El Salvador Judge to Reopen 1981 El Mozote Massacre Case

by Portia K. Skenandore-Wheelock
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR – Judge Jorge Guzman Urquilla in El Salvador has accepted a request filed by Dr. Maria Julia Hernandez Legal Defense agency, the Center for Justice and International Law, and the Association to Promote Human Rights of El Mozote to reopen one of the worst massacres to occur during the country’s civil war in the village of El Mozote.

A memorial for the victims of the 1981 massacre. (Photo courtesy of Deutsche Welle)
A memorial for the victims of the 1981 massacre. (Photo courtesy of Deutsche Welle)

At least 500 people were killed by the army within three days in December 1981, according to a postwar UN truth commission. Victims’ rights advocates say the number of those killed is much more, closer to 1,000. El Mozote villagers were mostly evangelical Christians that were trying to remain neutral in the war but soldiers suspected them of sympathizing with the rebels and attacked. The army dumped many of the bodies in a small church and burned them. The UN truth commission report found Col. Domingo Monterrosa, commander of the Atlacatl battalion, operations chief Col. Armando Azmitia, and six other officers responsible. In 1984 Monterrosa and Azmitia died when a bomb went off in their helicopter. The US government had trained the Atlacatl battalion that was involved in the killings. The army and the US initially denied that any massacre had taken place, but human rights advocate Ovidio Mauricio has said, “the forensic evidence…is overwhelming” and that in just one grave forensic experts found “136 skeletons of girls and boys, with an average age of six years.”

The Supreme Court ruling in July declaring El Salvador’s amnesty law unconstitutional has former military men and the current government, which grew out of the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, concerned that those involved on both sides of the conflict could face prosecution and the decision could create social conflicts. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that El Salvador should pay reparations to the victims and in 2012 the government accepted the ruling and apologized for the massacre.

For further information, please see:

BBC – El Salvador Judge Reopens El Mozote Massacre Investigation – 2 October 2016

Deutsche Welle – El Salvador to Reopen Prove Into 1981 Massacre – 2 October 2016

The Guardian – El Salvador Judge Reopens Case of 1981 Massacre at El Mozote – 1 October 2016

The News Tribune – Judge Orders Reopening of El Salvador Military Massacre Case – 1 October 2016

Telesur – Salvadoran Judge Reopens Investigation of El Mozote Massacre – 2 October 2016

 

UN to Discuss Report on US Police Killings of Black Americans

by Portia K. Skenandore-Wheelock
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

UNITED STATES — The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has released their final report based on a visit to the United States in January. A five-member group chaired by Filipino law professor Ricardo A. Sunga III made the trip to evaluate the human rights situation of African Americans. The report concludes that “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching” during the 19th and 20th centuries and calls on the government to do more to protect its citizens. The Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization, reported in 2015 that 3,959 black people were killed in lynchings between 1877 and 1950.

The report has been released while two days of protests and a riot over the shooting of Keith Scott are taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina. Last Friday another incident occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma where an officer fatally shot an unarmed black man.

A UN Report on the state of the human rights of African Americans in the US has been released while demonstrations against police brutality take place in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of AFP)

The report states, “the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.” The UN group says these killings go unpunished due to a number of factors. The initial investigations are often conducted by the police departments where the alleged perpetrators are employed, prosecutors have wide discretion over the charges, and the use of force is only subject to domestic standards, not to international standards.

The UN group recommends that the US create a national system to track excessive use of force and killings by law enforcement officials, end racial profiling, and have federal and state laws that recognize the negative impact of enslavement and racial injustice. The report finds education accompanied by acts of reconciliation key to improving race relations and the trust between African Americans and law enforcement officials. The report is being debated at the UN Human Rights Council on Monday.

For further information, please see:

Mint Press News – UN: Police Killings of Black Men Are Modern-Day Lynchings – 24 September 2016

PressTV – US Police Killings Redolent of Lynching: Report – 23 September 2016

Reuters – U.S. Police Killings Reminiscent of Lynching, U.N. Group Says – 23 September 2016

RT – Police Killings of Black People Reminiscent of Lynchings – UN Working Group – 23 September 2016

 

Mexico’s Chief Criminal Investigator Resigns After Mishandling 43 Missing Students Case

by Portia K. Skenandore-Wheelock
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — Chief of the Criminal Investigation Agency Tomás Zerón de Lucio resigned his position on Wednesday, without citing a reason for stepping down.

Zerón was in charge of investigating the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, a radical teaching college, who have not been seen since September 2014. Zerón has been heavily criticized for his handling of the case and parents of the students have been vocal in their complaints. The government has said the students were arrested by municipal police in Guerrero state in the town of Iguala on September 26, 2014 and handed over to a drug trafficking gang. The government asserts that the gang killed the students and incinerated their bodies at a garbage dumpsite. Lab results proving this type of incineration impossible were released a day before Zerón’s resignation.

A contentious investigation into the disappearance of 43 students that occurred nearly two years ago has failed to uncover answers. (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

Two independent international investigations have dismissed the government’s claims. Zerón’s handling of the crime scene has been under investigation since April after a report made by a panel of foreign investigators and legal experts. Information had been revealed with video and image evidence that Zerón had visited the site of the alleged incineration with one of the accused gang members a day before crime scene evidence was found. Zerón failed to note this visit in any of the official records.

Families of the students held a press conference Thursday in response to Zerón’s resignation. They are critical of his appointment to another high-level government job on President Peña Nieto’s National Security Council. “Instead of punishing him they have given him a prize. It doesn’t change anything. We are going to continue taking to the streets to demand the return of our children alive, and to demand the truth,” said Hilda Hernández, a mother of one of the missing students. The families have been preparing a protest for September 26, the second anniversary of the students’ abduction.

For further information, please see:

BBC News – Mexico Missing Students Inquiry Boss Quits – 15 September 2016

New York Times – Top Investigator in Case of Missing Students in Mexico Resigns – 14 September 2016

PanAm Post – Lead Investigator in Mexican Student Massacre Steps Down – 15 September 2016

Vice News – Mexico’s Botched Investigation of 43 Missing Students Leads Chief Investigator to Resign – 15 September 2016

 

US Prisoners Launch a Nation-wide Strike in Protest of “Prison Slavery”

by Portia K. Skenandore-Wheelock
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

UNITED STATES — On Friday prisoners in 40 prisons in at least 24 states went on a coordinated strike, refusing to do their assigned jobs, and are demanding an “end to prison slavery.” This is one of the largest prison strikes attempted in decades. The date of the start of the strike coincides with the 45th anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. The Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and the Free Alabama Movement organized and announced the strike in a statement, “Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves.”

Prisoners in states across the US went on strike Friday to protest the exploitation of their cheap, and sometimes even free, labor. (Photo courtesy of the Independent)

As state budgets have been cut the over 2 million prisoners in the United States have been a source of cheap, and in some states free, labor. New work programs have prisoners repairing public plumbing, doing underwater welding, cleaning up roadkill, and maintaining public spaces. Prisoners’ jobs also go beyond public works and services. Corporations, such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, McDonald’s, IBM, and AT&T, have tapped into prison labor by making deals with both private and public prisons. Prisoner laborers make 12 to 40 cents per hour yet the annual dollar value of their work output is estimated to run in the billions. “We want people to understand the economics of the prison system. It’s not about crime and punishment. It’s about money,” says Melvin Brooks-Ray, founder of the Free Alabama Movement and an inmate for 17 years.

Since labor law does not consider prisoners employees, they are not allowed to unionize. IWOC is trying to change that and encourages prisoners to join without charging union dues. IWOC’s site says, “You cannot change this situation through a grievance process that doesn’t work…or through courts that are clearly against you…or through petitions to lawmakers who don’t care about you because you don’t vote…or through hunger strikes against prison officials who want you to starve…or through letters to newspapers who have ignored this situation for decades.”

Prisoners in different states have other demands beyond fair wages for their work, such as an end to long-term solitary confinement policies, poor healthcare, poor quality of food, violent attacks, overcrowding, fairer parole policies, and reinstating educational courses for high school diplomas. “Different prisoners have different goals and aims, it’s looking like it’s going to be a state-by-state thing,” said Brianna Peril, co-chair of IWOC and a former prisoner. In response to these non-violent strikes, many prisons are engaging in lockdowns and barring prisoners’ access to communication.

For further information, please see:

Democracy Now! – Nationwide Prison Strike Launches in 24 States and 40 Facilities Over Conditions & Forced Labor – 9 September 2016

The Guardian – Inmates Strike in Prisons Nationwide Over ‘Slave Labor’ Working Conditions – 9 September 2016

The Independent – Inmates Launch Massive Nationwide Strike to Protest ‘Modern Slavery’ in US Prison System – 9 September 2016

Vice News – Prisoners all Over the US are on strike for ‘an end to prison slavery’ – 9 September 2016

Wired – How to Organize the Largest US Prison Strike Ever…From Inside Prison – 9 September 2016

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Requests an Injunction to Stop Dakota Access Pipeline Construction

by Portia K. Skenandore-Wheelock
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

CANNONBALL, N.D. — The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has sought a preliminary injunction to stop the construction of a $3.7billion pipeline until their lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is heard. The judge, James A. Boasberg of United States District Court, wanted more time to determine whether the Corps failed to follow federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act, in its environmental review of the pipeline project. A ruling on the injunction is expected September 9.

The pipeline spans over 1,100 miles over four states and is the first to bring Bakken shale in North Dakota directly to refineries in the Gulf Coast. Dakota Access is the group of firms behind the pipeline, which is led by Energy Transfer Partners. Supporters of the pipeline say this will be a more cost-effective way to transport the shale to the Gulf and assert it is safer than using roads and railways.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been protesting the construction since April in order to protect their burial sites, sacred land, and the Tribe’s main water supply. There are now three distinct camps, the original Sacred Stone Spirit camp, the main Seven Council camp on the north side of the Cannonball River, and the Rosebud camp across the river. The main camp was established last spring to fight the construction of the pipeline that is expected to travel under the Missouri River on treaty lands a half of a mile from the Standing Rock reservation. Other Tribes and Nations have joined the camp in solidarity to protect the water and advocate for treaty rights. Accounts of the number of people at the camps vary from 1,000 to 3,000 over the last few weeks. A part of the camp traveled to Washington, D.C. to fill the court room and demonstrate outside the courthouse.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have confirmed that Energy Transfer Partners does not have a written easement to build the pipeline on Corps property. In July the Corps issued Section 408 permission, which allows the easement to be written, but the easement itself is still under review. The Department of the Interior, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Environmental Protection Agency objected to the Corps permission. Corps spokesman Larry Janis discussed current construction saying, “They can’t build the project by accessing corps property from west to east across Lake Oahe.” The lack of an easement became clear in the federal district court case. “Everybody thought they had it, this is really important information,” said attorney Carolyn Raffensperger, one of four attorneys volunteering their legal services to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and individuals that may get arrested in the protests.

A group of those protesting the Dakota Access pipeline left the camp to take their message to Washington, D.C.. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Amnesty International and United Nations observers have been making visits to the camp. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the International Treaty Council have appealed to the United Nations by submitting an urgent action communication to four U.N. human rights special rapporteurs on the grounds that the tribe’s water supply is directly threatened by construction of the pipeline. The appeal states, “We specifically request that the United States Government impose an immediate moratorium on all pipeline construction until the treaty rights and human rights of the Standing Rock Tribe can be ensured and their free, prior and informed consent is obtained.” The Dakota Access pipeline allegedly violates the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples including the “right to health, right to water and subsistence, threats against sacred sites including burial grounds, Treaty Rights, cultural and ceremonial practices, free prior and informed consent, traditional lands and resources including water, productive capacity of the environment, and self-determination.”

The appeal also asserts environmental racism in the Corps’ decision to relocate the pipeline from north of Bismarck due to concerns of the impact on the city’s water supply without concern for the impact on the Tribe’s main water supply. The Corp has also issued permits to dig through burial grounds that are protected by protocols established by the National Historic Preservation Act that the Tribe alleges are not being followed.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple declared a state of emergency which allows for resources to be mobilized through the State Emergency Operations Plan and helps state and local agencies with more funding for public safety. Some residents are questioning the use of resources to protect Energy Transfer Partners. North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers and other agencies are manning a police barricade that stops and reroutes those going to the reservation but gives access to those north of the reservation. Private security has also been employed, including the recent use of dogs and pepper spray.

In addition to easement issues and potential human rights violations, residents in other states impacted by the pipeline have also filed suit. In Iowa, farmers are suing the government asserting that Dakota Access LLC is illegally using eminent domain to gain rights of way onto their land.

For further information, please see:

The Bismarck Tribune – Corps Says Pipeline Still Needs Water-Crossing Easement – 25 August 2016

Indian Country Today Media Network – Dakota Access Pipeline: Standing Rock Sioux Issue Urgent Appeal to United Nations Human Rights Officials – 20 August 2016

Inside Climate News – Native American Pipeline Protest Halts Construction in N. Dakota – 19 August 2016

Los Angeles Times – With Echoes of Wounded Knee, Tribes Mount Prairie Occupation to Block North Dakota Pipeline – 27 August 2016

New York Times – North Dakota Oil Pipeline Battle: Who’s Fighting and Why – 26 August 2016

Reuters – Celebrities Join Native American Pipeline Protest in Washington, DC – 24 August 2016

El Salvador’s Supreme Court Declares Amnesty Law Unconstitutional

By Portia K. Skenandore-Wheelock
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court has found articles 1 and 4 of the 1993 Amnesty Law unconstitutional. These articles extended amnesty to certain people and crimes committed during El Salvador’s civil war beyond international law, violating the fundamental rights for the victim’s of genocide and crimes against humanity. In a 4 to 1 vote the judges ruled that provisions in the law contradict the right to moral reparations, “Crimes against humanity don’t have statute of limitations according to international law.” Without the Amnesty Law the government can now investigate, prosecute, sanction, and remedy severe human rights violations.

According to the UN Truth Commission the Salvadorian army committed massacres in villages that were suspected of supporting guerrillas. Over 75,000 El Salvadorians were raped, tortured, killed or disappeared between 1980 and 1992, during the country’s civil war. The report listed names of those responsible for these human rights violations and found that the Salvadoran army and paramilitary groups committed 85 percent of these crimes and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) committed about five percent.

A part of the peace agreement between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN included a clause called the Law of National Reconciliation which granted amnesty to both parties. However, in accordance with international law those that were listed in the UN report were excluded from being granted amnesty. Both sides signed the law in 1992 but it was quickly superseded by the 1993 Amnesty Law passed by the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly, which granted amnesty to all of those who committed human rights violations. The Amnesty Law has since been protested by grassroots efforts, NGOs, and international bodies such as the Center for Justice and Accountability and the Spanish Association for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of Organization of American States.

 

The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court declares parts of the 1993 Amnesty Law unconstitutional. (Photo courtesy of PanAm Post)

Many are celebrating the court’s ruling, such as Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, “Today is an historic day for human rights in El Salvador. By turning its back on a law that has done nothing but let criminals get away with serious human rights violations for decades, the country is finally dealing with its tragic past. El Salvador must waste no time and bring all those suspected of criminal responsibility for the tens of thousands of unlawful killings and enforced disappearances that were committed during the internal armed conflict to justice. Victims should not be made to wait for justice, truth and reparation for a second longer.” But others are concerned that the decision is empty without strong and impartial institutions to investigate war crimes and start prosecutions.

Politicians are especially reluctant to revisit human rights violations during the civil war since many of them were involved in the conflict and had previously enjoyed protection from prosecution with the Amnesty Law. As a guerrilla leader during the war, even President Salvador Sanchez Ceren is among many of the country’s leaders that could be investigated, prompting political divide and opportunity with upcoming elections.

El Salvador’s attorney general, Douglas Melendez, says the government will abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling. But until a prosecution unit is established to investigate these war crimes, justice for the victims’ families will continue to be on hold.

 

For more information, please see:

Amnesty International – El Salvador Rejects Amnesty Law in Historic Ruling – 14 July 2016

Council on Hemispheric Affairs – El Salvador’s 1993 Amnesty Law Overturned: Implications for Colombia – 25 July 2016

New York Times – Seeking Justice in El Salvador – 22 July 2016

PANAM Post – El Salvador’s War Criminals Lose Legal Immunity – 18 July 2016

Drought Leads to Severe Food Insecurity and Need for aid

By Portia K. Skenandore-Wheelock
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

Severe drought since mid-2014 has obliterated crops and intensified hunger for 2.8 million people in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Although the latest El Nino has ended, it caused a shift in weather patterns throughout the world and sea levels to rise to their highest levels in nineteen years, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Disaster response advisor for Central America at the U.N. humanitarian agency (OCHA) Gianni Morelli said, “People are and have been selling their assets to survive, selling land and seeds, reducing the number of meals a day and reducing their amount of protein intake. Right now the situation is very serious, and it’s fragile.” The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates some 3.5 million people are struggling to feed themselves in Central America’s “dry corridor” and 2.8 million rely on food aid to survive.

In Guatemala, areas like Chiquimula are severely impacted and the drought has worsened the hunger problem, especially among the country’s large indigenous population. Children as young as two are being treated for malnutrition at local clinics. Fresh water is also becoming scarce in this area as the level of the Jupilingo River has dropped and the hillsides deforested. Local resident Elda Perez Recinos said, “We walk three hours a day to get water, and after that we go out to look for firewood.” Experts call the period between June and September “seasonal hunger.” During this period between harvests the Guatemalan government has to provide food assistance to a million people but the drought has further depleted the harvests and limited the yield and income for farmers.

Sparse rain fall through the “dry corridor” has left farmers with one crop per year and hungry families. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

In El Salvador, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren declared a water shortage emergency for the first time in its history earlier this year, citing the effects of the El Nino phenomenon and climate change.

In April the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said it is providing food aid including rice and beans as well as cash for people to buy food at local markets. The Embassy of the United States of America in Honduras has contributed 75 percent of the funds received to serve drought-affected families in Honduras. The Minister Counselor of the Embassy of the United States of America said, “Investing in the health and nutrition of families is investing in the future of your communities.  That’s why it is important that you, the beneficiary, invest in feeding your family and that the works carried out in your communities are works for the benefit of all. Such long-term improvements including schools, roads, and drains strengthen you to be able to face future emergencies.”

More efficient irrigation systems and drought-resistant crops can help farmers better adjust and prepare for long dry spells. Until then, the effects of poor harvests and lost livestock will continue to hurt families as the rainy season has started a month late with inconsistent rainfall.

For further information, please see:

Appeal Democrat – Drought Heightens Seasonal Food Scarcity in Guatemala – 13 June 2016

Reuters – El Salvador declares drought emergency for first time ever – 14 April 2016

Thomas Reuters Foundation News – Nearly 3mln People Need Food aid in Drought-hit Central America – UN – 27 May 2016

World Food Programme – Honduras: Thousands of Drought-Hit Families Receive Food Assistance to Ensure Their Food Security – 6 April 2016

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls on Canada’s Highway of Tears Add to National Inquiry into Unsolved Cases

By Portia K. Skenandore-Wheelock
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

SMITHERS, British Columbia – Highway 16 is a remote stretch of road that cuts west across four provinces in Canada to the Pacific Ocean. A section of the road in British Columbia runs near remote logging towns and Indian reserves and has become known as the “Highway of Tears” due to the dozens of women and girls that have gone missing or been murdered near the highway. Most of these women and girls are indigenous and almost all of the cases continue to go unsolved.

The impoverished area and nonexistent public transportation has made hitchhiking a common means of transit. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) formed a special unit that has officially linked eighteen of these unsolved cases that occurred from 1969 to 2006 to the highway but families, activists, and the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, believe the number is much higher. Complaints of racism and sexism committed by the police as well as disparities in police action for non-Indigenous women that have gone missing are behind this claim. Minister Bennett said the police often fail to do investigations and deem the deaths of indigenous women and girls to be suicides, accidents, or drug overdoses. She said, “What’s clear is the uneven application of justice.”

A United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women report completed last year found the previous government’s efforts under Prime Minister Stephen Harper to protect indigenous women from harm to be “inadequate” and found “grave violations” of the women’s human rights with the lack of an inquiry into the disappearances and murders. The report said failures by law enforcement have “resulted in impunity.”

A billboard along Highway 16 warns of the murdered and missing in the area. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

Canada’s new government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a “total renewal” of the country’s relationship with indigenous people and in December Trudeau announced a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls which completed the public participation stage of the inquiry design process this past spring. Nationally, the RCMP has officially counted a total of 1,181 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls but research done by the Native Women’s Association of Canada finds the number could be as high as 4,000 women and girls. The national inquiry is expected to cost $40 million ($31 million U.S.).

British Columbia has committed $3 million to improve public transit along the “Highway of Tears.” This includes extending transit services, sharing costs with First Nations reserves for community vans, and highway infrastructure safety improvements, including webcams and transit shelters.

Families and supporters continue their efforts to search for the missing. Ten years ago families walked a 700km stretch of Highway 16 from Prince Rupert to Prince George to raise awareness and improve safety along the highway and the walk is being done again over the next three weeks, ending on June 21, National Aboriginal Day. The first walk ended with a two-day Highway of Tears Symposium that focused on prevention, support, and emergency planning. Since then the Highway of Tears Initiative has been making efforts to implement recommendations from the symposium to build community supports and do workshops with first responders, but with limited funding. Brenda Wilson, the only official staff member of the initiative, said, “Some of the things with the government have changed. They’re starting to recognize the work that needs to be done in a lot of our communities between Prince George and Prince Rupert. This is Northern British Columbia. We need to be in the forefront. We can no longer be silenced. We need to be a part of British Columbia.”

For further information, please see:

New York Times – Dozens of Women Vanish on Canada’s Highway of Tears, and Most Cases Are Unsolved – 24 May 2016

CBC – Highway of Tears ‘cleansing walk’ begins in Prince Rupert – 3 June 2016

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Report of the Inquiry Concerning Canada – 30 March 2015

The Government of Canada – National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – 8 March 2016

Department of Defense Plans to Release Additional Prisoners

By Samuel Miller
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America and Oceania

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States of America — U.S. military officials from the Department of Defense have informed Congress that they plan to transfer about a dozen prisoners from the detention facility at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The first of the transfers are expected in the next few days and the others will take place in coming weeks, said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Patrol Underway Outside Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo Courtesy of BBC News)

Among them will be Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni man who has been on a long-term hunger strike.

At least two countries have agreed to accept the detainees, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss pending transfers. A Pentagon spokesperson, Commander Gary Ross, issued this statement: “The Administration is committed to reducing the detainee population and to closing the detention facility responsibly.”

There are now 91 prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Most have been held without charge or trial for more than a decade, drawing international condemnation. According to Reuters, the Pentagon has notified Congress of its latest planned transfers from among the 37 detainees already cleared to be sent to their homelands or other countries.

U.S. officials have said they expect to move out all members of that group by this summer.

The best known of the detainees expected to be resettled in the coming weeks is Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni prisoner who has been undergoing a hunger strike in protest of his detention. That process includes guards strapping him down, putting a rubber tube down his nose and pumping a liquid dietary supplement into his stomach.

One of the issues in Odah’s case is the congressional ban on repatriations to Yemen, a country mired in an ongoing military conflict. The country is also considered a breeding ground for terrorists associated with organizations such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

President Obama, who last month presented Congress with a blueprint for closing the prison, continues his attempt to make good on his long-time pledge before he leaves office in January. The plan for shuttering the facility calls for bringing the several dozen remaining prisoners to maximum-security prison in the United States. But U.S. law bars such transfers to the mainland, and President Obama has not ruled out doing so by use of executive action.

The Obama administration’s main effort to close the prison has been transferring low-risk prisoners to countries that can meet security conditions, with the rest to be taken to a different prison on domestic soil. But the fate of the plan is uncertain because of a statute banning the military from taking detainees from Guantánamo to the United States.

The Guantánamo facility has been criticized both in the United States and abroad as a symbol of human rights abuses for indefinitely holding prisoners without trial.

 

For more information, please see:

BBC News – US to transfer dozen Guantanamo inmates to at least two countries – 31 March 2016

Independent – Guantanamo Bay inmates to be transferred to other countries, US confirms – 31 March 2016

Voice of America – US Preparing to Transfer More Prisoners From Guantanamo Bay – 31 March 2016

NY Times – Pentagon Plans More Prisoner Transfers From Guantánamo – 30 March 2016

Reuters – Pentagon to send about a dozen Guantanamo inmates to other countries soon – 30 March 2016

The Hill – Pentagon to transfer group of detainees out of Gitmo in coming weeks: report – 30 March 2016

Washington Post – Hunger striker at Guantanamo Bay slated for transfer – 30 March 2016

Indonesian Capital Rocked By Deadly Terrorist Attack

By Samuel Miller
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America and Oceania

JAKARTA, Indonesia — At least six people are reported dead in a suspected series of bombings and gunfire outside the Sarinah department store on Jalan M.H. Thamrin in Central Jakarta on Thursday. Islamic State (“IS”) said it was behind the attack, the first time the radical group has targeted the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

An Explosion Rocks Downtown Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo Courtesy of CNN)

Security forces battled militants for hours in a major business and shopping district.

The mayhem began with a suicide blast at a Starbucks while gunmen outside opened fire, killing a Canadian man, said Jakarta’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Tito Karnavian. Moments later, two suicide bombers struck a traffic police post, killing themselves and an Indonesian man.

Security forces later put the streets on lock-down, including areas near the U.S. and French embassies and other diplomatic sites. At the Starbucks, six hand-crafted explosive devices were found stashed.

“So we think … their plan was to attack people and follow it up with a larger explosion when more people gathered,” said Charilyan. “But thank God it didn’t happen.”

IS released a statement online claiming the attacks, which it said were carried out by soldiers of the Caliphate, targeting citizens of the Crusader coalition against the group. “A group of soldiers of the caliphate in Indonesia targeted a gathering from the crusader alliance that fights the Islamic State in Jakarta,” the group said in a statement.

Several explosive devices were planted, while four militants attacked with guns and explosive belts, the jihadist group said in a statement. According to IS, 15 people were killed in the attack, a claim that contradicts the Indonesian government’s official death toll of seven people.

Mr. Karnavian also blamed the terrorist group and singled out a militant named Bahrun Naim, who he said plotted the attack to assert himself among various figures competing to lead ISIS in Southeast Asia.

The Jakarta carnage, in an area frequented by foreigners, came 6,000 miles from and two days after ISIS boasted about a suicide bombing in the heart of Istanbul. CNN security analyst Bob Baer likened the Jakarta attack to the November 13 Paris massacre, in which terrorists linked to ISIS struck several locations at the same time.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s national police, Maj. Gen. Anton Charilyan, issued a statement concerning the assailant’s plans. “So we think … their plan was to attack people and follow it up with a larger explosion when more people gathered,” said Charilyan.

“But thank God it didn’t happen.”

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Jakarta attacks: Islamic State says it was responsible – 14 January 2016

CNN – Jakarta attacks: Deadly blasts, shootout hit Indonesian capital – 14 January 2016

Jakarta Globe – BREAKING: Six Reported Dead as Explosions, Gunfire Rock Central Jakarta – 14 January 2016

Reuters – Islamic State claims Jakarta attack, targets Indonesia for first time – 14 January 2016

Russia Today – Suspected ISIS attacks in Jakarta – 14 January 2016

Washington Post – Militants strike Jakarta, killing 2 as authorities probe Islamic State reach into Asia – 14 January 2016

NY Times – Jakarta Attack Kills at Least 2, Indonesian Officials Say – 14 January 2016

US Marine Convicted Of Killing Transgender Filipino

By Samuel Miller
Impunity Watch Desk Reporter, North America and Oceania

MANILA, The Philippines — A court in The Philippines convicted a United States Marine of homicide Tuesday in the killing of a transgender woman. The court sentenced him for six to 12 years, in a case that has reignited debate over American military presence in its former colony.

Joseph Pemberton, left, in Philippine Court Tuesday. (Photo Courtesy of USA Today)

The Marine, Joseph Pemberton, had been charged with murder; however, the court convicted him of the lesser offense of homicide, which does not require malicious intent.

Pemberton will be temporarily detained in a Philippine jail until the Philippine and US governments agree on where he should be held during his prison term.

Authorities stated Pemberton, who was on shore leave in Olongapo City during joint military exercises, killed the victim in October 2014 after he discovered that she was transgender.

The court said that it had reduced the charge from murder because the element of “treachery” was not present in the killing. The general perception of the case has led many to criticize aspects of the sentencing. The victim’s sister told Reuters, “We expected a murder conviction but instead got homicide. We are not content with the decision.”

Laude’s mother, Julita Cabillan, also told the Associated Press that while she was happy with the verdict, she was not pleased with the jail term. “No amount of money could pay for the years I spent raising my child,” Cabillan told reporters. “What they did to my child was gruesome. Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we can’t fight for justice.”

Additionally, Protesters supporting the victim, Jennifer Laude, outside the Hall of Justice carried placards, saying “Justice for Jennifer Laude! Justice for the Filipino people”, “Jail Pemberton in the Philippines”.

The case has sparked renewed controversy over U.S. military presence in The Philippines. According to the Associated Press, activists outside the courthouse warned that they would closely watch to ensure Pemberton is detained in a Philippines jail. The Philippines and U.S. governments must next agree on where Pemberton should serve his sentence, as prescribed under a visiting forces agreement.

Under the agreement, the Philippines can prosecute U.S. service members, but the U.S. has custody over service members from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings. Interestingly in 2009, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that convicted U.S. personnel must serve their sentences in the Philippines.

In recent years, both countries have sought to rebuild defense ties. Last year, President Obama visited Manila to sign a deal to expand military cooperation with the Philippines.

Both allies are also waiting for the Philippine Supreme Court to approve a pact allowing the U.S. military to store supplies on Philippine bases for operations related to maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disasters.

The case has now led to calls from left-wing groups for the Philippines to end its military agreements with the US.

 

For more information, please see:

BBC News — US marine guilty of Filipina transgender killing – 1 December 2015

CNN — U.S. Marine found guilty of killing transgender woman in Philippines – 1 December 2015

NY Times — U.S. Marine Guilty in Killing of Transgender Woman in Philippines – 1 December 2015

Reuters — U.S. Marine jailed in Philippines for killing transgender woman – 1 December 2015

USA Today — U.S. Marine found guilty of killing transgender Filipino – 1 December 2015

Washington Post — U.S. Marine convicted of killing transgender Filipino – 1 December 2015

Obama To Sign Congressional Defense Bill; Guantanamo Bay To Remain Open

By Samuel Miller
Impunity Watch Desk Reporter, North America and Oceania

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States of America — On Tuesday, the Senate approved an annual military policy bill, and White House officials said President Obama would sign the measure, despite provisions that bar the transfer of detainees from the terrorist detention center at Guantánamo Bay to the United States. President Obama vetoed an earlier version of the bill last month because it kept across-the-board budget cuts in place, and prohibited him from closing the prison.

The U.S. Detention Center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo Courtesy of the WSJ)

The president had objected to the previous bill because of the Guantanamo language, as well as because it eased military spending cuts without also loosening restrictions on domestic spending.

Members of the Senate overwhelmingly approved the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) 91-3 on Tuesday, just days after the House passed the bipartisan measure by a vote of 370-58. The legislation authorizes Pentagon spending on military personnel, ships, aircraft and other war-fighting equipment.

The Senate also voted 93-0 to send Obama another bill affecting Guantanamo. The military construction appropriations measure bars spending to renovate or build facilities in the United States to house former Guantanamo detainees.

Together with extending a ban on transferring Guantanamo detainees to the United States, the bill also imposes new restrictions on transfers to third countries, including Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest addressed members of the media Tuesday to explain the President’s rationale for signing the bill, while also emphasizing the President’s position toward closing Guantánamo Bay remains unchanged.

“I would expect that you would see the president sign the NDAA when it comes to his desk,” Mr. Earnest stated in a news briefing. “That certainly does not reflect a change in our position, or the intensity of our position, about the need to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay.”

Although the Defense Department has been slowly releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, there are still 112 prisoners at the prison. The majority of these inmates are suspected terrorists whom were captured in Afghanistan; Obama has made the closure of the prison a national security priority.

In response to the passage of the NDAA, Republicans on Capitol Hill fear the president may prepare an end-run around Congress, and will try to close the prison through an executive order.

“If the President moves forward with this, it would be blatantly unconstitutional, flouting laws passed by Congress,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) told the Wall Street Journal.

Alternatively, there are voices in Washington which remain hopeful Guantánamo may yet be closed. “If the president can find a constitutional path to that conclusion, I hope he can serve our country by closing Guantanamo once and for all,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.

White House officials said that Mr. Obama intended to send Congress a plan to close the detention center after signing the bill.

For more information, please see:

NY Times — Senate Passes Military Bill That Bars Transfers of Guantánamo Detainees – 10 November 2015

Reuters — Obama to sign defense bill with Guantanamo restrictions – 10 November 2015

USA Today — Obama will sign defense bill despite Guantanamo Bay closure ban – 10 November 2015

US News and World Report — Congress sends Obama defense bill that bans moving Guantanamo detainees to US – 10 November 2015

Wall Street Journal — Obama to Sign Defense Bill Despite Provisions to Keep Guantanamo Open – 10 November 2015

Washington Times — Congress passes defense policy bill that keeps Guantanamo open – 10 November 2015

5th Circuit Upholds Blockage Of Obama Immigration Plan

By Samuel Miller
Impunity Watch Desk Reporter, North America and Oceania

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States of America — The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a Texas-based federal judge’s injunction blocking President Barack Obama’s plan to protect parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents along with more immigrants who came to the country as children. The Obama administration will ask the Supreme Court to weigh in on the president’s plan to shield as many as 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally from deportation.

Protesters Hold a Rally Outside the Court of Appeals in New Orleans. (Photo Courtesy of BBC News)

Lawyers for the administration had been expecting the Fifth Circuit ruling to go against the president, noting the high number of judges appointed by Republican presidents.

The three-judge panel for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans ruled 2 to 1 against an appeal by the Obama administration, saying a lawsuit brought by 26 states to block Mr. Obama’s actions was likely to succeed at trial.

Mr. Obama announced last November that he would use his executive authority to effectively stop deporting the undocumented parents of American children. That program, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, would also allow the parents to work legally in the United States.

The plan was first blocked in February by a Federal District Court judge in Texas, who ruled that allowing millions of illegal immigrants to remain lawfully in the United States would prove costly to the State of Texas. The judge at that trial also said the government had not followed the proper procedures for enacting the new immigration rules.

Writing for the two judges in the majority, Judge Jerry Smith found that Texas had established it was in a strong legal position to bring the lawsuit because it would be harmed by new costs for issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants. He also found that the program would undercut the will of Congress.

In a scathing dissent, Judge Carolyn King said the two other judges, as well as the District Court judge, had misstated the basic facts of the case. She accused her colleagues of basing their decisions on conjecture, intuition, or preconception.

In the last several weeks, administration officials and other supporters of the immigration actions had expressed frustration that the appeals court had taken so long to rule. Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said that while the appeals court ruling might be seen as another defeat for her cause, “the silver lining is that this is just in the nick of time for the administration to go to the Supreme Court.”

Under normal circumstances, in order for the Supreme Court to hear the case this term, briefing would have to be completed by mid-winter. The National Immigration Law Center has called for a quick Supreme Court appeal.

For more information please see:

BBC News — Federal appeals court halts Obama immigration action – 10 November 2015

CNN — Court upholds block on Obama’s immigration plan – 10 November 2015

USA Today — Appeals court deals crippling blow to President Obama’s immigration plan – 10 November 2015

US News — Obama appeals to Supreme Court in immigration case that could protect 5 million – 10 November 2015

Washington Post — Immigrants now must rely on Supreme Court for deportation relief – 10 November 2015

NY Times — Appeals Court Deals Blow to Obama’s Immigration Plans – 9 November 2015

Los Angeles Declares State of Emergency to Deal With Homeless Crisis

By Samuel Miller
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America and Oceania

LOS ANGELES, United States of America — The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday declared a State of Emergency on homelessness, calling for $100 million to help address the growing crisis. The West Coast city is the first in the country to declare a State of Emergency over the growing number of street dwellers.

A Homeless Man Sits on the Lawn of City Hall as the Mayor Speaks in the Background. (Photo Courtesy of BBC News)

According to an LA Times report, the number of homeless people living on the city’s streets has grown by 12 percent since 2013.

City Council President Herb Wesson, along with members of the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee, and Mayor Eric Garcetti, announced the plan during a news conference outside City Hall, as homeless people dozed nearby on a lawn.

“This city has pushed this problem from neighborhood to neighborhood for too long, from bureaucracy to bureaucracy,” Mayor Garcetti said. “Every single day we come to work, we see folks lying on this grass, a symbol of our city’s intense crisis.”

Los Angeles has one of the largest unsheltered populations in the country, and more than an estimated 25,000 homeless residents. Some of those men and women live on the city’s infamous Skid Row, a makeshift camp on public sidewalks that stretches for blocks.

Gary Blasi, a Professor Emeritus at the UCLA School of Law, said the promise to fund new housing and services for the homeless people in L.A. was a positive step for a city government that has recently been preoccupied with empowering police to crack down on encampments.

“If it is purely symbolic, that will be bad,” Professor Blasi said. “But at least people are engaging in a conversation about how to solve the problem, instead of just moving it around the city.”

In addition to the one-time $100 million funding proposed by the council, Mayor Garcetti is calling for an annual $100 million to fund permanent housing for the homeless and to set up a foundation dedicated to the issue.

In the short term, Mayor Garcetti wants $13 million in emergency funding to grow homeless services and housing, most of which would be allocated in the form of subsidies. “If we can lift up those in need, and pick up those left behind, then we can live up to the best of our ideals,” Garcetti said.

Tuesday’s announcement by Mayor Garcetti was also marked by evidence of the confused tactics critics say have hindered an effective city response to a growing challenge.

Council members haven’t identified the sources for all of the money or how it would be used. Meanwhile, the mayor has yet to release a sweeping plan, now weeks overdue, he says he is crafting to end homelessness. Late in July, Garcetti said in a speech that his office was preparing a three-part “battle plan” for what he dubbed a “war on homelessness here in Los Angeles.”

 

For more information, please see:

BBC News — Los Angeles: $100m plan to tackle homeless ’emergency’ – 23 September 2105

CNN — Los Angeles declares ‘state of emergency’ on homelessness – 23 September 2015

International Business Times — Los Angeles Mayor Announces State Of Emergency To Tackle Homeless Crisis, City Council Pledges $100M – 23 September 2015

Al-Jazeera America — Los Angeles declares homelessness state of emergency – 22 September 2015

LA Times — L.A. to declare ‘state of emergency’ on homelessness, commit $100 million – 22 September 2015

FIFA Executive Approved by Trinidad & Tobago for Extradition to U.S.

By Samuel Miller
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America and Oceania

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — Trinidad and Tobago’s Attorney General has signed ‘Authority to Proceed’ documents, clearing the way for extradition proceedings against former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, who is wanted in the United States on corruption charges. Warner’s attorneys are challenging the decision, stating that Trinidad & Tobago’s Attorney General, Faris Al-Rawi, missed the September 16 date for signing off on the documents, which would result in Mr. Warner’s discharge.

Former FIFA VP and CONCACAF President Jack Warner Faces Extradition. (Photo Courtesy of Trinidad Express)

The case was adjourned until Friday, after lawyers asked for time to review the documents.

James Lewis, representing Trinidad & Tobago, however, said that there was no reason to discharge Warner, since the documents were now signed. Mr. Lewis also stated that with the signing of the Authority to Proceed, the process would be free to continue as necessary.

Mr. Warner is among nine officials of world football’s governing body, along with five sports marketing executives, indicted by US prosecutors. US authorities have asked for him to be extradited in order to face the charges.

Mr. Warner faces 12 charges of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and bribery; while the list of offenses Mr. Warner is wanted for in the United States is certainly expansive, the situation regarding Mr. Warner also involves millions of dollars, spanning over the course of decades.

From the early 1990s, he allegedly began to leverage his influence and exploit his official positions for personal gain. Furthermore, he allegedly accepted a $10 million bribe from South African officials in return for voting to award the country the 2010 World Cup.

In one particular alleged instance, Mr. Warner bribed officials with envelopes each containing $40,000 in cash; when one demurred, he allegedly said: “There are some people here who think they are more pious than you. If you’re pious, open a church, friends. Our business is our business.”

Mr. Warner, the former president of CONCACAF, the governing soccer confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean, has denied all wrongdoing.

 

For more information, please see:

BBC News — FIFA corruption: Jack Warner extradition proceedings approved – 21 September 2015

Jamaica Observer – Jack Warner challenges AG’s decision to proceed with extradition – 21 September 2015

The Guardian — FIFA crisis: Jack Warner’s extradition to United States moves a step closer – 21 September 2015

Trinidad Express — Jack challenges AG’s decision to proceed with extradition – 21 September 2015