Amnesty International Report 2002 - United States of America

Covering events from January-December 2001

United States of America
Head of state and government: George Walker Bush (replaced William Jefferson Clinton in January)
Capital: Washington D.C.
Population: 285.9 million
Official language: English
Death penalty: retentionist

The death penalty continued to be used extensively. There were reports of police brutality and unjustified police shootings and of ill-treatment in prisons and jails. Human rights groups and others voiced concern at the lack of public information given about the circumstances under which more than 1,200 people, mainly foreign nationals, were detained during investigations into the 11 September attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Some detainees were held incommunicado in the initial stages of arrest. Congress passed wide-ranging "anti-terrorist" legislation, aspects of which were of concern to AI and other human rights groups. In November President Bush passed an order establishing special military commissions to try non-US citizens suspected of involvement in "international terrorism" which would bypass international fair trial norms. AI called for inquiries into several incidents involving the killing of civilians by US and allied forces during military action in Afghanistan and into the killing of hundreds of prisoners in Qala-i-Jhangi fort following an uprising.


The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in the USA on 11 September, involving the hijacking of civilian aircraft and the murder of at least 3,000 people, led the government to announce a "war on terrorism", involving legislative and other measures. AI condemned the 11 September attacks and called for those responsible to be brought to justice in accordance with international human rights standards. On 7 October the USA and its allies launched military action in Afghanistan, including extensive air strikes against training camps operated by the al-Qa'ida network and Osama bin Laden – named by the US government as the "prime suspect" in the 11 September attacks – and other targets.

Aftermath of 11 September attacks


In October, Congress passed the Patriot Act, whose provisions included new government powers to detain foreign nationals suspected of involvement in "terrorism" or "any other activity that endangers the national security of the United States" for up to seven days without charge. The Act authorized the Attorney General to continue to detain indefinitely on national security grounds foreign nationals charged with immigration violations, whose removal was "unlikely in the reasonably foreseeable future". Civil liberties organizations expressed concern about these and other provisions under the Act, including the broad definition of "terrorist activity" for which foreign nationals could be deported or detained.


More than 1,200 people, mainly non-US nationals of South Asian or Middle Eastern origin, were taken into custody during investigations into the 11 September attacks. Civil rights advocates expressed concern at the unprecedented levels of official secrecy surrounding the detentions and at reports that some detainees were denied prompt access to attorneys and relatives during the initial stages of detention. There were reports of Muslim detainees suffering physical or verbal abuse from guards or other inmates while held in local jails and of cruel conditions of confinement, including prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate exercise and the wearing of shackles during non-contact visits.

In late November, the Attorney General released partial data on the arrests, revealing that 104 people had been charged with various criminal offences, many of them minor and none directly related to 11 September, of whom half remained in custody. Another 548 unidentified individuals were held on immigration charges. The authorities failed to give information on where the detainees were held or whether those facing deportation on immigration charges, who included asylum-seekers, had adequate access to legal representation.

AI's concerns relating to measures following the 11 September attacks included reports of incommunicado detention, ill-treatment in custody, government powers to detain foreign nationals indefinitely on the basis of mere suspicion of involvement in "terrorism", new powers to monitor communications between lawyers and detained clients on national security grounds, and the potential use of secret evidence.

Special military commissions

In November President Bush signed a Military Order allowing for non-US citizens suspected of involvement in "international terrorism" to be tried by special military commissions which would expressly bypass the normal rules of evidence and safeguards prevailing in the US criminal justice system. Under the Order, the commissions could operate in secret and pass death sentences, and their decisions could not be appealed to a higher court. Trials before such courts would violate the principle of non-discrimination and international fair trial standards.

Possible violations of international humanitarian law by US forces in Afghanistan

An as yet unknown number of Afghan civilians were killed or injured or had their homes or property destroyed during the US-led coalition bombing which began on 7 October and continued for the rest of the year. AI raised concerns with US authorities about specific attacks in which civilians were killed and civilian objects were destroyed, urged that investigations be conducted into possible violations of international humanitarian law and called for a moratorium on the use of cluster weapons. In November, AI called on the USA, the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (United Front), and the United Kingdom to conduct an inquiry into the deaths of hundreds of Taleban prisoners and others at Qala-i-Jhangi fort, after an uprising by some Taleban captives was put down by bombing by US warplanes and United Front artillery.

Police brutality

Police brutality and disputed police shootings continued to be reported, mainly involving members of ethnic minority groups. The Justice Department investigated a number of police departments for alleged patterns of civil rights violations, including racism and excessive force. Several police officers were tried on criminal charges relating to deaths or assaults in custody.

  • In April, in Cincinnati, three days of civil unrest were sparked by the police fatal shooting of an unarmed black man. Timothy Thomas, aged 19, was killed while fleeing from a white officer. He was the fourth black man killed by Cincinnati police in five months. The officer's subsequent acquittal by a judge of misdemeanour charges set off further unrest in September. The US Justice Department issued a preliminary report on the Cincinnati Police Department in October, which recommended sweeping changes to the department's use of force policies and improvements in the investigation of complaints.
  • In December, a police officer from Prince George's County Police Department, Maryland, was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for violating an unresisting man's civil rights when she released her police dog on him. She was released on bail pending appeal. A police sergeant was sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment in September for his role in the incident. This was one of several cases where the county police had set dogs on suspects who were members of ethnic minorities. In July AI sponsored the first of three meetings in which alleged victims of police brutality in Prince George's County gave testimony to federal Justice Department investigators conducting an ongoing "pattern and practice" inquiry into civil rights violations in the department.
Torture and ill-treatment in prisons and jails

Abuses, including excessive force and misuse of stun weapons, chemical sprays and restraints, were reported in various adult and juvenile facilities. At least three people died after being placed in restraint chairs. More than 20,000 prisoners continued to be held in conditions of extreme isolation in supermaximum security prisons.
  • In July, Kevin Coleman died in the Wade Correctional Center, Louisiana, after three days in a four-point restraint chair. He had a history of disturbed behaviour and had been forcibly removed by a five person "extraction team" when he refused to leave his cell. Both pepper spray and an electro-shock shield were applied to him before he was strapped into the restraint chair.
  • In February the National Prison Project and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut filed a lawsuit charging that Connecticut prisoners housed under contract in Wallens Ridge State Prison (WRSP), a supermaximum security facility in Virginia, were subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment" by being placed in five-point mechanical restraints for prolonged periods. The lawsuit also claimed that inmates were zapped with stun guns and had pellets fired at them for trivial offences. In July the Connecticut Department of Corrections announced that it would remove all 133 of its prisoners remaining at WRSP. In May the Virginia Department of Corrections suspended the use of the Ultron 11 stun gun after an autopsy suggested it played a role in the death of Lawrence Frazier, a Connecticut inmate in WRSP who died in 2000 after being zapped repeatedly with a stun gun and placed in restraints.
  • In October a US district judge ordered the removal of all seriously mentally ill prisoners from Wisconsin's supermaximum security prison in Boscobel, ruling that the conditions of extreme isolation could exacerbate their illness. The ruling was part of a wide-ranging lawsuit challenging conditions in the prison. In September the State Governor signed a bill banning inmates who were under 18 from being housed in the prison, one of the concerns highlighted by AI during a visit to Wisconsin in June.
Juvenile detainees
  • There were reports that Native American children in the Pine Hills School Youth Correctional Facility, aged from 14 to 17, were subjected to frequent bouts of pepper spray by staff. Documentation revealed during court proceedings in February showed that some youths at the facility, including several with histories of mental illness, had been sprayed as many as 15 times each.
  • There were allegations that girls held at the Chalkville Campus, a juvenile facility for girls operated by the Department of Youth Services in Alabama, were tortured and ill-treated. Allegations levelled against the authorities included rape, resulting in at least two girls becoming pregnant; pressure on girls to have abortions; sexual abuse and assault of inmates; beatings; punitive solitary confinement; and lack of adequate medical care.
The USA continued to use life imprisonment without the possibility of parole against defendants who were under 18 at the time of the crime, in violation of international law.
  • In March, Lionel Tate, a 14-year-old African American boy, was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of the first-degree murder of his six-year-old playmate. Lionel Tate was 12 years old at the time of Tiffany Eunick's death.
Death penalty

In 2001, 63 men and 3 women were executed, bringing to 749 the total number of prisoners put to death since the US Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on executions in 1976. The USA continued to violate international standards by using the death penalty against the mentally impaired, individuals who were under 18 at the time of the crime, and those who had received inadequate legal representation.

The moratorium on executions in Illinois, announced by the state governor in January 2000, was still in force at the end of 2001. Executions continued elsewhere, however, with Oklahoma executing 18 prisoners, more than in any year since its records began in 1915. New Mexico executed for the first time since 1960. Georgia carried out its first executions since June 1998. In October the Georgia state Supreme Court had ruled that the use of the electric chair was unconstitutional, clearing the way for Georgia to begin executing by lethal injection. Politicians in several states proposed reintroducing the death penalty or expanding its scope in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in Washington and New York.

In one of his last acts before he left office on 20 January, President Clinton commuted the death sentence of federal death-row prisoner David Ronald Chandler because of doubts over his guilt. Within the first six months of the new administration, two federal prisoners, Timothy McVeigh and Juan Raul Garza, had been executed, the first federal executions since 1963. In Juan Garza's case, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had called for his death sentence to be commuted on the grounds that he had received an unfair trial. Arguing for the jury to pass a death sentence, the US government had introduced evidence of unsolved crimes in Mexico for which Juan Garza had neither been charged nor prosecuted.

On 27 June, the International Court of Justice issued a landmark judgment in a case involving two German nationals, brothers Karl and Walter LaGrand, who were put to death in Arizona in 1999. The Court found that the USA had "breached its obligations to Germany and to the LaGrand brothers under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations" by failing to promptly inform the brothers upon arrest of their right to communicate with their consulate. More than 100 foreign nationals remained on death row in the USA at the end of 2001. In the majority of cases, their consular rights had been violated. Two foreign nationals were executed during the year, one Iraqi and one South African.
  • Gerald Mitchell was executed in Texas in October for a murder committed when he was 17 years old. Two other juvenile offenders – Napoleon Beazley in Texas and Antonio Richardson in Missouri – came within four hours of execution before courts issued last-minute stays. Prosecutors continued to seek death sentences against defendants who were under 18 at the time of the crime. More than 80 juvenile offenders remained on death row at the end of the year.
  • Jay Scott, who had exhibited serious mental illness in recent years and had been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, was executed in Ohio in June. It was his third execution date in two months. On the previous two occasions he had been less than an hour from execution when court stays were announced. On the second occasion, catheters had already been put in his arms in preparation for the lethal injection when the execution was called off.

In May, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an injunction barring the use of the stun belt in Los Angeles County, California, imposed after a lawsuit was filed in the case of Ronnie Hawkins, a prisoner who was zapped with a stun belt after verbally interrupting court proceedings. The Appeals Court ruled that activating the remote control stun belt for verbal outbursts in court was unconstitutional but said that the belt could be used as a security device.

Mazen Al-Najjar, a Muslim cleric, was rearrested in November after being issued with a final deportation order for overstaying his student visa. He was placed in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison, with restrictions on visits with his family. Mazen Al-Najjar had previously been detained for more than three and a half years on the basis of secret evidence while appealing against the deportation order, but a judge had ordered his release in December 2000 after finding there were "no bona fide reasons to conclude that [he] is a threat to national security". As a stateless Palestinian with no country to return to, Mazen Al-Najjar risked being detained indefinitely under the provisions of the Patriot Act (see above).

AI country reports/visits

  • USA: Allegations of homophobic abuse by Chicago police officers (AI Index: AMR 51/022/2001)
  • USA: Women asylum-seekers punished for state's failure to protect them (AI Index: AMR 51/028/2001)
  • USA: The illusion of control – "consensual" executions, the impending death of Timothy McVeigh, and the brutalizing futility of capital punishment (AI Index: AMR 51/053/2001)
  • USA: Old Habits Die Hard – the death penalty in Oklahoma (AI Index: AMR 51/055/2001)
  • USA: Abuses continue unabated – cruel and inhuman treatment at Virginia supermaximum security prisons (AI Index: AMR 51/065/2001)
  • USA: Too young to vote, old enough to be executed – Texas set to kill another child offender (AI Index: AMR 51/105/2001)
  • USA: A time for action – protecting the consular rights of foreign nationals facing the death penalty (AI Index: AMR 51/106/2001)
  • USA: Memorandum to the US Attorney General – Amnesty International's concerns relating to the post 11 September investigations (AI Index: AMR 51/170/2001)
  • USA: No return to execution – the US death penalty as a barrier to extradition (AI Index: AMR 51/171/2001).

AI delegates visited the USA in April, June and September.

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