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.