Given the sensationalism in mainstream US news media coverage of alleged sexual impropriety charges filed against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Sweden, it’s no surprise that other significant news about America involving that Scandinavian nation is being left uncovered.
In early November, Sweden called on the US to end the death penalty and to improve conditions in maximum security prisons, as the United States went through its first-ever Universal Periodic Review by the United Nation’s Human Rights Council.
Sweden joined nearly two dozen countries in calling upon the US to end its pariah-like status as the only western industrialized nation to engage in executions. The US has over 3,200 people facing death sentences, a sharp rise from 1968, when America’s death row population numbered just 517, according to statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Other countries critical of the US posture on the death penalty – practiced by the federal government and 35 states – included Australia (the birthplace of Assange), France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Vatican.
The caustic onslaught in the U.S. against Assange for leaking sensitive documents, where attackers include members of Congress – some even calling for Assange’s death, either extrajudicially or after a trial–is ironic, coming so close to December 10th, the annual international observance of Human Rights Day.
That observance commemorates the UN’s 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One clause in that Declaration provides people worldwide with the right to receive and impart information “through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The American assaults on Assange extend beyond the White House and Capitol Hill. Amazon, under pressure from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), removed WikiLeaks from its computer servers, while MasterCard, PayPal and Visa have halted payments to WikiLeaks from donors supportive of work of that entity, almost certainly after receiving pressure from the US government.
While US officials attending that human rights review held in Switzerland proudly pointed to such continuing rights progress in America as the election of a black President and his selection of a Hispanic female US Supreme Court Justice, fifty-six countries including staunch US allies offered 228 recommendations for improving human rights in the nation that touts itself as the world’s leader in protecting the rights of all.
Those recommendations involved a wide range of issues, ranging from attacking poverty among Native Americans to addressing abuses impacting immigrants and closing the infamous Guantanamo prison. However, most of the recommendations presented at that human rights review centered on concerns about deprivations and disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Belgium and Switzerland, for example, called on America to stop sentencing teens to life in prison. Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of life-sentenced teens, with over 300 currently languishing in the state’s prisons.
Haiti called for ending the discriminatory impact of mandatory minimum sentences and Thailand called for addressing sexual violence inside U.S. prisons, where homosexual rapes far exceed heterosexual rapes outside prison walls.
France urged the U.S. to study the racial disparities evident in the application of the death penalty. African-Americans comprise 41.43 percent of the people on death rows across America – a figure more than twice the percentage of America’s black population.
The United Kingdom expressed concerns about damning evidence that the death penalty could sometimes be administered in a discriminatory manner.
Respected Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz recently wrote a commentary expressing his concerns about Kevin Cooper, a black California death row inmate facing execution for slaughtering four members of a white family in 1983, despite the troubling reality that the lone survivor told police the murders were white.
Facts now establish that police destroyed blood-stained clothing evidence supplied by the girlfriend of one (white) man police never investigated, and that the prosecution’s forensic witnesses falsified evidence against Cooper.
Dershowitz stated that the facts “do not add up” in the murder conviction of Cooper. He has asked outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant Cooper clemency. America’s largest death row is in California, which has 697 persons facing execution.
U.S. representatives responding to their international critics stated that despite legitimate debate on the propriety of the death penalty, as a matter of law at the federal level and in 35 states, “that punishment is permitted,” according to the draft report issued by the UN Human Rights Council.
While the America’s governmental scheme makes it structurally difficult for the federal government to outright ban states from conducting executions, the federal government could end its own use of the death penalty for federal crimes. The U.S. government death row holds nearly 70 persons.
One U.S. death-row inmate – Pennsylvania’s ‘Death Row Journalist’ Mumia Abu-Jamal – received mention by name in one recommendation. Abu-Jamal, perhaps the most well-known of 25,000-plus under death sentence worldwide, observes the macabre anniversary of spending 29-years inside a death-row prison cell on December 9th.
Cuba called on the U.S. to “end the unjust incarceration of political prisoners including Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal.” Ample evidence supports international claims that Native American leader Peltier, repeatedly denied parole, and ex-Black Panther Abu-Jamal, are unjustly incarcerated for deaths involving law enforcement officers.
The issue of political prisoners in the US is a subject generating interest internationally, yet it is an issue largely ignored by Americans, said Efia Nwangaza, a lawyer who attended that UN human rights review session held in Geneva, Switzerland.
“There are over 75 political prisoners in the US, most of them former Black Panther or Black Liberation Army people,” said Nwangaza, a Philadelphia native now living in South Carolina, who helped prepare documentation on US political prisoners for that UN review.
“We’ve made progress through an admission by omission, with the US not denying it has political prisoners.”
In addition to criticisms about death penalty policies in the U.S., nations around the world raised concerns about racial profiling practices in America against blacks, Latinos and persons perceived as Muslim, inclusive of U.S. citizens, immigrants and visitors.
U.S. representatives, responding to criticisms about racial profiling, “assured delegations” that America condemns racial and ethnic profiling in all forms,” according to the Human Rights Council’s report.
Ironically, even as U.S. representatives offered their assurances, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a class-action lawsuit against the Philadelphia Police Department for racial profiling in that city where the U.S. Constitution was drafted and approved.
That lawsuit involves the police practice called ‘stop-&-frisk’ – where police detain and search persons. This practice in Philadelphia impacted 253,333 persons in 2009 – a 148-percent increase over 2005 – with 72.2 percent of those subjected being blacks, who comprise 44 percent of that city’s population, according to the lawsuit.
This dragnet-style policing only produced arrests in 8.4 percent of the ‘stops,’ with the majority of those arrests being for “interactions following the initial stop” like disorderly conduct and resisting arrest – i.e. alleged crimes that most likely resulted from legitimate objections to being stopped without cause.
One of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit is State Representative Jewell Williams, a veteran of 20-years in law enforcement work, who was roughed up by Philadelphia police in March 2009 while inquiring about a police stop of two 65-year-old black men during an encounter around the corner from Williams’ house.
Exposing a paradox in America’s race-based policing, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and the city’s Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey (named in the ACLU lawsuit) are both black, but they back their Stop-&-Frisk policy, downplaying its demonstrable racially-disproportionate impact.
“Mayor Nutter repeatedly promised that this policy [Stop-&-Frisk] would be carried out in a way that respected the Constitution,” said Mary Catherine Roper, an ACLU-Pa staff attorney. “But instead of stopping people suspected of criminal activity, the police appear to be stopping people because of race.”
Former Philadelphia Mayor John Street told ThisCantBeHappening! recently that the excessive Stop-&-Frisk practices are actually counter-productive to effective crime fighting because the practices alienate citizens that police need to assist them in crime fighting.
Linn Washington Jr. is a columnist for This Can’t Be Happening!.