Last Updated: Friday, 29 August 2014, 14:18 GMT

Amnesty International Report 2008 - USA

Publisher Amnesty International
Publication Date 28 May 2008
Cite as Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2008 - USA, 28 May 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/483e27bc37.html [accessed 29 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Head of state and government: George W. Bush
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 303.9 million
Life expectancy: 77.9 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 8/8 per 1,000


The US authorities continued to hold hundreds of foreign nationals at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, although more than 100 were transferred out of the facility during the year. Detainees in Guantánamo were held indefinitely, the vast majority of them without charge, and effectively without recourse to the US courts to challenge the legality of their detention. Most detainees in Guantánamo were held in isolation in maximum security facilities, heightening concerns for their physical and mental health. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programme of secret detention and interrogation was re-authorized by President Bush in July. In December, the Director of the CIA revealed that the agency had destroyed videotapes of detainee interrogations.

Soldiers refusing to serve in Iraq on grounds of conscience were imprisoned. Prisoners continued to experience ill-treatment at the hands of police officers and prison guards. Dozens of people died after police used tasers (electro-shock weapons) against them. There were serious failings in state, local and federal measures to address sexual violence against Native American women. Discrimination remained a concern in a variety of areas, including policing practices, the operation of the criminal justice system and housing rights. There were 42 executions during the year. In late September, the decision of the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of lethal injections led to a de facto moratorium on executions by this method. In December, New Jersey became the first US state in more than four decades to legislate to abolish the death penalty.

'War on terror'

For the sixth year running, the US authorities continued to hold foreign nationals they had designated "enemy combatants" in indefinite military detention without charge at Guantánamo Bay. At the end of 2007, there were approximately 275 detainees held in Guantánamo. During the year, more than 100 detainees were transferred to their home countries for release or continued detention. Four detainees, described by the Pentagon as "dangerous terror suspects", were transferred to Guantánamo. One person described by the Pentagon as a "high-level member of al-Qa'ida" was transferred to the base from CIA custody.

Fourteen men described by the US authorities as "high value" detainees and transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006 for the stated purpose of standing trial had yet to be charged by the end of 2007. The men had spent up to four and half years in secret CIA custody prior to the transfer and their cases had been used by the administration to obtain the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA). On 9 August, the Pentagon announced that all 14 had been affirmed as "enemy combatants" by the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), panels of military officers able to rely on secret and coerced information in making their decisions. The CSRTs for the 14 men were held behind closed doors on the grounds that the detainees had classified information about the CIA secret detention programme, including interrogation techniques, conditions of detention and the location of CIA detention facilities. Allegations made by some of the men of torture in CIA custody were censored from the CSRT transcripts. By the end of 2007, only one of the 14 had had access to legal counsel for the narrow judicial review of the CSRT decisions provided for in the Detainee Treatment Act (2005). No such review of any of the Guantánamo detentions had been conducted by the end of the year.

On 20 February, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that provisions of the MCA stripping the courts of the jurisdiction to consider habeas corpus petitions applied to all detainees held in Guantánamo "without exception". On 2 April, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal against this ruling. However, on 29 June, the Supreme Court took the historically unusual step of vacating its 2 April order and agreeing to hear the case after lawyers for detainees filed new information about the inadequacy of the CSRT scheme. The new information was provided by a military officer who had been involved in CSRT reviews. The Court's ruling was pending at the end of 2007.

  • Ali al-Marri, a Qatari national resident in the USA who was designated an "enemy combatant" in June 2003 by President Bush, remained in indefinite military detention on the US mainland at the end of the year. In June, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the MCA did not apply to Ali al-Marri's case and ruled that his military detention "must cease". However, the government successfully sought a rehearing in front of the full Fourth Circuit court; a ruling was pending at the end of the year. Military commission proceedings resumed at Guantánamo.
  • In March, Australian national David Hicks became the first – and by the end of the year, only – Guantánamo detainee to be convicted by the USA. He pleaded guilty under the MCA to one charge of "providing material support for terrorism". A panel of military officers recommended seven years in prison, but six years and three months of the sentence was suspended under the terms of a pre-trial agreement. David Hicks was transferred out of Guantánamo in May to serve the remainder of his nine-month sentence in Australia. He was released from Yatala prison in Adelaide on 29 December.

Three other Guantánamo detainees were facing charges at the end of the year, including two who were under 18 years old when they were taken into custody.

Conditions of detention in Guantánamo and their impact on the health of detainees already distressed by the indefinite nature of their detention continued to cause serious concern. One detainee, a Saudi Arabian national, was reported to have committed suicide on 30 May. By mid-January, 165 detainees had been transferred to Camp 6 where they were confined in individual steel cells with no external windows for at least 22 hours a day. Contrary to international standards, the cells have no access to natural light or air, and are lit 24 hours a day by fluorescent lighting. Around 100 other detainees were held in Camp 5, where detainees have been confined for up to 24 hours a day in small cells with some access to natural light, although with no view to the outside. Some 20 more detainees were believed to be held in Camp Echo, where detainees are held for between 23 and 24 hours a day in windowless cells with no natural light.

On 20 July, President Bush issued an executive order that the programme of secret detention and interrogation operated by the CIA would comply with Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. Amnesty International wrote to President Bush emphasizing that if the CIA programme received detainees as it had before, he would have re-authorized the international crime of enforced disappearance. No reply had been received by the end of the year.

One detainee, 'Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, was reported to have been transferred from CIA custody to Guantánamo during the year. The Pentagon announced the transfer on 27 April, but gave no details about when he was detained or where he had been held before the transfer. In June, Amnesty International and five other human rights organizations published a list of more than 36 individuals believed to have been detained in the CIA programme whose fate and whereabouts remained unknown.

In December, the Director of the CIA revealed that in 2005 the agency had destroyed videotapes of interrogations conducted in 2002 of detainees held in secret custody. It was reported that the tapes depicted hundreds of hours of interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and 'Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, two of the "high-value" detainees transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006. Both alleged at their CSRTs in 2007 that they had been tortured in CIA custody. Abu Zubaydah was among those reported to have been subjected to "waterboarding" (simulated drowning).

Hundreds of people remained in US custody in Afghanistan and Iraq. There were also concerns about killings in Iraq by private US contractors (see Afghanistan and Iraq entries).

Torture and other ill-treatment

There were reports of ill-treatment in jails and police custody on the US mainland, often involving cruel use of restraints or electro-shock weapons.

Sixty-nine people died after being shocked with tasers, bringing to nearly 300 the number of such deaths since 2001. Many of those who died were subjected to multiple shocks or had health problems which could have made them more susceptible to the adverse effects of tasers. Although such deaths are commonly attributed to factors such as drug intoxication, medical examiners have concluded that taser shocks caused or contributed to a number of deaths. The vast majority of those who died were unarmed and did not pose a serious threat when they were electro-shocked. Many police departments continued to authorize the use of tasers in a wide range of situations, including against unarmed resisters or people who refused to comply with police commands. Amnesty International presented its concerns to a Justice Department inquiry into taser deaths and reiterated its call on the US authorities to suspend the use of tasers and other stun weapons, pending the results of a rigorous, independent inquiry, or to limit their use to situations where officers would otherwise be justified in using deadly force.

Thousands of prisoners continued to be confined in long-term isolation, in high-security units where conditions sometimes amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

  • Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, both inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, remained in extended isolation. For more than 30 years, they had been confined alone to small cells for 23 hours a day with only three hours of outdoor exercise a week. Both men were reportedly suffering from serious health problems as a result of their conditions. A lawsuit claiming the prisoners' treatment was unconstitutional remained pending at the end of the year.

The two men had originally been placed in "lockdown" after being accused of involvement in the killing of a guard during a prison riot in 1972, charges they have always denied. Amnesty International remained concerned that their long-term isolation was based, at least in part, on their past political activism in prison, including membership of the Black Panther Party (a black radical organization).

Prisoners of conscience

Army Specialist Mark Lee Wilkerson served three and a half months in jail after being sentenced to seven months' imprisonment for refusing to serve in Iraq on conscientious grounds. Another conscientious objector to the Iraq war, US Army Medic Agustín Aguayo, was sentenced to eight months' imprisonment on similar grounds. He was released after one month as time spent in custody awaiting trial was taken into consideration. Several other soldiers refusing to serve in Iraq because of their opposition to the war faced possible prosecution at the end of the year.

Justice system

Jose Padilla, a US citizen previously held for more than three years without charge or trial in US military custody as an "enemy combatant", was convicted in a federal civilian court in August of conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. His sentencing was pending at the end of the year. The court dismissed his lawyers' claims that torture and other ill-treatment in military custody had left him unfit to stand trial. The government declined to introduce information obtained during his military detention, which may have been open to challenge on the grounds that it was coerced. Amnesty International remained concerned about the lack of accountability for his three years of unlawful treatment, and the damage done to his right to be presumed innocent by the government repeatedly and publicly branding him a "dangerous terrorist".

Gary Tyler, an African American, remained in prison in Louisana for the murder of a white schoolboy during a racially charged incident in 1974. During his 33 years in prison, Gary Tyler, who was 16 at the time of the killing, has consistently maintained his innocence. He was convicted by an all-white jury following a trial which was seriously flawed. Appeals to the outgoing state governor to grant him a pardon were unsuccessful.

In August an oral hearing took place in the case of five Cuban nationals convicted in Miami in June 2001 of conspiring to act as agents of the Republic of Cuba and other charges (USA v Gerardo Hernandez et al). Grounds for the appeal included insufficient evidence and alleged improper statements by the prosecution during the trial. The appeal court's decision was pending at the end of 2007. The US government continued to refuse to grant the wives of two of the prisoners visas to visit them in prison.

Discrimination

Continuing concerns about discrimination in the USA included racial disparities in police stops and searches and other areas of the criminal justice system, and the treatment of non-US nationals held in the context of the "war on terror" (see above).

  • Mychal Bell was tried in July – on charges of attempted second-degree murder – in an adult court, despite being a minor at the time of the alleged offence. The case raised concerns about disparities in the treatment of black and white teenagers. He was one of six black high school students in Jena, Louisiana, who were charged with assaulting a white student in December 2006 during a period of racial tension triggered when white students hung three nooses from a tree in the high school grounds. The black students were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder, which could have put them in prison for decades. Charges against the defendants were later reduced and Mychal Bell was transferred to a juvenile court, following civil rights demonstrations.

Death penalty

A total of 42 prisoners were put to death in the USA during the year, bringing to 1,099 the total number of executions carried out since the US Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976. This represented the lowest annual judicial death toll in the USA since 1994 and was in part due to the halt in executions that followed the Supreme Court's announcement on 25 September that it would consider a challenge to the three-chemical lethal injection process used in Kentucky, and in most other states that use this method.

In June, the Supreme Court blocked the execution of Scott Panetti, a Texas death row inmate suffering from severe delusions. The ruling found that the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had employed a "flawed" and "too restrictive" interpretation of the Supreme Court's 1986 ruling affirming that the execution of an insane prisoner is unconstitutional. The ruling had the potential to provide additional protection for condemned prisoners suffering from serious mental illness.

South Dakota carried out its first execution since April 1947. Elijah Page was executed for a murder committed in 2000 when he was 18 years old and emerging from a childhood of deprivation and abuse. He had given up his appeals. His execution meant that 34 states and the federal government had conducted at least one execution since 1976.

On 2 January, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission – set up by the state legislature in 2006 to study all aspects of capital punishment in New Jersey – released its final report in which it recommended abolition of the death penalty. In December New Jersey became the first US state since 1965 to legislate to abolish the death penalty when the legislature passed, and the governor signed, legislation replacing capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

New York effectively became the 13th abolitionist state in the USA in October when its highest court refused to make an exception to its 2004 ruling finding the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional. The challenge to that ruling had been brought by the state in the case of the last person left on New York's death row.

More than 120 people have been released from death rows in the USA since 1975 on the grounds of innocence.

  • Curtis Edward McCarty, who had spent 21 years in prison, 16 of them on Oklahoma's death row, was released in May after a federal judge ordered that the charges against him be dismissed. DNA evidence helped to exonerate him, and the judge ruled that the case against him had been tainted by the questionable testimony of a discredited former police chemist.
  • In December, Michael McCormick was acquitted at his retrial for a murder for which he had spent 16 years on death row in Tennessee.
  • In December, prosecutors dismissed all charges against Johnathan Hoffman in the crime for which he had served nearly a decade on death row in North Carolina.
  • Joseph Nichols was executed in Texas on 7 March for the murder of Claude Shaffer in 1980. His co-defendant, Willie Williams, who had been tried first, had pleaded guilty and been executed in 1995. At the trial of Joseph Nichols, the state argued that regardless of the fact that Willie Williams fired the fatal shot, Joseph Nichols was guilty under Texas' "law of parties", under which the distinction between principal actor and accomplice in a crime is abolished and each may be held equally culpable. The jury was unable to reach a sentencing verdict and Joseph Nichols was retried. This time the prosecution argued that Joseph Nichols had fired the fatal shot and the jury voted for a death sentence.
  • Philip Workman was executed in Tennessee on 9 May despite compelling evidence that a key state witness lied at the trial and that the police officer he was convicted of killing may have been accidentally shot by a fellow officer. Philip Workman had been on death row for 25 years.
  • On 16 July, less than 24 hours before he was due to be put to death, Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis received a stay of execution from the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. He had been on death row for more than 15 years for the murder of a police officer. There was no physical evidence against him and the weapon used in the crime was never found. The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony, most of which had subsequently been recanted. On 3 August, the Georgia Supreme Court granted an extraordinary appeal and agreed to hear his case for a new trial. A decision was pending at the end of 2007.

Violence against women

Native American and Alaska Native American women continued to suffer disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence, but faced barriers accessing justice. This was due to the complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions, which allowed perpetrators to escape justice; underfunding by the government of key services; and failure at state and federal level to pursue cases. Recommendations by Congress for increased funding to tackle some of these concerns were pending government approval at the end of the year.

Housing rights – Hurricane Katrina

Thousands of evacuees from Gulf Coast areas affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 remained displaced with little prospect of returning to their homes. Many continued to live in precarious situations in temporary accommodation throughout the USA, without work or access to their former support networks.

Civil rights and community groups expressed concern about proposals to demolish a large proportion of the public housing units in New Orleans even though they suffered only minor flood damage and could reportedly be repaired and rehabilitated. It was feared that the absence of affordable housing had created a demographic shift in which poor, largely African American, communities were unable to return to their homes.

Amnesty International reports

  • USA: New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission recommends abolition (AMR 51/003/2007)
  • USA: The experiment that failed – A reflection on 30 years of executions (AMR 51/011/2007)
  • USA: "Where is the justice for me?" – The case of Troy Davis, facing execution in Georgia (AMR 51/023/2007)
  • Maze of injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA (AMR 51/035/2007)
  • USA: Justice delayed and justice denied? Trials under the Military Commissions Act (AMR 51/044/2007)
  • USA: Cruel and inhuman: Conditions of isolation for detainees at Guantánamo Bay (AMR 51/051/2007)
  • USA: An "uncomfortable truth": Two Texas governors – more than 300 executions (AMR 51/076/2007)
  • USA: Prisoner-assisted homicide – more "volunteer" executions loom (AMR 51/087/2007)
  • USA: Off the record – US responsibility for enforced disappearances in the "war on terror" (AMR 51/093/2007)
  • USA: Supreme Court tightens standard on "competence" for execution (AMR 51/114/2007)
  • USA: Law and executive disorder – President gives green light to secret detention program (AMR 51/135/2007)
  • USA: Amnesty International's concerns about Taser use: Statement to the US Justice Department inquiry into deaths in custody (AMR 51/151/2007)
  • USA: No substitute for habeas corpus – Six years without judicial review in Guantánamo (AMR 51/163/2007)
  • USA: Slippery slopes and the politics of torture (AMR 51/177/2007)
  • USA: Amnesty International's briefing to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (AMR 51/178/2007)
  • USA: A tool of injustice: Salim Hamdan again before a military commission (AMR 51/189/2007)
  • USA: Destruction of CIA interrogation tapes may conceal government crimes (AMR 51/194/2007)
  • USA: Breaking a lethal habit – A look back at the death penalty in 2007 (AMR 51/197/2007)
  • USA: Unlawful detentions must end, not be transferred (AMR 51/200/2007)
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