (“Stop Malaria - Use a Mosquito Net for Your Family” and “There’s no cure for HIV - use protection”). One series of murals depicts one of various female leaders here with the caption “Another great Liberian woman - You Could be the Next.” Let’s hope that reaches many young women!

*Speaking of bribes, I forgot to mention that another person and I were stopped at a checkpoint coming back to downtown Friday night. (Note to my parents: stop reading here.) It was past sundown and we were not in a large vehicle that commands respect (read: emblazoned with the logo of an NGO (non-governmental organization) or other established entity like the UN), so the police flagged us down to stop. With flashlights shining in from my side of the car, they asked the driver if he had a license. He did. They paused, looked at me, then asked him to show them what was in the trunk. A few moments later, he returned to the driver’s seat and, as we drove off, said the officer told the driver to “find something for [him].” In response, the driver gave him “small small money.” (Around 40 Liberian dollars, I think.) The driver was clearly frustrated, explaining that the newer officers were the ones who abuse their authority, while the older, better-trained police apparently do not. A few minutes later, we were stopped again by another set of officers. Again, they looked in from the passenger side and the driver explained we’d just been stopped not five minutes ago and nothing had changed since then. They paused and asked if he had his license. Not one to be silent for long, I turned and answered with a firm, “Yes.” (Because being gruff with cops at night in a foreign country is always a good idea.) Another pause. Ok, they said, go ahead. I know some say, “When in Rome…” but, as a lawyer, it’s frustrating to see even the smallest example of corruption in the system. After all, the ultimate impact on the system as a whole and the average citizen’s faith therein is not “small small.”


Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

Monday, November 23, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia, Day 6: The Wicked Gruna Man.

“I am bouncing along unpaved roads in Liberia in a little 4x4 truck between a Cameroonian lawyer to my left, my self-proclaimed African father to my right, and “R” hanging on tightly in the back, as I’m hearing about some of the worst atrocities I can imagine and carefully holding a freshly grilled plantain wrapped in notebook paper,” I thought to myself today. This was not an average weekend day. We drove far outside of Monrovia and I’m not sure where to begin in sharing with you readers the stories I heard. Like many road trips, this one seemed a natural forum for sharing, but please note these stories may not be easy to read.

As I packed my bag this morning, I tossed in a few snacks, expecting that the men on the trip would not think to do so (more tomorrow on the situation for women in Liberia). Well, “R“ proved me wrong (and yes, I’ll admit, made me quietly regret my earlier sexist assumption) when we picked him up and, with a big smile, distributed packs of ginger cookies to all aboard the truck out of town. Through mouthfuls of the crunchy snacks, someone mentioned how hungry he had been since he skipped breakfast… and the conversation turned to how “R” had been so hungry at times during the war that he could hear ringing in his ears. “Bbbzzzmmmm,” he demonstrated. He recalled that his son had just been born at that time, so when he was able to find food, he gave it to his wife for her well-being and so the baby would be able to have breast milk. Around that point in our journey, we reached a bridge over one of the many beautiful rivers in Liberia. Men in the car recalled a time during the war when food was so scarce in Monrovia that women had to swim across the river to the more lush area and swim back with food for their family on their heads. But the lush areas were where the rebels hid and, more often than not, the women were raped before they were able to return. People knew this…but they also knew that men would be killed if they went, so the women went instead. These stories prompted one passenger to ask others if they were still with the women they had been with during the war. “Oh, yes,” they said - that sort of thing is a stronger bond than any band (wedding ring), they replied.

Our driver, it turns out, had worked with the TRC, or Truth & Reconciliation Commission, collecting stories from war survivors. According to our driver, those who participated in the peace talks in Ghana that ended the war in Liberia (read: mostly warlords that committed war crimes) decided that a TRC a superior option to prosecutions to hold those who committed war crimes responsible (shocking, eh?). As we made our way over some paved and many unpaved roads, he pointed out sites of several massacres and, as we crossed a bridge, explained how people’s bodies had been severed from their heads and allowed to drop into the river while the heads were displayed along the entry to the bridge. Cutting out human hearts to display on the bridge was not uncommon either. One of the worst stories I heard today was about a woman whom rebel soldiers hung upside down and stuffed her “lily” with hot pepper “until it was full.” She survived and reported what had been done to her to the TRC. With stories like this, one has to wonder what horrible scars people have both on their bodies and in their hearts after what happened here. But that violent past is simply reality - mid-sentence about other incidents of torture, one passenger broke off to point out the window and tell me, “That’s how we make palm wine here.”

Eventually, our conversation turned to how the war crimes had come to pass. How can people do such heinous, heinous things to each other? The consensus in the truck was that those fighting had no training in any semblance of rules of engagement and, once armed, they solved old grudges with gunfire. Without commanders who took responsibility for the actions of their subordinates or punished those who wronged civilians, fighting spun out of control until you had fighters who would readily shoot a civilian for the nice shirt on their back. Add to the equation the copious amounts of drugs most fighters were taking throughout the war and you have a recipe for the disaster Mama Liberia experienced. When asked about the source of the drugs, no one knew for sure but said, matter-of-factly, that drugs always follow fighting. If only distribution of useful medications were so efficient.

Talk turned to Taylor, Sr., who one passenger called a “gruna man,” or crook. Another agreed, saying Taylor was “a wicked, wicked man,” who tried to control every aspect of his country, usurping democratic channels and using brute force to terrorize his citizens. And yet he still has supporters in this country who, based on the conversation today, liked what Taylor did for their personal finances so much they overlook what happened to the people during the wars. The idea of the man who campaigned with “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him” as a slogan returning to power boggles the mind. But the consensus seems to be that people are increasingly accepting that he will not return - and neither will the terror that occurred during his administration.

I recognize that those of you who work in human rights are accustomed to all that I’ve written here, while those of you who don‘t might appreciate ending on a more uplifting note - so I’ll mention that I had the opportunity to meet a man today who is over 100 years old! He remembers figures in Liberian history from, well, nearly 100 years ago. And when one person with our group tried to translate points of historical reference into American terms, saying, “He would be like your JFK,” another dismissed him saying, “No, no, that would be 1963, this is more like the Taft era.” Wow. The knowledge of American history far outside of the US never ceases to amaze me. I’m also attaching some pictures to give you a sense of the beautiful sights around this area of the country.


Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia, Day 5: Market Madness, Electricity, and School Children

I had to hit pause on a very productive day when, with a whir and a sigh,
the generator at the Carter Center took its afternoon break. One would think
I might know the generator schedule after several days of being here, but it
seems I’ve been out and about with clients and not in need of electricity
during those times. So making copies of finalized applications for Monday
morning will have to wait for a 30-minute window early tomorrow morning
before we head out of Monrovia.

In the meantime, I’ll update you, our dear readers, with some news from
Monrovia. Speaking of - I’m attaching a picture of “The Daily Talk” - a
large blackboard that is covered with handwritten headlines of the
every-other-day-or-so. Unfortunately, today it was not yet open when we went
by, but the picture gives you a sense of the news stand in place near JFK
Hospital. We drove past on our way outside of town to meet several clients
in the market and ohmigoodness, I don’t know that I can adequately describe
the energy there. Vendors were packed in areas side-by-side or about on foot
toting their wares - from fresh water, to sunglasses, to potato greens, to
towels, to lapas, to anything under the sun - and buyers mixed in along with
cars crawling along as tightly packed as the people but moving more slowly.
(See picture of large truck trying to navigate the market.) Driving here is
a riot. (See picture of some of the roads outside of Monrovia.) Horns are
used to say “watch out, I’m passing on your left,” and “watch out, I’m
backing up,” and “Nope, I’m going first you need to wait” and often just
“Hello, person I know.” Emergency flashers are used to avoid an emergency -
put those on when the person in front of you is waiting to turn left across
solid traffic to let the person behind you know to take your brake lights
seriously. There are tons of taxis - both because no reliable bus system is
in place for those needing to travel significant distances into downtown and
because many people injured by the war cannot do more strenuous work. The
taxis often have messages painted on the back ranging from the religious
(“God is good”) to the practical (“Keep me Clean”), but my all time favorite
was clever or mistakenly ironic but either way hilarious: “NO MSTAKE.”

I’m happy to report that the “snap!” at the end of my Liberian handshake has
shown great improvement and my fist bump, well, that’s so basic it doesn‘t
need practice. Which is a good thing as it seems no small child here can
leave a fist bump unrequited. Put a hand up with the flats of your fingers
and knuckles out steady and even the shiest child is sure to reach a tiny
fist up in response. The bump and my digital camera have won me some small
friends here. While kids are initially skeptical of a foreigner hopping out
of a large 4x4, bring out a camera and show them how to zooooom and voila!
they are enchanted - and enchanting. (See picture some school children took
of others after a quick “press this button” lesson.) My understanding is
that most children do go to school - and you see plenty of uniforms
(Adventist school shirts are bright pink) to attest to that. But school is
very expensive for some parents so some may not be able to attend
consistently. Those in school learn more than English lessons in the
classroom - NGOs like “Right to Play” teach kids valuable cooperation skills
through outdoor playtime. Driving through the outskirts of Monrovia today,
it was fun to see large groups of school kids enjoying playtime. Seeing
them, I wondered how many were old enough to remember when no one would go
out of doors for fear of being hit by a stray bullet and what Liberia will
become as this new generation grows up.


Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

Friday, November 20, 2009

HRUSA Blogs From Liberia, Day 4: Attorney and Counselor-at-Law

Attorney and Counselor-at-law.” Many of us give this title about as much thought as “peas and carrots.” “Counselor,” we think, is something antiquated - a term that’s just hanging on to have more to fit on a shingle. Or perhaps, like parents used our middle name when we were young, it’s a term that tells you, as the judge leans over the bench with a furrowed brow and a sharp “Counselor!,” that “yous in trouble!” But if we lawyers think our work does not have psychological and emotional elements and that we do not need to consider the mental state of our clients, we deceive ourselves. Family law is an obvious example of an area in which an attorney should remember that clients are likely experiencing strong emotions and the outcome of the case will be deeply personal. But I’ve also seen businesspersons struggle emotionally when the companies they have built over many years risk collapse and employees crumble internally when years of litigation start to take their toll. As an attorney, I believe it is your job to be aware of the impact your work has on your clients and never is that more important than when working with clients like ours who have survived atrocities one can barely imagine.

To this end, I am grateful for the training we at Human Rights USA received from Karen Hanscom at Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. Karen explained the psychological and physiological ways that being tortured changes one’s understanding of the world and undermines the basic lessons of one’s place in the world learned as a child. Based on Karen‘s training, I understood the need to give the clients I met today a tour of the building where we were meeting, ensuring everything felt open and accessible, and to allow them to sit closest to the door so they didn’t subconsciously feel trapped in the room. And as we began to talk about various aspects of the case, the differences in how our clients have processed what happened to them became remarkably clear. While one gains strength, another remains bitter; where one accepts the past and moves forward, aiming to ensure it is never repeated, another cannot forget and does not want to forgive - not yet. So we discussed legal options and legal reality, as well as the wishes of one’s family and the fact that, no matter how many cases one files, the what is done can never be undone.

A case like this is not simply a series of pleadings and court appearances - it is a healing process. The opportunity for our clients to face the man who wronged them is invaluable. And even if he never showed his face (as some defendants choose to do), our clients find taking a stand (literally, come December!) and exercising their rights extremely empowering.

On a lighter note, the Liberian expressions of the day are “take time” and “dress.” “Take time” means “mind where you’re going” or “look out,” often said to people who wander into the street without paying attention to the traffic (which puts any rush hour in the U.S. to shame - oh, and “shame” here means shy). “Dress” is what you say to people when you need them to make more room, such as in the back of a crowded taxi: “Dress, dress! I need to get in.”


Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia, Day 3: Opinions, Copyright, and Oil Rice in Monrovia.

We continued making good progress on the case today and arrangements for travel in December. I’ll be meeting with more clients tomorrow and continuing to gather documentation from facilities in Monrovia. I can focus more on that progress in a later blog - for now, I’d like to answer some of the questions I’ve received about impressions of the country here and about the food. While I can speak from (limited) personal experience as to the latter, I’ll simply share the opinions of others who have been here longer on the former.

There’s something fun about an expat community where everyone shares a bond of coming from another country and exploring the same new one. Similar to the quote about learning another language to truly understand your own, I think it is when you see life in another country that you begin to understand your own…. And, at the same time, you may see things in a new country that those who were raised there don’t. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people who live here or visit regularly - including a fun family of missionaries, Embassy employees, NGO employees, visiting doctors and academics. (I'll share interesting things I've learned from locals in a later blog.) And, not surprisingly I suppose, there are as many opinions as people. Many note marked improvement since 2006, when President Sirleaf took office. Some look at particular issues and say the administration isn’t doing enough. For example, some lament the relative lack of programs for child soldiers, while others argue resources are too limited and the child soldiers who survived shouldn’t get the resources that could go to the next generation of children who need to be in school. Schools, by the way, are not free in Monrovia and, if you can believe it, children can be turned away despite paying tuition if they don’t arrive in the proper uniform, down to the right shoes. (Ok, I must interject my own opinion here: While I see a benefit in requiring clean, respectful clothing, I have a hard time thinking about children being denied the opportunity to learn for not having the right shoes in a country where some have none at all.) Some here say that while many “talk the talk” of a religious life, they don’t live the teachings of their respective churches, which others collaborate from a more secular perspective saying that no one cares about the person next to them. Some see consistent, gradual progress while others lament the amount of money that is siphoned out of the reconstruction process by corruption and greed. Many question what will happen surrounding the 2011 presidential elections - will Sirleaf run again? Will the football star who lost last time have enough sway this time with young voters? (Which makes a huge difference in a country where around half of the population is under 18.) Will peace continue to grow or will some event be the catalyst for more fighting? Right now most have questions and not answers, but the vast majority of those with whom I’ve spoken have hope for a stable, peaceful country .

And on the legal side of things, here’s an interesting read about the status of the laws in Liberia - in short, determining the relevant laws damages is not as easy as finding good search terms on Westlaw. Word on the street is that President Sirleaf would like to address this issue but already has a considerable amount on her plate. Some would like to see the laws widely distributed, such that Banks has to either accept their distribution or bring suit - and have this matter settled once and for all.

On a happier note, there are groups that are generously furthering the availability of legal texts (and books in general) in Liberia. For example, Books for Africa has provided an entire “law module” to the law school here. In a country without publishing houses, bringing in books is critical. I encourage any law students reading this to consider an alternative to selling back those horribly large texts for a few cents on the dollar. Fore more info, click here. (You can mail domestically via media mail to Minnesota.)

Lastly, to answer questions about food: We made great progress on the case today and, to celebrate, “R” and I had a proper lunch (which was around $5 USD) - where I learned another Liberian expression. I’d ordered fufu, a dumpling-type bread made from cassava and was excited to try it. (see: - I’ll note that my peanut soup had a more generous serving of meat and fish) But then the server returned and said, “Fufu finish.” There was a pause for me to process this - I hadn’t finished my fufu, since I hadn’t gotten it yet…and then I realized, finish = out. They were out of fufu! Sigh. I had the peanut soup and rice instead which was spicy and delicious - and happily I have several other days to try some fufu. Rice is a common part of meals here and, when served without a soup, is called “dry rice.” As opposed to “oil rice” which, with a Liberian accent, sounds a bit like “allright.” So when someone asks you how you are doing (“how da body?”), they might ask if you are “dry rice or oil rice.” I’m looking forward to asking my clients tomorrow if they dry rice or oil rice.

More on legal progress, culinary adventures and other matters tomorrow…Hope you readers are all oil rice!

Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

HR USA Blogs from Liberia: Day 2

Liberian Temple of Justice: "Let Justice be Done to All"

HRUSA's Piper Hendricks blogs from Liberia as she meets with HRUSA's clients and undergoes extensive document collection. On her first full day in Liberia, she meets with some of the clients, prepares for visa interviews, and avoids the downpours of the rainy season...

Great first day in Liberia! With help from folks at the Carter Center, I was able to meet one of our clients across town (longer-distance movement is not always easy here), get a cell phone here up and running (which is a critical mode of communication as everyone uses cell phones - the rare landlines are only at some of larger agencies and ministries), prepare for a visa interview tomorrow, gain a sense of the geography (and, with local drivers, learn much about the history of various neighborhoods) and visit a hospital to discuss available records. Oh, and stop by a local fruit stand on the way back to buy grapefruit and marvel at the purple avocados…all while avoiding the unseasonably hard rainfalls (there‘s no debate here over whether climate change is a problem). The second downpour just began and I’m safely indoors updating declarations - and you, our wonderful supporters.

After months of phone calls (carefully timed to reach people in network as rainy season clouds allowed), it’s wonderful to see our clients in person. They were tickled by the recorded greetings all of us at HRUSA prepared and sent via camcorder (isn’t technology great?) and are pleased to have more concrete preparations for the December trial underway. One client, “R,” is so diligent that when I suggested this afternoon that we take a break for lunch, he looked at me with surprise and said, “No, we must keep working!” So we split the protein bar in my bag and back to work we went. There is no “trying slow” here! (Expressions in other countries are delightful and Liberia is no exception so I’m trying to learn as many as I can while I’m here. “Trying slow” means one is putting in much effort but the results are slow in coming.)

Work in this setting is incredibly rewarding and exciting in a way that can’t be duplicated in the States. Here, our clients are more like partners than clients - they know the country, the places, the people, and the way to get things done and are absolutely invaluable. The feeling of working together toward justice and contributing to the positive outcome of their own case is one I believe we are all enjoying.

In the evening, I had the opportunity to meet with several Carter Center fellows as well as law students from Washington & Lee who are here under the tutelage of Professor Thomas “Speedy” Rice. The Carter Center fellows work in various government ministries and government projects in Liberia while the students are visiting for several weeks to learn more about the challenges facing the Liberian justice system and the reality on the ground in a post-conflict country. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see such a high-level of interest and dedication in this new generation of attorneys! With any luck, a few generations from now, we’ll all be out of business (i.e., human rights will be consistently respected worldwide). One can hope, no? ~Piper

Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia: Day 1, Touching Down

HRUSA's Piper Hendricks blogs from Liberia as she meets with HRUSA's clients and undergoes extensive document collection. On Day 1, she finally touches down in the capital city of Monrovia after multiple days of travel...

I arrived safely in Monrovia tonight. It’s ~82F/28C and I must say seeing palm trees in November is always a delight. From the airport, we passed several impressive buildings, including City Hall, the UNMIL building, and, my personal favorite, the Justice building. Unfortunately, arriving in the evening makes it difficult to really get a sense of your surroundings, but my limited impression so far is that it is a pretty mellow place. Of course, that may be because I’m listening to a band play praise music in front of the Carter Center housing and hearing the rolling waves of the Atlantic ocean in the backyard. A Senator here recently passed away, so word on the street is that her daughter arrived from America for the ceremony - hence the music out front. Also the reason for the coverage on local TV of the Senatorial run-off election, which I caught a bit of tonight eating rice and chicken (every part of the chicken, I believe) down at Sweet Lips CafĂ©.

Tomorrow I will hit the ground running on collecting documents for trial. Some say that one needs a machete to cut through the red tape around here, but thanks to several helpful individuals with whom I spoke before leaving the States, I should be able to get a good start. Another obstacle, of course, is that some documents one might expect to have in other countries are not available here - when a country is mired in a civil war, survival is your top priority - not making sure files are in order. We’ve known this but it will be interesting to see what is available.

I hope to be able to blog fairly regularly while I’m here. If anyone following HRUSA abroad has questions, feel free to ask me, ask me, ask me. I’m happy to answer them as I’m able. ~Piper

Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia: An Introduction

In just a few days, Human Rights USA International Justice Project Director Piper Hendricks will arrive in Monrovia, Liberia, to gather information needed for our civil proceeding in the United States. This trip is the culmination of years of work with survivors of abuses inflicted by Charles Taylor Jr., a U.S. citizen, and his subordinates.

While in Liberia, Piper will meet with our Liberian clients who survived atrocities during the Liberian civil wars, which took place between 1989 and 2003. While there, Piper will accompany our clients to their interviews with the U.S. consulate to apply for visas to travel to the United States for the civil trial scheduled in Miami in December.

For these brave survivors and for HRUSA, the trial represents years of work toward accountability under U.S. law, as well as reestablishing justice in Liberia. In 2008, Taylor Jr. was criminally tried and convicted by a Miami jury and is now serving a 97 year sentence. While HRUSA applauds the work of the U.S. Government in convicting Taylor Jr., real justice for his victims does not end there. The civil case is a chance for several survivors to tell truth to justice and gain a sense of closure after facing the man who so gravely wronged them. In addition, the civil case provides an opportunity to obtain monetary damages to remedy their medical expenses and other costs stemming from the torture to which they were subjected.

The preparations for the trip have been extensive, both logistically and legally. Obviously, any journey of thousands of miles is complicated, but in this case, traveling with a goal of obtaining justice has made it more so. In addition to receiving several vaccinations and obtaining a visa, Piper has had to make plans for travel to various parts of Liberia, where roads often make the travel quite long. During her stay, Piper will be working with the clients to get passports and visas, as well as medical records and other evidence to use at trial.

The legal work that HRUSA has done to prepare for the case in the US also has been extensive. Since filing the civil case in January, we have spent the last year drafting various motions, gathering expert information on the long-term effects of torture, and preparing logistically for the challenges of international justice. The work is all worth it because with patience, perseverance and support, this case will provide a sense of closure and justice for survivors, and represent progress for the nation of Liberia.

Please post any questions you might have for Piper as comments to the corresponding blog posts.

After the trip, on November 30th at 4pm EST, HRUSA will host a conference call with Piper to provide you, our supporters, the chance to ask questions about the case and learn more about her trip to Africa. To participate, please contact Brenden Sloan at bsloan [at] or call (202) 296-5702. Piper looks forward to answering your questions. Thank you for your support!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On the Radar Screen: Obama Administration to Weigh in on Nigerian Drug Case

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the Obama administration's Solicitor General's office to add its voice to the debate over Pfizer's alleged illegal testing of antibiotics on children in Nigeria. The plaintiffs in this case allege that Pfizer, who is also facing a $7 billion suit in Nigerian courts, violated international law by conducting a clinical trial without proper consent from the children's guardians and failing to inform them the study was experimental or that it involved serious risks to their childrens' health. The trial left 11 children dead and many others with debilitating conditions, such as paralysis.

In January of this year, the Second Circuit court of appeals decided the plaintiffs could proceed with their case, stating "The norm prohibiting nonconsensual medical experimentation on human subjects has become firmly embedded and has secured universal acceptance in the community of nations." In response, Pfizer petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing U.S. corporations doing business abroad should not be held liable in such cases. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (in the news lately for their opposition to climate change), supports Pfizer's position.

This case provides an opportunity for the Obama administration to explain how U.S. corporations - entities that exist courtesy of U.S. laws - should be held accountable for harms they cause in operating outside of U.S. borders. We will keep you informed as the Solicitor General responds in this important matter.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thank you for your support!

Thanks to all of our supporters who donated to HRUSA through Facebook during America's Giving Challenge! We didn't win the daily contest, but we still had an awesome showing. 60 donations for more than $1,000! All in 24 hours - incredible. All of us here at Human Rights USA are honored to have friends, family and supporters like you all. We will be sure to put your donations to good use. And don't forget, you can continue to donate to HRUSA through our Facebook Cause page, every donation counts!
Thanks again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shi Tao Receives Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Grant

On Monday, October 12, 2009, Human Rights Watch announced 37 winners of the Hellman/Hammett Grant, which is given annually to writers “in recognition of their commitment to free expression and their courage in the face of political persecution.” We were pleased to learn that former Human Rights USA client, Shi Tao, was among those recognized by this award.

From the Human Rights Watch Press Release:
Shi Tao (China), poet and writer, worked as a reporter and editor at a number of newspapers and has published several volumes of poetry. He is best known in the West as the victim of Yahoo’s cooperation with the Chinese police. In a now-famous case, Yahoo helped the Chinese police identify Shi Tao as the author of a message posted anonymously on an overseas website about instructions that the Chinese propaganda department had given to newspapers. He is currently serving a 10-year sentence for “illegally providing state secrets overseas.”

In 2007, Human Rights USA represented Shi Tao in a groundbreaking corporate accountability lawsuit against Yahoo! Inc. During the course of litigation, information emerged from Yahoo! that the corporation knew about the charges against Shi Tao and, despite that knowledge, disclosed confidential records about him to the Chinese government. During a hearing before the United States Congress, Yahoo! corporate leaders were chastised for their actions and asked to apologize to the families of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, who had traveled to the U.S. for the hearing. Shortly after, the families settled with the company out of court.

Unfortunately, Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning remain in prison, but the work of advocacy groups like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, and recognitions like this prestigious prize from Human Rights Watch, continue to raise awareness about their situation. The plight of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning also reinforces the need for Information and Communications Technology corporations to respect fundamental human rights when doing business in countries that use electronic communications to target human rights defenders and the media.

To read one of Shi Tao’s inspiring poems, and learn more about the repression of free media in China, click here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Developments in the Civil Suit Against Chuckie Taylor and Q&A with International Justice Project Director, Piper Hendricks

Charles Taylor Jr. (also known as “Chuckie”) is the son of Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia and was a key instigator in the Liberian Civil War in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were injured, tortured, or killed. Taylor Jr. was born and raised in the United States but moved to Liberia in 1997 to live with his father. There, he became the head of a brutal paramilitary group known as the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) or the “Demon Forces.” Under Taylor Jr.’s vicious command, many Liberians were subjected to various forms of torture at the hands of the ATU soldiers.

In 2006, when Taylor Jr. entered the United States via the Miami International Airport, U.S. agents were ready and arrested him. The Department of Justice later indicted and prosecuted Taylor Jr. for the acts of torture and conspiracy to torture that he committed in Liberia. Human Rights USA served as amicus (or "friend of the court") and provided expertise on international law. Taylor Jr.'s trial was the first ever in the United States under the “Torture Statute,” a federal law that criminalizes torture and gives U.S. courts jurisdiction over cases involving torture, in keeping with the United States’ obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture. Under the Torture Statute, U.S. courts have jurisdiction over torture committed outside the United States if the offender is a U.S. national or is present in the United States at the time of the arrest, regardless of nationality. On October 20, 2008, a federal jury convicted Taylor Jr. of multiple counts of torture and conspiracy to torture. On January 9, 2009, he was sentenced to 97 years in prison.

Though that trial held Taylor Jr. criminally accountable and provided some remedy to seven of his victims, his serving time in prison does not address all of their losses. In order to hold Taylor Jr. civilly accountable and provide a remedy for medical expenses, lost wages, and other harms inflicted by Taylor Jr. and his subordinates, Human Rights USA is representing five survivors of torture by Taylor Jr. and the ATU in a civil suit. Here, Piper Hendricks, the International Justice Project Director at Human Rights USA answers some questions about the suit and what it means for the enforcement of human rights in U.S. courts:

Q: What is the reason for bringing a civil suit against Charles Taylor Jr. after his conviction and sentencing for multiple counts of torture and conspiracy to torture?

PH: Though the 97-year sentence in the criminal case is essentially a life sentence for Taylor Jr., the civil case allows more victims to have their own “day in court” and gain a better sense of closure. Additionally, unlike the criminal case, the civil case offers the possibility of monetary damages, hence an opportunity to reach Taylor Jr.’s assets and cover medical bills, lost wages, and other serious financial losses the plaintiffs have suffered.

Q: How is a civil suit different from a criminal suit?

PH: Only the government can bring a criminal suit, and such a suit focuses on a conviction and prison time, not damages. A civil suit such as this one is useful in ensuring that wrongs towards specific victims are recognized and reprimanded, and that damages are awarded to those victims.

Q: How is HR USA working with Taylor Jr.’s victims in Liberia on this case?

PH: Currently, HR USA is in close contact with the Liberian plaintiffs by phone, and in the coming weeks, we will be traveling to Liberia to meet with the plaintiffs and arrange for their travel to the United States as we prepare for the civil trial.

Q: Have there been similar situations in the past when civil suits were brought against torturers to ensure justice for victims?

PH: Yes. Because of the Alien Tort Claims Act (also known as the Alien Tort Statute or ATS), which was adopted in 1789, U.S. federal courts can be used as venues to sue for wrong-doing, even if such acts occurred outside the United States and the plaintiff and/or defendant are not U.S. citizens. The ATS has been used to hold accountable a former Filipino dictator and a Peruvian military general, among others.

In 1992, Congress added the Torture Victims Prevention Act to the ATS to allow U.S. citizens also to bring suit in federal courts for torture and extrajudicial killings against those who were acting in official positions (“under color of law”) when those acts were committed.

Q: What would be the ideal outcome of this civil suit?

PH: The good news is we already have a positive outcome in the criminal trial and we have won on the merits (by default judgment) in the civil suit. Now, the ideal outcome of the civil trial – which will focus only on damages - would be for the judge to recognize the grievous nature of the crimes that occurred and award damages accordingly, and thus reimburse our clients for their medical costs and lost earnings and allow them to resume their lives in Liberia.

Human Rights USA encourages you to continue to check our blog and website for more updates as the civil case progresses and we hold our trial on damages in December!

Monday, October 5, 2009

HAPPENINGS ON THE HILL: October 6, 2009 Human Rights Violators Accountability Hearing

On Tuesday, October 6, 2009, at 10 am, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law will hold its second ever hearing addressing how to hold human rights violators found in the United States accountable for their crimes. The Subcommittee will focus on important developments in this area of law, including the successful prosecution and conviction of Charles ("Chuckie") Taylor, Jr. We encourage our readers to attend the hearing or tune in via webcast for this important discussion. You can read Human Rights USA's submission to this hearing here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Seventh Circuit Rules "Threat of Forced Marriage" as Grounds for Changed Circumstances in Asylum Proceedings

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled that a threat of forced marriage arising after an order of removal can constitute “changed circumstances” that may warrant reopening of an asylum case. The Seventh Circuit overturned a Board of Immigration Appeals decision that represented a significant set-back in the fight to establish that women fleeing gender-based violence can qualify for refugee status. By overturning the Board’s decision, the Seventh Circuit has reaffirmed that refugees fleeing types of harm that are most commonly faced by women can seek protection in the United States.

When Roome Joseph initially applied for asylum in the United States, along with her family, they were fleeing persecution of Christians in their native Pakistan. When the case was denied, Ms. Joseph’s family returned to Pakistan, but she remained in the U.S. After her family informed her of their intention to force her into an unwanted marriage when she returned to Pakistan, Ms. Joseph attempted to reopen her immigration proceedings to apply for asylum based on this new threat.

Normally, motions to reopen immigration proceedings must be filed shortly after a final order of removal, but a case may be reopened at any time if an individual can show that there are changed circumstances in her country of origin that materially affect her asylum eligibility. In Ms. Joseph’s case, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the family’s plans to force her to marry were “personal circumstances,” and that the changed circumstances rule applied only to “a dramatic change in the political, religious, or social situation,” such as political upheaval. The Board denied Ms. Joseph’s motion to reopen.

Overturning the Board’s decision, the Seventh Circuit held that a change in personal circumstances occurring in the applicant’s country of origin, such as a threat of forced marriage, satisfies the standards for reopening proceedings to seek asylum. In so doing, the Seventh Circuit has strengthened the ability of refugees to seek asylum from the types of harm that commonly threaten women. Historically, gender-related asylum cases fared badly in immigration courts, where judges tended to distinguish between public and private harm, finding torture of political dissidents to be grounds for asylum, while female genital mutilation or domestic violence were merely unfortunate practices that lay entirely outside the bounds of refugee law. But since the case Matter of Kasinga in 1996, the Board has recognized that the threat of practices like female genital mutilation could be grounds for asylum, and women have begun to receive asylum based on types of violence previously considered to be private, or cultural, harm that had no bearing on asylum eligibility.

The Board’s decision in Ms. Joseph’s case, however, signaled a return to the earlier viewpoint that harm occurring in the public sphere is relevant to an asylum claim, while harm occurring in the “private” sphere of the family is not. In ruling that the threat of forced marriage fell outside of the “changed circumstances” rule, the Board limited the rule to events that occurred on the national stage. Since the changed circumstance that forms the basis of a motion to reopen must be materially related to the threat of persecution, the Board’s decision would have once again limited the availability of asylum largely to those refugees fleeing more public forms of persecution – persecution as punishment for political activity, for instance – rather than women like Ms. Joseph, who face persecution at least in part from their own families.

Fortunately for Ms. Joseph and other refugee women, the Seventh Circuit’s decision recognized that a threat of forced marriage was precisely the kind of changed circumstance that could materially affect a person’s eligibility for asylum. This decision preserves the advancements made over the last two decades in the fight to protect women refugees from gender-based violence.

Human Rights USA would like to congratulate Ms. Joseph’s attorneys at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Mayer Brown LLP for their important victory in this case. For more information on this case see Heartland Alliance’s press release.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Human Rights USA Attorney Colleen Costello Discusses Attorney General’s Appointment of Special Prosecutor on Press TV

On August 28, 2009, Colleen Costello joined Press TV’s American Dream program to talk about the recently released documents CIA documents and Attorney General Eric Holder’s appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate abuses allegedly committed by CIA and private contractor interrogators.

Ms. Costello, an attorney for the Human Rights & Anti-Terrorism Project at Human Rights USA, discussed the violations of U.S. and international law that were documented in the recently-released 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report, which highlighted, among other things, the fact that interrogators had threatened detainees with death and personal injury, and had threatened the rape and murder of detainees’ family members.

“What has been described so far in this recently released version of the Inspector General’s report . . . is really shocking. First of all, threatening a detainee with a power drill, with a gun – it’s unlawful under international and U.S. law. . . . [I]t’s great that the Attorney General is looking to investigate exactly what happened and who is responsible. . . .”

Turning to the Attorney General’s decision to investigate these abuses, Ms. Costello emphasized the need for a full investigation of those responsible for authorizing detainee abuses – something that Human Rights USA has consistently called for over the past several years.

“Americans have a right to know what their government officials are doing in their name and on their behalf. . . . What we’re doing now, we’re looking at maybe a dozen or so interrogators from the CIA and private contractors, and we’re trying to determine whether the abuses they committed exceeded the already very broad limits set by the former administration’s Justice Department. Now, that’s ok, that’s a step, but . . . what we need to do is figure out who was responsible for authorizing even those very broad limits set by the former administration. . . . [I]f you have the former President admitting, and the former Vice President admitting that they authorized the use of waterboarding, . . . that certainly warrants an investigation.”

Watch the full program here:

American Dream is a production of Press TV, an Iranian international news network that broadcasts around the world.

ON THE RADAR SCREEN: Comments from Former AG Gonzales

"On the Radar Screen" posts alert our readers to important news items that may not have made the front page.

We just wanted to take a moment to share a Washington Times article with our readers regarding Former Attorney General Gonzales' remarks supporting Attorney General Holder's decision to investigate allegations of prisoner abuse. Issues of accountability and respect for human rights should not be political or partisan.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

JOIN US FOR: Due to High Demand, A Second Screening of Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 7 p.m. at the Wooly Mammoth Theater

641 D Street, NW.

Following the film will be a panel discussion moderated by Piper Hendricks, International Justice Project Director, Human Rights USA, with additional panelists to be announced.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is the gripping account of a group of brave and visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia, a nation torn to shreds by a decades-old civil war. A small band of Liberian women who came together in the midst of a bloody civil war, took on the violent warlords and corrupt Charles Taylor regime, and won a long-awaited peace for their shattered country in 2003. The women's historic yet unsung achievement finds voice in a narrative that intersperses contemporary interviews, archival images, and scenes of present-day Liberia together to recount the experiences and memories of the women who were instrumental in bringing lasting peace to their country. They are living proof that moral courage and non-violent resistance can succeed, even where the best efforts of traditional diplomacy have failed.

This special film screening is being put on in collaboration with the Woolly Mammoth Theater, who are set to launch their new critically acclaimed play, Eclipsed, later this month. The Woolly Mammoth's website offers a brief description of the play:

"The captive wives of a Liberian rebel officer form a hardscrabble sisterhood, their lives set on a nightmarish detour by civil war. With the arrival of a new girl who can read – and the return of an old one who can kill – their possibilities are quickly transformed. Drawing on reserves of wit and compassion, these defiant survivors ask: when the fog of battle lifts, could a different destiny emerge?"

The screening and panel are FREE, but reservations are encouraged at as space is limited.

We hope you can join us!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Q&A: What the Attorney General's Decision Means for Human Rights

On August 24, Attorney General Eric Holder named a special prosecutor to conduct a preliminary investigation into CIA interrogations that exceeded the already-broad list of techniques approved by Bush administration attorneys. Below, we address some of the most common questions raised by the Attorney General’s decision.

What did the Attorney General authorize?
Attorney General Eric Holder expanded the scope of an investigation already being undertaken by special prosecutor John Durham. The expanded scope of Mr. Durham’s mandate will allow him to conduct a preliminary investigation into the dozen or so cases of detainee interrogation that the DOJ previously declined to prosecute. This preliminary review will allow him to determine whether a sufficient basis exists for a more thorough investigation into these cases. If a full investigation is deemed necessary, it is possible – but not guaranteed – that some CIA interrogators could be prosecuted.

What was the reason for the Attorney General’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor?
The Attorney General based his decision on two reports: the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) review of detainee interrogations and the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s (OIG) report on detainee interrogations.

The OPR report reviewed DOJ Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos written by former administration attorneys who attempted justify the use of torture and other abusive interrogation tactics. The OPR report also examined the DOJ’s decision, under the Bush administration, to decline prosecution in certain detainee abuse cases involving CIA interrogators and recommended that the DOJ reexamine those decisions not to prosecute. The CIA OIG report enumerates several instances of detainee abuse committed by CIA interrogators and private contractors, including waterboarding, mock executions, and improvised interrogation techniques, such as pointing a weapon at a detainee.

Based on the OPR’s recommendation and the evidence of abuse outlined in the CIA OIG report, the Attorney General determined that further investigation was required. He asked Mr. Durham to broaden the scope of his investigation to include the detainee abuse cases that the DOJ previously decided not to prosecute.

Were torture and other human rights abuses actually committed during the “war on terror”?
Yes. Numerous internal U.S. agency, U.S. congressional, foreign legislative, media, and independent non-governmental reports have repeatedly confirmed that detainees held by U.S. forces at Guantánamo, bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at secret CIA “black sites” in various locations around the world suffered grave human rights abuses. Significantly, former administration officials have publicly confirmed the use of torture and other forms of human rights abuse against detainees. Among the abuses reported are:

  • Forced disappearances
  • Waterboarding
  • Beatings
  • Deprivation of sanitary conditions
  • Deprivation of basic necessities
  • Rape
  • Stress positions
  • Sensory deprivation
  • Sensory bombardment
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Prolonged isolation
  • Confinement in a box
  • Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
  • Exposure to extreme hot or cold
  • Serious bodily injury
  • Deprivation or restricted provision of solid food
  • Threats of physical violence, rape, and death against detainees
  • Threats of physical violence, rape, and murder against detainees’ family members
  • Denial of medical care
  • Exploitation of fears
  • Sexual, religious, cultural, or other forms of degrading treatment
  • Forced disappearances
  • Murder
  • Sexual assault or abuse
  • Mutilation or maiming

Who committed these abuses?
Individuals working for the CIA, the Defense Department, and those agencies’ private contractors were all directly involved in the abuse of detainees. However, responsibility for detainee abuse does not stop there. Former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney have both publicly admitted that they approved of and authorized the use of waterboarding – a form of torture – in violation of U.S. and international law. Other high-ranking administration officials from the DOJ, DOD, CIA, and DOS were also complicit in the development and implementation of the detainee interrogation program.

Why prosecute torture and other human rights abuses?
The United States is party to a number of international treaties that prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, both of which are also codified under U.S. federal criminal law, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Torture is universally prohibited under international law, and may not be justified under any circumstances, including during times of war or for purposes of national security.

Criminal accountability is a fundamental element of human rights protection. Without it, abusers enjoy impunity for their crimes, an undesirable result in any democratic system. The necessity of criminal accountability for human rights crimes is reflected in U.S. domestic law as well as several binding international treaties to which the United States is a party, including the Convention Against Torture and its domestic implementing legislation, 18 U.S.C. § 2340, and the Geneva Conventions and their implementing legislation, 18 U.S.C. § 2441 (the War Crimes Act).

As with other crimes, prosecuting human rights violations accomplishes three primary goals: deterrence, punishment, and justice. The enactment and enforcement of criminal law serves as a deterrent to would-be violators, putting them on notice that they will be held to account for their wrongdoing. By punishing criminals, we incapacitate abusers so that they cannot continue to violate the law, and we ensure that no person remains above the law. Finally, under federal law, crime victims are entitled to certain rights, including the right to participate in criminal proceedings, confer with the government about the case, and the right to full and timely restitution. The prosecution of their abusers gives victims a sense of closure and finality to their suffering.

In the words of Justice Brandeis, “[i]f the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.” The public has a strong interest in ensuring that government officials conduct business on behalf of the electorate in an open, honest, and lawful manner. When government leaders violate the law, the public has an interest in ensuring that wrongdoing by public officials be exposed and that criminal law be fairly and expeditiously administered.

Will a criminal investigation into interrogation practices limit our national security by causing interrogators to shy away from certain techniques?
This concern involves two issues: the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques and the rules under which interrogators are expected to operate.

Harsh interrogation techniques such as torture are unlawful and possess little, if any, long-term value.
Career interrogators attest that harsh interrogation tactics authorized by the former administration were ineffective, likely doing more harm than good to our national security. The coercive techniques used on detainees during the “war on terror” were modeled after those used by Communist China on American soldiers during the Korean War. According to a government study conducted after the war, the techniques used by China were meant to elicit false confessions. In other words, the point of the interrogation techniques was not to elicit truthful confessions, but rather, any confession that the Chinese government could use to support its anti-America propaganda.

Interrogation experts believe that the most effective interrogations are those that do not involve the use of harsh techniques. The FBI has demonstrated its longstanding success at interrogating terror suspects using “rapport-building” techniques, which are non-coercive and non-abusive in nature, unlike many of the tactics approved by former administration officials.

Interrogators need clear rules, not vague legal memos or shifting policies, to guide them.
Part of the problem created by the former administration was its inconsistent policy on detainee interrogations. During the “war on terror,” the rules for interrogation changed several times, and could differ depending on whether an interrogator was working in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, or at a secret CIA “black site.” This constant shifting meant that interrogators were unsure of the rules that applied to them, or if any applied at all.

As the recently-released CIA OIG report determined, under the former administration’s policies, interrogators were aware that their actions likely violated the law and were concerned that they would be “vulnerable to legal action in the United States or abroad . . . ” (p. 101), or that CIA officers would one day “wind up on some ‘wanted list’ to appear before the World Court for war crimes . . . .” (p. 94). Investigating violations of U.S. domestic and international law, and punishing those responsible, ensures that future interrogators will have clear guidance of what is, and is not, permitted under the law.

Why do we want to “look back” on the past?
The criminal justice system is, inherently, retrospective in nature. One of the key goals of criminal justice is to deter people from violating the law. The only way our laws have power is if we enforce them, which requires investigating and prosecuting crimes that have occurred. Unless administration officials responsible for directing or authorizing the use of torture and other human rights abuses are held to account, future administrations may engage in the same unlawful behavior, without fear of repercussions.

Wouldn’t a criminal investigation distract the public from other important issues?
There is no excuse to turn a blind eye to transgressions committed by officials entrusted by the American people to lawfully serve them. Enforcement of the law is a non-negotiable issue. The best way for the current administration to address, and ultimately, put to rest, the torture issue is to appoint a special counsel to fully investigate the scope of the abuses committed. If no one violated the law, no one will be punished. Conversely, if any are found to have violated the law, they should be held to account.

What authority does the Special Prosecutor have to conduct his preliminary investigation?
Special prosecutor Durham was originally appointed by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the CIA’s destruction of detainee interrogation tapes. At the time of his appointment, Mr. Durham was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, which means that he was an employee of the Justice Department.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 509 et seq., the Attorney General may delegate any of his powers to a Justice Department employee, and may authorize the employee to conduct any legal proceeding that a U.S. Attorney is permitted to conduct. Under these procedures, the Attorney General often determines the scope of the special prosecutor’s mandate, may require the prosecutor to report directly to him, and may also limit the prosecutor’s ability to investigate related criminal matters that could arise during the course of his investigation.

Although Attorney General Holder has not yet explained the details of Mr. Durham’s mandate to investigate unlawful interrogations allegedly committed by CIA interrogators, the scope of Mr. Durham’s investigative authority appears to be limited. The preliminary investigation will focus only on approximately twelve detainee abuse cases, and Mr. Holder has not stated whether Mr. Durham has the flexibility to investigate any related criminal matters that arise during his investigation. For instance, although Mr. Durham will investigate whether certain CIA interrogators exceeded the rules set out by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, it seems he will not have the power to investigate whether those rules were consistent with U.S. domestic and international law.

Is the special prosecutor’s authority sufficient?
Although Mr. Durham is a highly respected federal prosecutor who has been developed a reputation as a tough, impartial, and relentless prosecutor, the authority from which he derives his investigative powers is not sufficient to ensure a full or impartial investigation. While the selection of special prosecutor Durham permits the investigation of detainee abuse to move forward quickly, the decision does not ensure a complete investigation.

First, the Attorney General cannot escape the fact that the mandate for Mr. Durham’s investigation is unnecessarily limited. Mr. Holder should, therefore, appoint a Special Counsel, unaffiliated with the Justice Department, to conduct a more comprehensive investigation into the role played by former top-level government officials in the detainee abuse. The Attorney General derives the authority to appoint a Special Counsel from DOJ regulations, codified at 28 C.F.R. § 600.1 et seq., which allow him to appoint an attorney from outside the DOJ when the subject of investigation presents a conflict of interest for the DOJ and where the public interest requires it.

Every official – current or former – is entitled to a fair and impartial investigation, not tainted by accusations of partiality or bias. A Special Counsel will be able to independently, and without the same personal or professional constraints as the Attorney General, exercise prosecutorial discretion to decide whether charges should be brought against any of the individuals investigated. The appointment of Special Counsel under these circumstances would also allow the Attorney General to avoid any appearance of impropriety, should the Special Counsel decline to prosecute.

Moving forward, the Attorney General should allow Mr. Durham to complete his preliminary investigation, and if a full investigation is warranted, the Attorney General should appoint a Special Counsel – someone who comes from outside the DOJ – to carry forth a full investigation.

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