North America & Oceania

Holder Calls for Reduced Reliance on Mandatory Minimums

by Michael Yoakum
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – US Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday called for shorter sentences for defendants in most of the nation’s drug crimes. Holder endorsed a proposal that would result in shorter sentences for non-violent drug trafficking offenses, citing the rising cost of operating federal prisons and fairer administration of justice.

Holder’s position appears consistent with statements he made last August about the “vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration” gripping communities. (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

The proposal, created by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, is part of a larger move by the Department of Justice to lessen the penalties for non-violent drug offenders.  Holder has spoken out against mandatory minimum sentences, arguing for judicial discretion in developing appropriate sentencing guidelines.

“This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” said Holder in a hearing before the Commission.

Holder insisted that removing these mandatory minimums would not prevent application of harsher sentences to violent drug offenders.

This proposal is just the latest step in an on-going move by the Justice Department to reduce the prison populations.  In August, Holder instructed prosecutors to stop charging non-violent drug traffickers with offenses that carried these mandatory minimum sentences.  The Sentencing Commission took notice, convening in January to consider eliminating mandatory minimums altogether.

Justice Department officials said the proposed amendment would result in a 17 percent decrease in the average length of prison sentences for non-violent offenders.  Moreover, it would shrink the federal prison population by 6,550 inmates over the next five years.

Holder’s proposal has been met with criticism from Raymond Morrogh, director-at-large for the National District Attorney’s Association, who considered the proposal to be “[r]ewarding convicted felons with lighter sentences because America can’t balance its budget.”

The seven member Sentencing Commission is expected to vote as soon as April to amend the sentencing guidelines.  The mandatory minimums will remain in effect, however, until such time that the Commission votes on the proposed amendment.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Eric Holder to push for shorter US drug sentences – 13 March 2014

CNN – Holder: I back a plan to reduce some drug-related sentences – 13 March 2014

Fox News – Holder backs reduced sentences for some drug traffickers – 13 March 2014

The New York Times – Holder Endorses Proposal to Reduce Drug Sentences – 13 March 2014

The Washington Post – Holder calls for reduced sentences for low-level drug offenders – 13 March 2014

Kerry Meets Russian Counterpart in Paris

by Michael Yoakum
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

PARIS, France – Secretary of State John Kerry met with with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss peaceful solutions to the standoff in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The meeting came just a day after Lavrov announced that economic sanctions by the US would not change the position of the Russian government.

Kerry denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea Sunday, calling the action “an incredible act of aggression.” (Photo courtesy of Bloomberg News)

Despite their differences, Kerry noted before the meeting that all parties agreed that the situation should be resolved diplomatically rather than militarily.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” said Kerry.

The talks were described as “very constructive” and Kerry considered them to be the beginning of negotiation that would hopefully lead to a peaceful solution. Despite the Secretary’s optimism, the Russian Foreign Minister refused to have a one-on-one meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, opting instead to travel home.

While speaking in to press after the meeting, Kerry renewed his call for Russian forces to withdraw from the Crimean peninsula and allow UN monitors in to the region. Whether or not Russia will heed such a call, Kerry added that the parties agreed to meet again.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it and overcome the crisis,” he said.

While Kerry traveled to Paris, President Obama continued to communicate with EU leaders, collaborating with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday on a resolution to the situation. Their proposal would require Russian forces to partially withdraw, limiting their deployment to 11,000 troops.

The President also directed remarks to Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday, saying that Russia was not “fooling anybody” by denying Russia deployed forces to Crimea.

France 24 reports that sources confirm President Obama will not be attending an upcoming G8 summit scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia unless the situation in Crimea improves.

For more information, please see:

Bloomberg News – Kerry Makes Push to Ease Ukraine Tension in Lavrov Talks – 5 March 2014

CNN – Kerry: Ukraine talks will continue – 5 March 2014

France 24 – US-Russia to hold Ukraine talks in Paris – 5 March 2014

MSNBC News – Kerry Says Russia and Ukraine Willing to Keep Talking – 5 March 2014

The Washington Post – Kerry says ‘Russia is going to lose’ if Putin’s troops continue to advance in Ukraine – 2 March 2014

Former Guantanamo Bay Detainees Allege Torture

By Brandon R. Cottrell
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America 

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – Two former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Nizar Sassi and Mourad Benchallali, who filed a lawsuit alleging torture and mistreatment while at Guantanamo, have asked that retired major general Geoffrey Miller, who was the commander of the prison, be subpoenaed.

Retired Major General Geoffrey Miller, who was a commander at Guantanamo Bay, is alleged to have overseen “a systematic plan of torture.” (Photo Courtesy RNW).

In an expert report that accompanied their lawsuit, Sassi and Benchallali say that Miller “authorized a systematic plan of torture and ill-treatment on persons deprived of their freedom . . . [and] the basic rights of any detainee.”

According to the lawyers for Sassi and Benchallali, the acts performed “constitute[d] torture and violate, at a minimum, the Geneva Conventions prohibition on coercive interrogations.”  As such, Miller “bears individual criminal responsibility for the war crimes and acts of torture inflicted on detainees in US custody.”

Sassi and Benchallali, who were detained from 2001 to 2004 likely suffered from the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the Bush administration had approved.  Such techniques included “placing detainees in stress positions, stripping them, isolating them for extended periods of time, and exposing them to extreme heat and cold.”  Miller allegedly continued to use these techniques even after then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld withdrew permission to use those techniques.

The United States has not responded to this subpoena.  Additionally, in January 2012, Sophie Clement, the investigating magistrate, requested access to relevant documents and for permission to interview those who had contact with Sassi and Benchellali—that request has yet to solicit a US response.

Katherine Gallagher, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “that high-level US officials alleged to bear responsibil[ity] for torture continue to enjoy impunity domestically is a stain on the US system of justice.”  She also praised France as a “venue that is willing to investigate torture and assist in providing some measure of justice to the torture survivors.”

Reports of torture at Guantanamo Bay were first brought to the international community’s attention when the International Committee of the Red Cross carried out an investigation, that including interviewing over five hundred individuals.  Their report voiced concern over the lack of a legal system for the inmates and the excessive use of isolation and steel cages and ultimately concluded that the prison had “too much control over the basic needs of detainees.”


For further information, please see:

FIDH – Former Guantánamo Detainees Urge French Judge to Subpoena Former Guantánamo Commander for Role in Detainee Torture – 26/2/14

Global Post – Ex-Guantanamo Detainees Ask French Judge To Probe Torture – 26/2/14

Huffington Post – French Judge Asked To Continue Investigation – 26/2/14

Russian Times – Former Gitmo Inmates Urge French Judge To Probe Systematic Torture – 27/2/14

Mexican Authorities Arrest Infamous Cartel Leader Joaquin Guzman

by Michael YoakumImpunity Watch Reporter, North America

MEXICO CITY, Mexico – Mexican authorities arrested notorious drug king Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Saturday at a condominium in the resort town of Mazatlán. News spread quickly to Washington, where US Attorney’s office announced Sunday that they will seek extradition of Guzman.

Guzman was arrested in 2001 but escaped from a high security prison, evading capture for thirteen years. (photo courtesy of The New York Times)

Authorities apprehended Guzman in a raid just before dawn in Mazatlán, pinning him to a bed before he could reach a Kalashnikov rifle lying on the floor. The condominium where Guzman was captured has a reputation for being a hangout for drug traffickers.

News of Guzman’s capture has been celebrated in the US, where he is considered one of the most notorious drug traffickers, responsible for as much as 80% of the drug trade in Chicago.

Attorney General Eric Holder said of his capture, “the apprehension of Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzmán Loera, by Mexican authorities is a landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.”

Holder added that he was pleased that US law enforcement was able to cooperate with Mexican authorities in capturing Guzman.

Pressure on Guzman’s gang, the Sinaloa cartel, has increased in recent months as Mexican authorities have captured or killed several lieutenants. Information gained during raids on those cartel members ultimately yielded information, namely cell phone data, that aided in capturing Guzman.

The Sinaloa cartel is considered one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in the world, having a wide reach into Europe and Asia. The cartel is heavily involved in the stream of violence in Mexico over the drug trade that has killed tens of thousands.

Despite his infamy, Guzman has been featured on Forbes’ list of the 100 most powerful people with an estimated wealth of $1 billion.

In his hometown of Badiraguato, Guzman is honored in song that pays homage to his small stature but wide reaching power. The area, known for harboring some of the most notorious drug traffickers, fears and admires people like Guzman.

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán: US to seek cartel leader’s extradition from Mexico – 23 February 2014

BBC News – Man and myth: Joaquin ‘Shorty’ Guzman – 22 February 2014

CNN – After years on run, Sinaloa cartel chief ‘El Chapo’ Guzman arrested – 22 February 2014

NBC News – Authorities Arrest Mexican Drug Kingpin Joaquin Guzman – 22 February 2014

The New York Times – El Chapo, Most-Wanted Drug Lord, Is Captured in Mexico – 22 February 2014

NSA Ally Spying On Indonesian Government’s Communication With US Law Firm

By Brandon R. Cottrell 
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – In a document released by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the United States National Security Agency (“NSA”), an Australian intelligence agency kept tabs on communications between a US law firm and the Indonesian government and shared their findings with the NSA.

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Indonesia Foreign Minister g Marty Natalegawa in Jakarta on Monday (Photo Courtesy The Guardian).

Though the US law firm has not yet been positively identified, it is believed to be the Chicago based firm, Mayer Brown, which had been retained by Indonesia.  Indonesia had needed legal advice as it was in a trade dispute with the United States.  The communications involved here were protected by the attorney-client privilege, yet could still lawfully be used by the NSA so long as it was for intelligence purposes.

While it is not yet known whether this data was collected so that the US would have leverage in any future talks with Indonesia, the data would be “highly useful intelligence for interested US customers.”  The N.S.A. has since declined to answer any questions regarding this incident, including whether the collected information was shared with any of the United States trade officials or negotiators working on the Indonesia dispute.

Duane Layton, a Mayer Brown lawyer involved in the trade talks, said he did not have any evidence that he or the firm had been subject to surveillance but said that he “always wonder[s] if someone is listening, because you would have to be an idiot not to wonder in this day and age.”

Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott has not issued a specific statement regarding the document, but did say that any material gathered by Australia is “for the benefit of our friends and to protect our citizens and the citizens of other countries.”

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa meanwhile does not understand how a dispute over shrimp exports from Indonesia to the US would have an impact on global security.  Additionally, he said that “neighbors like Indonesia and Australia should be looking out for each other, not turning against each other . . . we should be listening to each and not listening in.”

The Obama Administration routinely emphasizes the NSA’s sweeping power as necessary to fight terrorism, yet recent documents released by Snowden show that that the NSA spies on trade negotiations, and communications among economic officials in other countries.  While the NSA has not denied that they possess such information, they remain steadfast in denying engagement in economic espionage.

Australia, which is part of the Five Eyes Alliance (the other members include Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States), is often accused of helping the NSA collect data that it would otherwise unlawfully be able to collect, though the NAS has repeatedly said it does not utilize such measures.


For further information, please see:

The Guardian – Uncalled for Clarifications by Tony Abbott – 16 Feb. 14

NY Times – Spying by N.S.A. Ally Entangled U.S. Law Firm – 15 Feb. 14

The Voice of Russia – NSA’s Australian Allies Spied On Indonesia-Contracted US Law Firm – 16 Feb. 14

Washington Post – Indonesia Baffled By Spying On Shrimp Spat – 17 Feb. 14