President Obama Grants Clemency to Non-violent Drug Offenders

By Samuel Miller
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America and Oceania

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States of America — On Monday, as a part of a renewed effort to reform the criminal justice system, President Barack Obama has commuted the prison sentences of 46 drug offenders. Obama said the move was part of his larger attempt to reform the criminal justice system, including reviewing sentencing laws and reducing punishments for non-violent crimes.

President Obama Expresses the Rationale for Granting Clemency. (Photo Courtesy of BBC News)

The prisoners will all be released by Nov. 10.

“I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances,” President Obama stated, “and I believe these folks deserve their second chance.” Furthermore, the President went on to say, “Their [the prisoners] punishments didn’t fit the crime, and if they had been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”

President Obama’s action brought the total number of commutations he has issued to 89, exceeding that of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences. In fact, President Obama has now commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

Of the 89 commutations Obama has granted while in office, 76 have gone to nonviolent drug offenders who met criteria set by the Justice Department last year. The commutations come as the administration is working to reduce costs and overcrowding in federal prisons and to provide relief to inmates who were sentenced under the harsh guidelines put in place in the late 1980s as the country was grappling with the crack cocaine epidemic.

The president also called on Republicans and Democrats in Congress to change anomalies in federal sentencing laws, kicking off a week of presidential events devoted to the criminal justice system. Noting that Republicans have also expressed interest in criminal justice reform, Obama said, “The nation is spending too much money on incarceration of individuals who received long sentences for relatively minor drug crimes.”

This week’s focus on criminal justice signals a renewed bid by President Obama’s administration to tackle what he sees as a lack of fairness in the system. On Thursday, President Obama is expected to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he goes to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside of Oklahoma City.

For more information, please see:

BBC News — Obama frees drug offenders whose terms ‘didn’t fit crimes’ – 13 July 2015

CNN — President Barack Obama commutes sentences of 46 drug offenders – 13 July 2015

NY Times — Obama Commutes Sentences for 46 Drug Offenders – 13 July 2015

USA Today — Obama’s clemency grant largest since the 1960s – 13 July 2015

Washington Post — Obama commutes sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders – 13 July 2015

 

Several Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Believed to be Detained by Police

By Christine Khamis

Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

 

HONG KONG, China—

Chinese authorities detained human rights lawyer Li Heping on Friday. Police searched Mr. Li’s home in Beijing, seizing computers and documents. They then took Mr. Li away. His detainment is only the latest in a series of crackdowns on lawyers who defend dissidents and human rights advocates.

Mr. Li has worked on behalf of some of China’s most well known dissidents and rights advocates. His clients included Chen Guangcheng, a blind civil rights activist and legal advocate who escaped house arrest in 2012 and later moved to the United States.

Within the 24 hours preceding Mr. Li’s detainment, three other human rights attorneys disappeared, as well as a paralegal. It appears that the lawyers were detained as part as a growing investigation by Chinese authorities, but the details surrounding their disappearances remain unclear. Police have yet to confirm that they have the four lawyers and paralegal in custody.

Zhou Shifeng, Wang Yu, and Li Shuyun, all lawyers at the Fengrui Law Firm, disappeared on Thursday and Friday. The Fengrui Law Firm’s offices were searched, and police carried away at least three computers. As of Friday afternoon, some of the firm’s other lawyers had also gone missing, as well as its financial director and driver.

Mr. Zhou had just successfully won the release of a client, a news assistant for a German newspaper who had been detained by authorities for nine months. He is said to have been led away from his Beijing hotel by what appeared to be plainclothes police. His colleagues and wife have not heard anything from him since.

Ms. Yu, a human rights attorney, disappeared from her home on Thursday. Before being taken, Ms, Yu made it known through texts and social media that her power and internet had been shut off and that people were attempting to enter her home. Security guards at Ms. Yu’s apartment complex stated that police surrounded Ms. Yu’s building, saying that it was a drug bust. About a week before, while representing a client, Ms. Wu was thrown out onto the street by court bailiffs because she insisted on being at a cross examination.

Ms. Yu. (Photo courtesy of the Epoch Times)

Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher, has stated that Fengrui’s lawyers and paralegal could have been detained because of the Fengrui Law Firm’s employment of Wu Gan, an activist who publicized controversial cases on the internet. Mr. Wu was detained by police in May.

Other lawyers and human rights advocates in the region believe that the crackdown on human rights lawyers is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to use criminal investigations to destroy China’s rights defense movement. The movement has challenged restrictions on freedom of expression as well as restrictions on the Chinese legal and political systems.

 

For more information, please see:

The New York Times – Chinese Authorities Appear to Detain 4 Human Rights Lawyers – 10 July 2015

Radio Free Asia – Beijing Rights Lawyer ‘Missing’, Believed Detained: Lawyer – 10 July 2015

The Epoch Times – Chinese Rights Lawyer Taken From Home By Police – 9 July 2015

Amnesty International – Urgent Action: Seven Missing in Feared Attack on Law Firm – 10 July 2015

 

 

 

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre:Counter-Terrorism Court as a Tool for War Crimes, a Report by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria

Counter-Terrorism Courts by VDC

Report on Counter-Terrorism Courts in Syria byVDC

The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a Syrian human rights documentation organization, recently published a report called Counter-Terrorism Court: a Tool for War Crimes. The report details the establishment of the Counter-Terrorism Court (CTC) in Syria in response to Counter-Terrorism Law No. 19 issued on June 28, 2012. Law 19 includes definitions of “terrorist act, terrorist organization and terrorism financing,” along with the punishments for each. The report uses both publicly available information and its own documentation to argue that, since its establishment, the CTC has not follow due process and has instead rendered politicized, biased, and unfair judgements against detainees with no regard to factual evidence. VDC explains that the purpose of CTCs is “to suppress and stifle any opposition voices and to ensure the regime’s stability where a small clan controls different government establishments as well as all the country’s resources”. This report provides valuable insight into Syria’s flawed legal institutions and demonstrates areas that are in need of institutional reform in the post-conflict transition.

The report relies heavily on interviews with Syrian legal experts and former detainees. With its wide network in Syria and neighboring countries, VDC was well-positioned to access first-hand accounts of the system. One lawyer interviewed described the institutional problems with the CTCs: “The detainees in questions often confess under torture…Most of those referred to CTC are peaceful activists and ordinary citizens. Yet, the CTC judges them without any evidence . . . supporting the prosecutor’s charges. Judges typically do not pay attention to the detainees’ statements and tend to turn a blind eye to the effects of torture on their bodies.” Although the specific procedures for each case is arbitrary and relatively unknown, the report describes the general process that detainees undergo. First, government officials torture detainees into confessing for a crime that aligns with the mandate of the CTC. After the confession, local prisons refer the case to the CTC, after which the detainee are cut off from their families and lawyers and little information emerges about their trial and sentencing. Based on these coerced confessions, the CTC often issues death sentences, more than any other court in Syria. These statements and others in the report discredit the CTC and its decision-making process.

After explaining the arbitrariness of the CTC proceedings, the report examines the CTC through the legal lens of the Geneva Conventions which forbid states from carrying out extrajudicial death sentences and executions. According to report, the Syrian government clearly has been violating the Geneva Conventions through the CTC’s summary procedures that lack in basic guarantees of impartiality. The report concludes by arguing that the courts are not only being used as tools for war crimes, but the widespread and systematic application of Law 19 might also amount to a crime against humanity. VDC’s legal analysis adds depth to its documentation and provides support to the findings that the CTCs are in clear violation of international law.

One area in which the report was lacking was in the description of the methodology used to gather data. The report briefly mentions that interviews were conducted and testimonies were collected but it does not elaborate on a replicable process. Although the sensitive situation in Syria presents difficulties in fully disclosing operational details, a general outline of the methodology would have lent additional credibility to the findings and allowed for greater transparency and accountability. For example, the report is not clear on whether qualitative or quantitative methods were used or whether researchers relied on surveys or in-depth interviews. The report also does not provide information on the sample size and sample selection process or explanation of the timeline and duration of the research.

Despite the methodological gaps, the VDC report provides compelling evidence that the CTC violates due process at every stage, constituting a war crime and possibly a crime against humanity. The report’s emphasis on the abysmal judicial system in Syria ultimately points to the need for institutional reform. Institutional reform is a key aspect of the transitional justice process and is vital to ensure that the abuses that led to discontent and conflict are not reincarnated in the post-conflict period, creating the foundation for long-term peace. Post-conflict states like Syria are usually recovering from decades of corruption and political manipulation that have eroded the integrity of government structures, requiring concerted efforts to rebuild these institutions. In-depth research, like the report published by VDC, provide insight into the specific flaws within institutions and laws that have caused the systematic abuses documented daily in Syria and can provide guidance on how they should be reformed in the transition period.

The full VDC report can be accessed here.

For more information and to provide feedback please email SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org .

Greece’s Debt Crisis Leads to Referendum

by Shelby Vcelka

Impunity Watch Desk Reporter, Europe

ATHENS, Greece–

On the eve of one of the most important referendums to date, tens of thousands of Greek citizens attended rallies in support for or against a measure that would allow Greece to stay in the Eurozone. Voters are being asked whether they support bailout terms from international creditors, and withdraw from the European Union, or if they would prefer to stay in the Eurozone and keep the euro as their currency. The referendum comes after five years of economic turmoil, and a default by the Greek government on their international loans on Tuesday night.

Tens of thousands have rallied in anticipation of the debt crisis referendum. A “No” banner hangs from a euro sign at the former headquarters of the European Central Bank. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

Greece first began to experience economic issues after the 2008 financial meltdown. In October 2009, Greece announced that their finances had been understated for years, leading European leaders to question the security of the Greek economy. As a result, Greece was locked out from borrowing in international markets. By spring 2010, Greece was veering sharply towards bankruptcy, which threatened to set off a new financial meltdown, and tank the European economy.

To avoid hurting the newly recovered economy, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission issued the first of two international bailouts to Greece in 2010. In total, the two bailouts amounted to $264 billion in today’s exchange rates.

However, the bailouts came with steep conditions. Greece was required to impose strict austerity measures, such as budget cuts and tax hikes. Other terms included making the government more efficient, closing loopholes for tax evasion, and making Greece a good place to conduct business.

The bailout was intended to give Greece more time to stabilize their economy, and to help the country pay off their international debts. While these loans have helped some, Greece’s problems have not lessened. The economy has shrunk a quarter since 2010, and unemployment is well above 25%.

Currently, the Greek banks are able to pay off international debts on paper, but lending is at a halt. They cannot finance the economy properly, since they are operating on foreign money. There is no money available for new loans, and customers have already used most of the money available in limited withdrawals.   As a result, banks have been closed for the week.

Sunday’s referendum will have profound political and economic consequences. The current Prime Minister of Greece, Alexi Tsipras, has encouraged voters to vote “No” on the referendum, believing that the imposed austerity measures had created a “humanitarian crisis” in Greece. To be effective, Mr. Tsipras will certainly need to act fast to stabilize a country on the edge of social and economic collapse. If Greece votes “Yes,” however, Mr. Tsipras’ government will likely breakdown, and a new coalition government will come into power with new elections.

For more information, please see–

BBC– Greek debt crisis: Tsipras and his Greek gamble— 01 July 2015

New York Times– Alexis Tsipras Budges on Greece’s Debt, but Meets a Cool Response— 01 July 2015

New York Times– Greece’s Debt Crisis Explained— 02 July 2015

New York Times–Greek Referendum on Offer That Is Off the Table Baffles Voters— 02 July 2015

The Guardian– A decade of overspending: how Greece plunged into economic crisis— 03 July 2015

The Independent– Greece debt crisis: What does a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote in the referendum really mean?— 03 July 2015

BBC–Greece debt crisis: Mass rival rallies over bailout vote— 04 July 2015

Still No Clear Solution for the Rohingya Migrant Crisis

By Christine Khamis

Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar –

More than a month has passed since the Rohingya migrant crisis made international news headlines, but there is still no apparent progress in finding the migrants a permanent home. There is also no sign that Myanmar will seek to correct the conditions from which the Rohingya migrants fled.

In May, international attention was drawn to the Rohingya crisis after journalists took photos of migrants crowded onto boats and stranded in waters near Thailand and Malysia. The migrants were a mix of Rohingya fleeing from persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis fleeing from economic hardship in Bangladesh.

Myanmar did allow over 700 migrants to come back ashore in early June. Two of the migrants told Reuters that 200-300 of the migrants who came ashore were Rohingya. The rest were Bengladeshis. The Rohingya were kept inside a warehouse upon coming ashore and the Bangladeshis were driven away in buses. Journalists covering the story were asked to leave.

Migrants brought ashore in Myanmar in early June. (Photo Courtesy of Reuters)

Myanmar denies that it discriminates against the Rohingya, despite the fact that it does not grant the Rohingya citizenship rights. In the 1990s, Myanmar began issuing “white cards” that gave the Rohingya temporary residence and other limited rights, but not citizenship. White card holders were permitted to vote in Myanmar’s 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 general elections. In a constitutional referendum earlier this year, however, Myanmarese President Thein Sein cancelled the white cards in response to pressure from Buddhist nationals.

Myanmar has also stated that persecution of the Rohingya is not the cause of the migrant crisis. Myanmar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wunna Maung Lwin has pointed to the number of Bangladeshis on the ship that was allowed to come aboard in May as proof that the crisis was a problem related to human trafficking in the region.

At an international meeting on the migrant crisis in May, the United Nations raised the issue of citizenship and other United Nations delegates blamed Myanmar for the crisis. Myanmar responded that it could not be singled out in regard to the crisis.

In early June, President Obama stated that Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya needed to come to an end in order for Myanmar to achieve its transition to democracy.

So far, Gambia and the United States have offered to help resettle the migrants.

Australia stated that it would not resettle the migrants. While Japan dedicated $3.5 million in emergency assistance to the migrants, it did not offer to resettle any of the migrants.

Neither China nor India, Asia’s two most populous countries, have offered to help the migrants either. Both China and India border Myanmar and are major trading partners with Myanmar. Neither country has put pressure on Myanmar to reevaluate its discriminatory policies against the Rohingya Muslims.

For China, Myanmar is a top source of foreign investment. Also, since the Rohingya do not have Chinese ethnicity, they are not of much concern to China. At a United Nations Security Council meeting last month, China stated that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya is an internal issue for Myanmar to resolve.

In the past, India has offered aid and resettlement to refugees fleeing from Myanmar, and currently hosts more than 10,000 Rohingya.

Many in India and other Asian countries view the problem of refugees as stemming from Western imperialism. There is therefore a sense in such countries that responsibility for the refugees should be left to the West and institutions like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Not many of the Asian countries are members of international conventions protecting refugees.

For more information, please see:

New York Times – China and India Are Sitting Out Refugee Crisis – 28 June 2015

Council on Foreign Relations – The Rohingya Migrant Crisis – 17 June 2015

Reuters – Myanmar Says Persecution Not the Cause of the Migrant Crisis – 4 June 2015

Reuters – Myanmar Lands 700 Migrants, U.S. Says Rohingya Should be Citizens – 3 June 2015

 

Proposed Anti-terrorist Law may Imprison Journalists

By Brittani Howell

Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

CAIRO, Egypt—Under a potential new Egyptian law, Journalists may face up to two years in prison if they publish news that does not match the government’s report. An anti-terrorism law has been drafted and is waiting for the approval of Egyptian’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Protestor taped his mouth shut to symbolize persecution of journalists in Egypt, outside the court and prison in which Al Jazeera reporter Ahmed Mansour is held. June 22, 2015. (Photo Curtesy CNN).

The drafted anti-terrorism law lists twenty-five crimes, including twelve that are punishable by death. In addition, the law would create terrorist courts and reduce the number of appeals allowed by defendants in order to speed up the judicial process. The drafted law would also give police officers more protection from being held liable for the use of force in “anti-terrorist operations.”

The crack down on journalists is a response to reports of militant attacks. On one incident in particular, a militant attack on the Sinai Peninsula, news sources reported that dozens had been killed while a military official reported that seventeen people had been killed. Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind stated, “The government has a duty to protect citizens from false information,” but should not be understood as, “a restriction on media freedom.”

The proposed bill requires two years for anyone who reports casualty tolls differently than the government report. The bill requires “intent” and “malice” in order to convict an individual of reporting death tolls contrary to government reports.

The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate argue that the drafted law violates Egypt’s Constitution, and that, “it appropriates the right of the journalist to acquire information from different sources and limits it to one side. This is a clear setback for the freedom of thought and press.”

At a press briefing, the Foreign Ministry urged foreign reporters to avoid using the terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” and to instead use the terms, “terrorists,” “savages,” “eradicators,” “destroyers,” and “slayers.”

Two days before the militant attacks on the Sinai Peninsula, the state prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, was killed in a car bombing. At the funeral President el-Sissi shouted, “Please, please we want prompt courts and fair laws… The trials and the laws won’t work in the matter and under these circumstances. This may work with regular people, but not these people. Only prompt laws will work.”

When Associated Press asked a judge if the rise in terrorist threats were linked to delays in court proceedings, the judge responded, “As if the jury is not to blame. This is not the causal relationship. Do they want to get the truth or take revenge on the suspect?”

For further information, please see:

ABC- Egypt to Pass Anti-terror Law Proposing Jail Time For Reporting Figures that Contradict Official Statements– 6 July 2015

Associated Press- Egypt Anti-Terror Bill Speeds Trials, Tightens Hand on Media– 6 July 2015

CNN- New Terrorism Law Could Target Journalists in Egypt– 6 July 2015

NY Times- Egypt Warns Journalists Over Coverage of Militant Attacks– 5 July 2015

Brazil Votes to Lower Age of Responsibility

By Kaitlyn Degnan
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BRASILIA, Brazil — The Congress of Brazil has voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would lower the age of criminal responsibility in the country to age 16. The vote came just one day after Congress had voted down an earlier version of the amendment.

Students protest lowering the age of criminal responsibility (Courtesy of the BBC)

323 out of 480 legislators voted in favor of the amendment, taking a step towards changing the Brazilian constitution.

The amendment would change the Statute of Children and Adolescents of 1990, which details that children under the age of 18 cannot be held legally responsible for crimes committed. Under the old law, children found guilty of crimes that require a greater sentence than a warning or reparations are sent to detention centers for no longer than 3 years.

The change lowers the age of criminal responsibility to 16 for those children found guilty of “heinous crimes,” which includes rape, murder, and robbery followed by rape or murder.

The original version of the amendment included drug trafficking, aggravated robbery and terrorism as crimes with a lower responsibility age. The removal of these provisions allowed amendment to pass House.

The proposed change came about after a spike in high profile violent crimes perpetrated by under-18s.

The vote was highly controversial in Brazil, drawing criticism from President Dilma Rousseff and organizations such as Human Rights Watch. President Rousseff commented back in April: “We cannot allow the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years old to 18 years old. The place for children is at school.”

Opponents have also criticized the speaker of the lower house, Edward Cunha, for pushing through a second vote on the amendment less than 24 hours after it was originally rejected.

Student groups across the country have also protested against the move.

Brazil has the fourth largest prison system in the world, and the prison population has increased by 33% since 2008. Overcrowding is a common issue in many of Brazil’s prisons, and the amendment’s critics say that the move will put children at risk in dangerous prisons. The amendment’s supporters insist that if the law passes, special detention centers for 16-18 year olds will be opened.

 

For more information, please see:

BBC – Brazil Congress in U-Turn on criminal age vote – 2 July 2015

The Guardian – Brazil’s congress reduces age of criminal responsibility to 16 – 2 July 2015

Prensa Latina News Agency – New Brazilian Dispute: Reduction of Age of Criminal Responsibility – 2 July 2015

TeleSur – Brazil Congress Votes to Lower Age of Criminal Responsibility – 2 July 2015

inNews – Brazil: Reduction in Age of Criminal Responsibility Jumps First Hurdle – 6 July 2015

 

 

Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre: International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

July 2, 2015

On June 26, people from around the world commemorated the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Three years ago, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon recognized this day by saying: “On this International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we express our solidarity with, and support for, the hundreds of thousands of victims of torture and their family members throughout the world who endure such suffering. We also note the obligation of States not only to prevent torture but to provide all torture victims with effective and prompt redress, compensation and appropriate social, psychological, medical and other forms of rehabilitation.”

The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) would like to recognize all the victims in Syria and around the globe who have died under torture, are currently suffering in detention, or have escaped the abuse and are now living with the physical and emotional scars. Those who have survived have endured indescribable violations that require immediate redress and attention. Torture is a crime under customary international law, meaning it applies to all countries whether or not they have acceded to international conventions banning torture. All perpetrators of such acts must be held accountable because there is absolutely no justification for inflicting this kind of suffering on another human being. By working to document the crimes committed, SJAC aims to create a pathway for Syrian victims to regain their dignity through justice against the perpetrators, leading to long-term peace for all Syrians.

The first commemoration of International Day in Support of Victims of Torture was in 1998, following a proposal by Denmark to acknowledge torture victims. The June 26th date was chosen because the United Nations Charter and was signed on that date in 1945 and the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into effect the same day in 1987.

For more information and to provide feedback please email SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org.