Amnesty International Annual Report 2012 - United States of America

Head of state and government: Barack H. Obama
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 313.1 million
Life expectancy: 78.5 years
Under-5 mortality: 7.8 per 1,000

Forty-three men were executed during the year, and concerns about cruel prison conditions continued. Scores of detainees remained in indefinite military detention at Guantánamo. The administration announced its intention to pursue the death penalty against six of these detainees in trials by military commission. Some 3,000 people were held in the US detention facility on the Bagram air base in Afghanistan by the end of the year. Use of lethal force in the counter-terrorism context raised serious concerns, as did continuing reports of the use of excessive force in the domestic law enforcement context.

Counter-terror and security

Detentions at Guantánamo

At the end of 2011, nearly two years after President Obama's deadline to close the Guantánamo detention facility, 171 men were still held at the base, including four who had been convicted by military commission.

One detainee was transferred from the base during the year. Two detainees died, both Afghan nationals, one as a result of natural causes, the other reportedly by suicide. Their deaths brought to eight the number of detainees known to have died at the camp.

On 31 December, President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which, among other things, provided for the indefinite detention without charge or trial of individuals in the counter-terrorism context.

Trials of Guantánamo detainees

On 4 April, the US Attorney General announced that five Guantánamo detainees accused of involvement in the attacks of 11 September 2001 – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, 'Ali 'Abd al-'Aziz and Mustafa al Hawsawi – would be tried by military commission. This reversed his announcement made in November 2009 that the five would be tried in ordinary federal court in the USA. The Attorney General blamed the U-turn on members of Congress who had "imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantánamo detainees to trial in the United States, regardless of the venue." Prosecutors recommended that, if convicted, the five should face the death penalty. The trials had not begun by the end of the year. The five detainees had been held incommunicado for up to four years in secret US custody before being transferred to Guantánamo in 2006.

In September, the Convening Authority for the military commissions referred the charges against Saudi Arabian national 'Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri for trial; if convicted he could face the death penalty. The government asserted that 'Abd al-Nashiri could be returned to indefinite detention if acquitted at his military commission trial, which was still pending at the end of the year.

In February, Sudanese national Noor Uthman Muhammed pleaded guilty in a military commission to providing material support to terrorism and was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. All but 34 months of his sentence were suspended in exchange for his agreement to testify for the USA at future military commission or federal court proceedings.

Noor Uthman Muhammed's case brought to six the number of people convicted by military commission since 2001, four of whom had pleaded guilty.

Canadian national Omar Khadr, who was 15 when he was apprehended by US forces in 2002, remained at Guantánamo at the end of 2011. He was sentenced in 2010 to 40 years' imprisonment by a military commission after pleading guilty to five "war crime" charges. His sentence was subsequently limited to eight years. The Canadian and US authorities agreed to support his transfer to Canada after he had served one year in US custody. This first year was completed in October.

The Court of Military Commissions Review issued opinions in the cases of two Yemeni nationals, Salim Ahmed Hamdan and Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman Al Bahlul, convicted by military commissions. In both cases the court upheld the convictions and sentences.

Tanzanian national Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who had been convicted by a US District Court in November 2010 in connection with the bombings of the US embassies in east Africa in 1998, was sentenced to life imprisonment in January. He had been held in secret CIA custody for two years and in US military custody at Guantánamo for nearly three years before being transferred to New York in 2009. By the end of 2011, he remained the only former Guantánamo detainee to have been transferred for prosecution in federal court in the USA.

US detentions in Afghanistan

Hundreds of detainees were held in the US Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP) on the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Some 3,100 detainees remained held in the DFIP, about three times as many as were being held there a year earlier. Most were Afghan nationals taken into custody by coalition forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan, according to the ICRC. In January, according to the Pentagon, the process of "transitioning detention operations" at the DFIP to Afghan authorities began, with a detainee housing unit being turned over to the Afghan Ministry of Defence. (See Afghanistan entry.)

Litigation continued in US District Court on the question of whether detainees held at Bagram should have access to the US courts in order to challenge the lawfulness of their detention. In May 2010, the US Court of Appeals had overturned a 2009 ruling by a District Court judge that three Bagram detainees – who were not Afghan nationals and were taken into custody outside Afghanistan – could file habeas corpus petitions in his court.

Other detentions and trials

Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali national, was detained by US forces in the Gulf of Aden in April and brought to the USA in early July and charged with terrorism-related offences. Ahmed Warsame was apparently held incommunicado for at least six weeks and in secret detention for at least two weeks prior to his transfer to the USA. The authorities responded to Amnesty International's concern about his pre-transfer treatment by saying that "the US Government has consistently asserted that it is at war with al Qaida and its associated forces, and that it may take all lawful measures, including detention, to defeat the enemy".


There was no accountability for human rights violations committed under the administration of President George W. Bush as part of the CIA's programme of secret detention and rendition (transfer of individuals from the custody of one state to another by means that bypass judicial and administrative due process).

On 16 May, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the Mohamed v. Jeppesen rendition case, leaving in place a 2010 lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit brought by five men who claimed they were subjected to enforced disappearance, and torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of US personnel and agents of other governments as part of the USA's secret detention and rendition programme. In November, the men took their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

On 30 June, the US Attorney General announced that the "preliminary review" conducted into interrogations in the CIA programme was at an end. He said that he had accepted the prosecutor's recommendation that there should be a "full criminal investigation" in relation to two deaths in custody, but further investigation in other cases was not warranted.

In an opinion issued in October, a federal judge refused to hold the CIA in contempt of court for destroying videotapes of interrogations of detainees held in the secret detention programme. The tapes – which included recordings of the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques", including "waterboarding" – had been destroyed in 2005, more than a year after the court had ordered the government to produce or identify materials relating to the treatment of detainees.

Use of lethal force

Osama bin Laden and several others were killed on 1 May in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during an operation conducted by US special forces. The US administration made clear that the operation had been conducted under the USA's theory of a global armed conflict between the USA and al-Qa'ida in which the USA does not recognize the applicability of international human rights law. In the absence of further clarification from the US authorities, the killing of Osama bin Laden would appear to have been unlawful.

Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and at least two others were killed in Yemen on 30 September in a US drone strike on their vehicle convoy. By the end of the year, Amnesty International had not received any reply from the US authorities on the organization's concerns that these killings appeared to have amounted to extrajudicial executions.

Excessive use of force

At least 43 people died after being struck by police Tasers, bringing the number of such deaths since 2001 to 497. While coroners have attributed most of these deaths to other causes, such as underlying health problems, Tasers are listed as a cause or contributory factor in more than 60 cases. Most of those who died were unarmed and many did not appear to pose a serious threat when they were electro-shocked.

In May, the National Institute of Justice published its report into deaths following the use of conducted energy devices (CEDs) such as Tasers. This stated that there was "no conclusive medical evidence" to indicate a high risk of death or serious injury from CED exposure in normal, healthy adults. However, the report noted that many deaths attributed to Tasers involved multiple or prolonged exposure, and recommended that such usage be avoided. The study also noted that safety margins may not be applicable in the case of small children, those with diseased hearts, the elderly, pregnant women and other "potentially at-risk individuals".

Amnesty International continued to call on law enforcement agencies to suspend use of such weapons or strictly limit their use to cases involving an immediate threat of death or serious injury.

There were complaints of police use of excessive force against demonstrators participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In Oakland, California, police attempting to disperse protesters in October and November were accused of firing tear gas, bean-bag rounds and flash-bang grenades indiscriminately into largely peaceful crowds, and using batons, causing serious injury to at least two individuals. A civil lawsuit in the case was pending at the end of the year. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Seattle, Washington, police used pepper spray against non-violent protesters.

Three people, including two teenagers, were shot and killed in separate incidents by US Border Patrol police for allegedly throwing rocks at officers along the US border with Mexico. Two were reportedly on the Mexican side and were shot across the border. An investigation by the US Justice Department into the shooting of 15-year-old Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca in similar circumstances in 2010 was still pending at the end of the year.

Prison conditions

Thousands of prisoners in California went on hunger strike in July and October to protest about cruel conditions of isolation in the state's Security Housing Units (SHUs). In the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison more than 1,000 prisoners were confined to windowless cells for 22.5 hours a day, in conditions a court stated in 1995 "may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate". At the time of the hunger strike, more than 500 prisoners in Pelican Bay had spent at least 10 years in these conditions, and 78 had spent 20 years or more in the SHU. A number of reforms, including modifying procedures for assigning alleged gang members to indefinite SHU confinement, were under review at the end of the year. Amnesty International joined others in condemning disciplinary action taken against hunger strikers and urging an end to inhumane conditions. Thousands of prisoners remained in isolation in similar conditions in other states, including Arizona and Texas.

Bradley Manning, a US soldier accused of leaking documents to Wikileaks, spent the first 11 months of his detention confined to an isolation cell in a marine brig at Quantico, Virginia. His conditions improved after he was moved in April to a medium security military facility, where he was allowed to associate with other pre-trial inmates. A preliminary hearing on the criminal charges against him started on 16 December.

Children's rights

In March, the USA told the UN Human Rights Council that it supported the goals of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and recommendations made by other governments during the Universal Periodic Review process that the USA ratify the Convention. At the end of the year, the USA remained one of only two countries not to have ratified this treaty, the other being Somalia.

In August, Jordan Brown was transferred to juvenile court for trial in Pennsylvania. For the previous two and a half years he had been facing the prospect of being tried as an adult and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a crime committed when he was 11 years old.

In November, the US Supreme Court agreed to consider prohibiting the imposition of life imprisonment without parole for homicide crimes committed by people under 18 years old; a ruling was not expected until mid-2012. In 2010, the Court prohibited life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide crimes by under-18s.

Migrants' rights

In September, a federal judge temporarily blocked portions of an Alabama law on undocumented migrants. Other sections were upheld, including a provision requiring state and local police to check a person's immigration status during routine traffic stops on "reasonable suspicion" that they were irregular migrants. The law, which was the strictest of its kind to be upheld in the country to date, faced challenges from the US Justice Department and church and civil liberties groups at the end of the year. Similar anti-immigrant legislation in Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah also faced legal challenges in federal court.

Right to health – maternal mortality

Hundreds of women continued to suffer preventable pregnancy-related deaths. There was no progress towards meeting targets set by the government to reduce maternal deaths, and disparities based on race, ethnicity, place of residence, and income persisted. Several bills were introduced into Congress during the year that would address health disparities, provide grants to states to form mortality review boards and expand best practices. At the end of the year, none had yet been passed into law.

Legal challenges to the 2010 health care reform law continued.

Death penalty

Forty-three prisoners – all of them men – were executed in the USA during the year, all by lethal injection. This brought to 1,277 the total number of executions carried out since the US Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976.

In March, Illinois became the 16th abolitionist state in the USA. In November, the Governor of Oregon imposed a moratorium on executions in the state and called for "a long overdue reevaluation" of the system of capital punishment.

In November, the state of Idaho carried out its first execution for 17 years.

  • Eddie Powell was executed in Alabama on 16 June despite evidence that he had a degree of "mental retardation" which would render his execution unconstitutional.

  • Mexican national Humberto Leal García was executed in Texas on 7 July. Denied his consular rights after arrest, his execution violated international law and a binding order from the International Court of Justice.

  • Troy Davis was executed in Georgia on 21 September despite serious doubts about the reliability of his conviction. The execution went ahead despite hundreds of thousands of appeals for clemency.

  • Manuel Valle was executed in Florida on 28 September after three decades on death row.

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