Amnesty International Report 2014/15 - United States of America

United States of America
Head of state and government: Barack Obama

President Obama acknowledged that torture had been carried out following the 11 September 2001 attacks (9/11) under a secret detention programme authorized by his predecessor and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). However, accountability and remedy for the crimes under international law committed in that programme remained absent. The declassified summary of a Senate report into the programme was released in December. Scores of detainees remained in indefinite military detention at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, while military commission trial proceedings continued in a handful of cases. Concern about the use of prolonged isolation in state and federal prisons and the excessive use of force by police continued. Thirty-three men and two women were executed during the year.


The USA appeared before three UN treaty bodies in 2014. In April, the Human Rights Committee criticized the USA on a range of issues – including the lack of accountability for abuses in the counter-terrorism context, solitary confinement in prisons, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, targeted killings by drones, excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, the treatment of migrants and the death penalty.[1] In August, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also made numerous recommendations to the USA. In November, the Committee against Torture's concluding observations similarly covered a range of issues.[2]


In August, President Obama acknowledged that the USA used torture in its response to the 9/11 attacks. He stated that torture was carried out under "some" of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used in the programme, not just the one known as "waterboarding" (mock execution by interrupted drowning). Nevertheless, the President remained silent on accountability and redress, reflecting the USA's continuing refusal to meet its international obligations on these issues. Neither did he make any reference to enforced disappearance, a crime under international law to which most, if not all, of those held in the secret programme were subjected, some of them for years.[3]

In April, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) voted to submit for declassification the summary of its report into the CIA's secret detention and interrogation programme operated between 2002 and 2008. Release of the summary came on 9 December and the 500-page document contained some new details on the programme and the torture and other human rights violations committed in it. The full 6,700 page report – containing "details of each detainee in CIA custody, the conditions under which they were detained, [and] how they were interrogated" – remained classified top secret.

Counter-terror – detentions

At the end of 2014, 127 men were held at Guantánamo, the majority without charge or trial. Almost half had been approved for transfer out of the base, most since January 2010 or earlier. Twenty-eight detainees were transferred out of the base during the year, following the 11 who had been transferred from there in 2013.

The transfer to Qatar in May of five Afghan men held in Guantánamo for more than a decade, in exchange for a US soldier held for five years in Taliban custody, sparked congressional opposition to President Obama's stated goal of closing the detention facility.[4]

Some detainees engaged in hunger strikes during the year, although not in the numbers seen during 2013.[5] Official transparency around hunger strikes remained at issue following the policy decision in late 2013 to stop making public the number of detainees engaging in such protests. In litigation in May 2014, the government disclosed that it possessed videotapes, classified as secret, of the forcible cell extractions and forced feeding of Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a Syrian man held at the base but approved for transfer since 2009. In October, over government opposition, a District Court judge ordered the videotape evidence to be unsealed and certain information redacted from the tapes. The administration appealed, and the case was pending in the US Court of Appeals at the end of the year.

In November, the US administration told the UN Committee against Torture that, in contrast to positions previously taken by the US government, the USA had now decided that the Convention against Torture applied at Guantánamo and on US-registered ships and aircraft.

In February, Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi, a Saudi Arabian national arrested by civilian authorities in Azerbaijan in June 2002 and transferred to US custody two months later, pleaded guilty at a hearing before a military commission judge at Guantánamo and agreed not to sue the USA over his treatment in custody. His conviction brought to eight the number of detainees convicted by military commission since detentions began at Guantánamo in January 2002. Six of these eight men were convicted under pre-trial plea bargains.

Pre-trial military commission proceedings continued against five Guantánamo detainees – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, 'Ali 'Abd al-'Aziz and Mustafa al Hawsawi – accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The five and 'Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was arraigned for capital trial in 2011 on charges relating to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, had been held incommunicado in secret US custody for up to four years prior to their transfer to Guantánamo in 2006. Their trials had not begun by the end of 2014.

Iraqi national 'Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi, who was reportedly arrested in Turkey in October 2006, transferred to US custody, held in secret by the CIA and transferred to Guantánamo in April 2007, was arraigned in June. His trial on charges under the Military Commissions Act (MCA) was pending at the end of 2014.

In May, the General Counsel for the US Department of Defense affirmed that the administration was continuing to use the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as the underpinning of its detention operations in Afghanistan and Guantánamo and "capture or lethal operations" against individuals elsewhere. He pointed to the case of Libyan national Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi, as an example of an operation that relied on the AUMF. Abu al-Libi was abducted in Tripoli, Libya, by US forces on 5 October 2013 and interrogated aboard the USS San Antonio before being taken to the USA and charged in relation to the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Abu al-Libi's lawyer alleged in court in 2014 that the abduction had been conducted "with the use of extreme physical and brutal force", and that after dragging the suspect from his car and "using tazer-like weapons" on him, the US forces had blindfolded him, and "bound, gagged and trussed [him] up". On the ship, he was held incommunicado and interrogated daily for the next week by CIA personnel and others. He alleged that he was subjected, effectively, to sleep deprivation, through the use of prolonged back-to-back interrogations. His incommunicado detention and interrogation were cut short due to a life-threatening illness. His trial was pending at the end of the year, but on 31 December, he was taken to hospital where he died on 2 January 2015.

US forces seized Ahmed Abu Khatallah near Benghazi, eastern Libya, on 15 June. On 17 June, the US administration informed the UN Security Council that the US operation to take Ahmed Khatallah into custody had been conducted under the USA's "inherent right to self-defense" on the grounds that he "continued to plan further armed attacks against US persons". The letter gave no information about this alleged planning, rendering an assessment of the USA's self-defence claim all but impossible. In October, Ahmed Khatallah was charged with offences punishable by the death penalty in relation to an attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi in 2012 in which four US nationals were killed. He was being held in pre-trial solitary confinement in Virginia at the end of the year.[6]

During the year, the remaining non-Afghan detainees in US military detention at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were transferred to the custody of other governments. In August, two Yemeni nationals held in US custody in Afghanistan for more than a decade were transferred to Yemen.

In November, a Russian national who had been held in US military custody at Bagram since 2009 was transferred to the USA for prosecution in a federal court on terrorism charges. Ireq Ilgiz Hamidullin became the first detainee to be transferred from Bagram directly to the USA, almost 13 years after detentions began at the base.

Tunisian national Redha al Najar was transferred to Afghan custody on 10 December, the day after release of the SSCI summary report in which his case featured as one of those subjected to torture in a secret CIA facility in Afghanistan in 2002. On 11 December, the Department of Defense said that the Bagram detention facility was now closed.

In November, President Obama said that discussions between Congress and the administration were continuing on how to "right-size and update" the AUMF "to suit the current fight, rather than previous fights".

Prison conditions

Tens of thousands of prisoners remained in isolation in state and federal prisons across the USA, confined to cells for between 22 and 24 hours a day in conditions of stark social and environmental deprivation.

In February, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee held a second hearing on solitary confinement. Senator Durbin who chaired the hearing and urged reform of this practice, also pushed during the year for the opening of a new federal prison which would extend the number of federal isolation cells. Amnesty International's report into federal use of isolation concluded that conditions in the only current super-maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado, breached standards for the humane treatment of prisoners.[7]

In October, a settlement was reached in a class-action suit on behalf of more than 33,000 prisoners in Arizona's state prisons. Under this settlement, the Arizona Department of Corrections will allow prisoners in solitary confinement who have serious mental illnesses to have more mental health treatment and time outside their cells.

Death penalty

Thirty-three men and two women were put to death in 2014. Including the execution of 38 men and one woman in 2013, this brought to 1,394 the total number of people executed since the US Supreme Court approved new capital laws in 1976.

The number of executions in 2014 was the lowest since 1994. The continuing problems faced by states in obtaining drugs for lethal injections, and concerns over a number of "botched" executions, contributed to the slowdown. The 79 death sentences passed in 2013 and a similar number passed in 2014 represented a decline of about two thirds since the mid-1990s. A little under 3,000 men and about 55 women remained on death row at the end of the year.

Momentum against the death penalty continued with the announcement in February by the Governor of Washington State that he would not allow executions there while he held that office. This followed Maryland's abolition of the death penalty in 2013, bringing to 18 the number of abolitionist states, and strong indications that no executions would occur in Colorado under its current governor.

Executions in 2014 were carried out in seven states, two lower than in 2013. Just four states – Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas – accounted for 89% of the national judicial death toll in 2014. By the end of 2014, Texas accounted for 37% of all executions carried out in the USA since 1976. Texas has executed more people for crimes committed when they were 17, 18 or 19 years old than any other state has executed in total.[8]

On 27 May, the US Supreme Court clarified the protection for capital defendants with intellectual disability (formerly known in the USA as "mental retardation"). The Court ruled that Florida's law requiring a capital defendant to show an IQ score of 70 or below was unconstitutional as it blocked the presentation of evidence other than IQ that would demonstrate limitations in the defendant's mental faculties.[9]

Lawyers for Ramiro Hernandez Llanas, a Mexican national on death row in Texas, had sought a stay of execution until after the Supreme Court ruling to allow its impact on his case to be assessed. No stay was granted and he was executed on 9 April, despite a compelling claim that his intellectual disability rendered his execution unconstitutional. In January, Texas executed another Mexican national in violation of an order of the International Court of Justice and despite a finding by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that he had been denied a fair trial. Edgar Arias Tamayo had been denied his right to seek consular assistance after his arrest.

In January, Florida executed Askari Abdullah Muhammad (formerly Thomas Knight), who had been on death row for four decades and had a long history of serious mental illness. In September, Earl Ringo, an African American man, was executed in Missouri despite claims that race had tainted the prosecution; he was sentenced to death by an all-white jury at a trial in which the defence lawyer, the judge and the prosecutor were also white.[10]

During the year, seven previously condemned inmates were released on the grounds of innocence, bringing to 150 the number of such cases in the USA since 1973.

Children's rights – life imprisonment without parole

Defendants who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime continued to face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (life without parole). States responded in various ways to the 2012 US Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, outlawing mandatory life without parole for this age group. By October 2014, eight state supreme courts had ruled that the Miller ruling was retroactive, compared to four that had ruled to the contrary. In December, the US Supreme Court agreed to review the appeal of a prisoner sentenced under Louisiana's mandatory sentencing scheme to life without parole for a crime committed when he was 17, to decide the Miller retroactivity question. The case was pending at the end of the year.

In August, the American Correctional Association adopted a resolution opposing life without parole against those who were under 18 at the time of the crime and supporting "sentencing policies that hold youthful offenders accountable in an age-appropriate way, while focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration into society".

Excessive use of force

At least 35 people across 18 states died after being struck by police Tasers, bringing the total number of such deaths since 2001 to 602. Tasers have been listed as a cause or contributory factor in more than 60 deaths. Most of those who died after being struck with a Taser were not armed and did not appear to pose a serious threat when the Taser was deployed.

Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed African American man, was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on 9 August. The shooting set off months of protests in and around Ferguson. The use of heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons and equipment to police the demonstrations served to intimidate protesters who were exercising their right to peaceful assembly while the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and other aggressive dispersal tactics was not warranted, and protesters and journalists were injured as a result.

A number of other incidents demonstrated the need for a review of standards on the use of force in the USA. These included the deaths of Kajieme Powell, a 25-year-old black man, who was shot and killed by St Louis City Police on 19 August, with film footage of the incident appearing to contradict the initial official version of events; Ezell Ford, 25, an unarmed black man with a history of mental illness, who was shot and killed by Los Angeles police officers on 11 August; and Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man, who died on 17 July after being placed in a chokehold by New York Police Department officers while being arrested for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. After a grand jury declined to return an indictment in the Garner case on 3 December, the US Attorney General announced a federal civil rights investigation into his death.

Migrants' rights – unaccompanied children

More than 50,000 unaccompanied migrant children were apprehended crossing the southern border of the USA in 2014, some as young as five. The US Border Patrol detained unaccompanied children for days or weeks in insanitary facilities and without access to legal counsel, translators or proper medical attention.

1. Loud and clear – UN Human Rights Committee makes wide-ranging recommendations to USA (AMR 51/022/2014)

2. USA should "put its money where its mouth is" and implement UN Committee against Torture findings (AMR 51/055/2014)

3. USA: "We tortured some folks" – The wait for truth, remedy and accountability continues as redaction issue delays release of senate report on CIA detentions (AMR 51/046/2014)

4. USA: "We have the ability to do things" – President and Congress should apply human rights principles and close Guantánamo (AMR 51/036/2014)

5. USA: "I have no reason to believe that I will ever leave this prison alive" – Indefinite detention at Guantánamo continues; 100 detainees on hunger strike (AMR 51/022/2013)

6. USA: Man seized in Libya faces death penalty in USA (AMR 51/037/2014)

7. Entombed: Isolation in the US federal prison system (AMR 51/040/2014)

8. USA: "He could have been a good kid" – Texas set to execute third young offender in two months (AMR 51/027/2014)

9. USA: "The nation we aspire to be" (AMR 51/034/2014)

10. USA: Call for race inquiry as execution nears – Earl Ringo (AMR 51/047/2014)

This 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.