Human Rights Developments

As Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's presidency entered its second decade, there were no indications that his firm grip on power, the absence of political violence, and a stable economy were tempting him to allow Tunisians greater freedom to express themselves. Open political debate and opposition activity continued to be almost nonexistent, thanks to laws that criminalized various forms of speech and "unlicensed" political activities, intensive police surveillance and harassment of citizens, and a press and judiciary that lacked independence. Authorities exploited concern over the strife in neighboring Algeria and recalled sporadic incidents of Islamist violence several years ago at home in cracking down hardest on Islamists. Among those imprisoned for politically motivated offenses—thought to exceed 2,000—most had been convicted of "membership in an unlicensed organization," namely the Islamist Nahdha movement, or related nonviolent "offenses" such as distributing tracts or attending meetings. There were also a small number of suspected members of proscribed leftwing parties who were convicted for the same offenses, as well as persons whose modest assistance to prisoners' families earned them sentences for the "unauthorized collection of money or donations." The remnants of the Nahdha movement were active mainly abroad and conducted no visible activities inside Tunisia. Its leader-in-exile, Rashid al-Ghannoushi, continued to characterize the movement as moderate, democratic, and opposed to all forms of violence while the government continued to assail it as extremist and terrorist. Prison conditions were poor, according to reports from lawyers and ex-prisoners. Overcrowding was severe, a situation not dictated by economic constraints: Tunisia had one of the highest per capita incomes on the continent. Beatings by guards were frequent and disciplinary measures cruel and degrading. Political prisoners were shuttled incessantly among institutions, forcing families to travel great distances for visits. Several leaders of the Nahdha movement were held in isolation for months or years at a time. During the 1992 military court mass trial of an-Nahdha's suspected leaders and members, the Tunisian press reported the defendants' allegations of torture during interrogation. Torture persisted in 1998 but had become a taboo topic for the media. For example, there was no coverage when security forces reportedly tortured some of the sixteen students arrested between February and April on suspicion of membership in an unlicensed leftwing "terrorist" organization, holding unauthorized meetings, defamation against the authorities, and other charges. According to affidavits taken by their lawyers, Imen Derouiche was badly beaten by guards at Mannouba prison for women, while injuries inflicted to Lotfi Hammami's genitals reportedly put him in need of surgery that he had not received by October. He and the other fifteen were still in pretrial detention as this report went to press. In its December 1997 report to the U.N. Committee against Torture, the government claimed that physical abuse of detainees occurred only rarely and was penalized. The report detailed an impressive array of laws that could safeguard against torture—if enforced. In practice, complaints of torture rarely resulted in a confession being discarded as evidence, and if the complaints were ever investigated, the plaintiffs and their lawyers were not informed of the results. Released political prisoners were harassed intensively. They were often ordered to sign in one or more times daily with police, sometimes at stations quite far from their homes. During 1998, however, this requirement seemed to be enforced less abusively. Former political prisoners were almost always refused passports. They were generally excluded from public sector jobs and private sector employers were pressured not to hire them. Authorities harassed and even imprisoned family members as a way of intimidating and punishing critics. This seemed to be the case with ex-prisoner Mohamed Ali Bedoui, the brother of outspoken human rights activist Moncef Marzouki. Bedoui in January received a six-month sentence for failing to report daily to the local police station even though the police had reportedly earlier told him he was no longer required to do so. Families of activists were subjected to police surveillance and house searches at all hours, and their passports were sometimes confiscated for no apparent reason other than blood kinship. Radhia Aouididi, who is engaged to a Tunisian political refugee living in France, was given a prison term in 1998 for attempting to leave Tunisia illegally after she was arbitrarily denied a passport. Rachida Ben Salem, the wife of an exiled activist, was arrestedand sentenced in 1997 in a similar case. A young man in western Tunisia told Human Rights Watch that his past imprisonment for Nahdha activities was the reason given when his brother was dismissed from a factory job and when his sister's fiancé, a member of the security forces, broke off the engagement. His testimony was consistent with others collected around the country. Persons who denounced repression were sometimes imprisoned after conviction on trumped-up criminal charges. In July, Tarek Soussi, a physically disabled ex-prisoner in Bizerte, announced he would no longer sign in with the police, after six years of being ordered extrajudicially to do so. The police promptly threatened him with imprisonment and five days later arrested and charged him with assaulting a vendor, a highly implausible scenario given his disability. The judge presiding over his trial refused a defense motion to have Soussi's alleged victim appear in court and on September 3 Soussi received a five-month sentence. Two better-known individuals who had formerly been imprisoned on spurious criminal charges were opposition politician Mohamed Mouada and lawyer Nejib Hosni. Hosni, who had been outspoken at home and abroad on Tunisia's human rights abuses, was deprived of his passport and telephone, and forbidden to resume his law practice. The pressure on Mouada intensified after he traveled in late 1997 to Europe and met with European parliamentarians and human rights organizations. Upon his return, prosecutors questioned him about his contacts abroad and investigated him on subversion charges. He was placed under a de facto partial house arrest, prevented from meeting people freely, and barred from leaving the greater Tunis area. Tunisian law permits the prosecution of citizens for their conduct outside the country. This is the case even when their alleged actions are legal in the country in which they take place and protected under international human rights law to which Tunisia is a party. Scores of students returning home from Europe for visits have been arrested and interrogated about their contacts and meetings with Tunisians abroad. Many of these were convicted and jailed for exercising their rights to free speech and association. Nizar Chaâri, vacationing at home after obtaining a doctorate at University of Toulouse, was arrested on May 29. On June 16—nineteen days after his arrest and nine days longer than Tunisian law allows for pre-arraignment detention—Chaâri was brought before an investigating magistrate, accused of belonging to an illegal organization and associating with criminal elements, and placed in pre-trial detention. In 1997, the government announced a bill that would put under judicial authority all decisions regarding the issuance of passports and the imposition of travel restrictions. In an October 12 statement, the Tunisian Human Rights League and four other Tunisian organizations urged withdrawal of the draft bill. They argued that the reasons for which a judge could bar travel under the bill were excessively broad and violated the presumption of innocence. Privately, activists said judicial oversight would make no difference until judges showed more independence. In two cases that cast a shadow on judges' potential roles in defending the constitutional right to freedom of movement, authorities explained that it was judges investigating criminal charges who had imposed the travel bans on human rights activists Sihem Ben Sedrine and Mustapha Ben Jaafar. This information, which was divulged in late 1997 in a letter to European parliamentarians, was the first that either Ben Jaafar or Ben Sedrine had heard about their being under formal investigation since their passports were seized in 1994 and 1995 respectively. Neither was formally charged with any offense. A new postal law, decreed June 2, stated that its objectives included "assuring the confidentiality of correspondence." But the law also provided that "postal materials that ... could harm public order or security are not acceptable. If [such mail is will be confiscated in conformity with the laws in effect." In a major address in November 1997, President Ben Ali exhorted Tunisian journalists to shun self-censorship and ensure pluralism in the press. But during the next year, the press continued unanimously and uncritically to support major government policies and ignore domestic human rights problems. When Taoufik Ben Brik, who writes for foreign publications, described the heavy-handed police surveillance of dissidents in the June 12 issue of the French daily La Croix, he was brought before a Ministry of Interior official who pressured him to change professions. Ben Brik continued his work but remained under surveillance. On a more positive note, laws regulating the use of satellite dishes were not vigorously enforced, permitting an increasing number of Tunisians to watch foreign newscasts in addition to state-controlled local television. President Ben Ali, in November 1997, announced measures to guarantee opposition parties a minimum of 20 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the next elections, scheduled for 1999. But there were no signs that this pluralist initiative would extend to parties that openly challenge the essential elements of the government's program. All such groupings remain illegal or excluded from parliament and marginalized. Small indications of increasing political assertiveness included student strikes for better conditions at the universities, some bold declarations on human rights conditions signed by independent activists, and election results within the national bar association and the Association of Young Lawyers that were seen as a rebuff to the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally. Tunisian officials emphasized the many governmental agencies set up to monitor and address human rights issues. Individual problems were sometimes resolved when citizens filed complaints with units set up at various ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. But, according to many human rights activists, prominent cases or entrenched abuses could only be resolved by high-level political decisions.

Defending Human Rights

Few governments anywhere devoted as much time to promoting their own human rights image and to harassing and silencing citizens who presented a more accurate picture of that record. The pressures on activists and, just as important, victims, their relatives, and potential witnesses, constricted the flow of information concerning some of the most serious abuses. Surveillance of human rights activists extended to phone tapping and interception of faxes and mail. The venerable and independent Tunisian Human Rights League functioned at a minimal level, sapped by years of harassment and restrictions that succeeded in frightening, discouraging, and demobilizing much of its membership. The league's offices were under intimidating police surveillance.League activities and statements were systematically ignored by all Tunisian media. In an unprecedented measure, the state prosecutor summoned league President Taoufik Bouderbala for questioning on February 19 concerning a league communiqué. The interior ministry broke off a working dialogue it had established in 1997 with the league. On several occasions, the league reminded the government, to no avail, of its promise to allow the league to visit prisons. While the staunchly pro-government Higher Committee on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms could visit prisons unannounced, no independent organization had access. Khemaïs Ksila, a vice-president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, spent the year behind bars for having condemned repression in a communiqué issued in his own name in September 1997. On February 11, a court gave him a three-year sentence for "defamation of the public order," "spreading false information of a nature to disturb public order," and "inciting citizens to violate the law." Observers at his trial representing international human rights organizations criticized the relevant articles of the penal and press code as incompatible with the right to free expression, as well as the court's requiring defendant Ksila to prove that his statement was not defamatory, thereby disregarding the principle of presumption of innocence. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on August 26, Presidential Advisor on Human Rights Rafik Haj Kassem denied allegations about surveillance and harassment of the league. He attributed the league's difficulties to internal political divisions and noted that it was but one among 6,000 associations in Tunisia. Of these many associations, only the league, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), and the section of Amnesty International (AI) focused on human rights in a demonstrably independent fashion, and all three experienced government restrictions and pressures. While by many indicators women's status in Tunisia was high by regional standards, the ATFD deplored the lack of political freedom its members enjoyed to promote women's rights. The media ignored the ATFD, except for scurrilous attacks on its members, including one in the government-influenced al-Hadath of March 11 hinting that the organization promoted lesbian sex. Authorities blocked efforts by the ATFD to organize a march in support of women in Algeria. The government has often boasted that Tunisia hosts a section of AI. Yet even though the section is barred by its mandate from doing work on Tunisia, the government created obstacles whenever the section attempted to organize a gathering outside its small office. The police opened the section's mail and advised some individuals to quit the group, according to its president. Internet users reported that AI's site on the World Wide Web appeared to be systematically blocked by the authorities. Radhia Nasraoui, the country's most outspoken human rights lawyer, was subjected to a wide array of measures. On the night of February 11, unidentified intruders ransacked her office, stealing equipment and scores of case files. It was the third such break-in at her office since 1994. On March 30, after defending a group of students arrested on charges of belonging to an unlicensed leftwing organization and denouncing their torture in detention, Nasraoui was charged with eleven offenses, including maintaining links with a "terrorist organization." The spurious charges forced Nasraoui, as an alleged co-conspirator, to withdraw as counsel, thereby preventing her from conveying directly their accounts of ill-treatment. A judge also ordered her to remain in greater Tunis pending her trial, keeping her from representing clients elsewhere in the country and from traveling abroad. From late March until June, Nasraoui and her two young daughters were the target of intensive surveillance and sometimes menacing behavior by plainclothes policemen. The same month, however, Tunisian lawyers gave Nasraoui more votes than any other candidate in the national bar association's board elections. For several weeks between late March and June, at least fifteen human rights activists and lawyers were subjected to a campaign of incessant and obtrusive surveillance by plainclothesmen. The monitoring lasted longer for two active lawyers, Anouar Kousri in Bizerte and Najet Yacoubi in Tunis. While local groups and activists said that during 1998 there was no easing overall in the government pressures they faced, Human Rights Watch conducted a mission under conditions more favorable than in the past. There was no noticeable surveillance of the organization's researcher as he moved about the country. He was hospitably received both by the minister of interior and the president's advisor on human rights. Tunisian authorities also permitted other international organizations to send observers to the trial of Khemaïs Ksila.

The Role of the International Community

European Union

On March 1, the Association Agreement between the E.U. and Tunisia took effect, the first of its kind between Europe and a country in the Middle East or North Africa. The agreement, which provides for lowering tariffs in both directions and some aid to Tunisia, defines human rights in Article 2 as an essential element of the accord. Tunisia's human rights record was reportedly raised only in very general terms at the first meeting of the official E.U.-Tunisia Association Council on July 14, although details of the talks were not disclosed. During the first six months of the agreement, the European Council gave no public indication that Tunisia's lack of progress toward tolerating dissent and curtailing other human rights abuses might adversely affect relations. Within the European Parliament, human rights in Tunisia lacked the visibility it had in 1997, when several of the chamber's political blocs sponsored a forum on the subject. No resolutions were adopted concerning human rights in Tunisia through the end of September. Tunisian authorities replied in writing to a list of human rights cases that had been submitted by a delegation of members of the parliament that visited in October 1997. In September 1998, the European Parliament's Delegation for Maghreb Relations hosted a visit by Tunisian parliamentarians. During their meetings, the European parliamentarians failed to raise with the Tunisian delegation any individual cases or specific human rights abuses.

United States

The U.S. did virtually nothing publicly during the year to address the systematic patterns of violations that the State Department had accurately documented in the Tunisia chapter of its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The U.S. administration praised its ally's economic liberalization and support of the Arab-Israeli peace process, while keeping human rights concerns to private démarches that, the State Department insisted, took place on a regular basis. Washington engaged in frequent military exercises with Tunisia, but gave it no military or economic assistance. None of the high-level bilateral meetings through October resulted in any public allusion to human rights concerns. Stuart E. Eizenstat, Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, met with President Ben Ali on June 16. He proposed a new "U.S.-Maghreb Economic Partnership" to promote private investment, telling the Tunisian-American Chamber of Commerce that it would contribute to "a more secure, more prosperous and democratic future." Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Martin Indyk held high-level discussions in Tunis in March, as did his deputy Ronald Neumann in September. Tunisian Defense Minister Habib Ben Yahia was received in Washington in June by high-level State Department officials. A political officer at the U.S. embassy in Tunis maintained regular contacts with Tunisian activists and civil society, observed the trial of Khemaïs Ksila, and visited human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui's office after it had been ransacked. This sort of public engagement rarely occurred at the level of the ambassador.

Human Rights Developments

The United States has long regarded itself as a beacon of human rights, as evidenced by an enlightened constitution, judicial independence, and a civil society grounded in strong traditions of free speech and press freedom. But the reality is more complex; for decades, civil rights and civil liberties groups have exposed constitutional violations and challenged abusive policies and practices. In recent years, as well, international human rights monitors have documented serious gaps in U.S. protections of the human rights of vulnerable groups. Both federal and state governments have nonetheless resisted applying to the U.S. the standards that, rightly, the U.S. applies elsewhere. In the Clinton administration Americans have a leadership willing to recognize some core inequities—racial, gender and other types of discrimination, for example—but nonetheless unwilling to incorporate key international human rights principles fully into U.S. domestic policies and practices, as described below. At the same time, senior figures of the congressionally dominant Republican Party and many state-level governments—which are bound by U.S. obligations under human rights treaties—have denounced international standards as intrusive while advocating policies that effectively infringe upon the human rights of citizens and new arrivals. In 1998, as in previous years, the U.S. failed to address human rights criticism absent sustained national and international attention—and sometimes even then. Conservative politicians and their allies, often using ugly rhetoric, led successful efforts to craft or maintain policies that excluded unpopular or controversial groups—convicted criminals, immigrants, and members of certain minorities, among others—from full protection of their human rights, despite the protests of U.S.-based rights groups and liberal members of Congress. "Get tough" anti-crime policies, which enjoyed significant public support, became the vehicle for many of the most serious abuses. As a result, abusive police officers or prison guards too often enjoyed impunity; the internationally recognized rights of asylum seekers continued to be drastically curtailed; discrimination persisted in policies regarding gay men and lesbians; minority racial groups continued to be overrepresented among those sentenced to death; state-sponsored executions continued, even of juvenile offenders and the mentally incompetent; and many of the nation's prisons and jails —increasingly populated by nonviolent offenders, due to the "war on drugs"—continued to be overcrowded, violent places where sexual abuse by male inmates and, in women's prisons, by male guards, was insufficiently controlled or prosecuted. Three visits by special U.N. rapporteurs on various aspects of human rights took place during 1997 and 1998. The U.S. government's poor treatment of the first visiting rapporteur—an expert on the death penalty and arbitrary killings by police, who issued a critical report in 1998—led to an outcry by human rights groups and others, prompting greater cooperation with the two rapporteurs who came subsequently to study religious intolerance and women's rights, respectively. Among the problems highlighted by the rapporteurs' visits was a pervasive official ignorance of the U.S.'s international human rights obligations. This was evident at the federal level, where even responsible and committed civil rights staff at the Justice Department were unaware of international human rights norms. But it was especially severe at the state and local levels, where the rapporteurs encountered varying degrees of hostility. The federal government has an obligation to remedy this enormous gap in knowledge, which translates into practical failures of enforcement. A concerted effort must be made to educate officials at all levels on the standards that enhance existing human rights protections in the U.S. under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and international conventions banning racial discrimination and torture or ill-treatment. The federal government should also set a better example to state and local governments, by changing federal policies of U.S. exceptionalism with regard to international human rights treaties—both those the U.S. has ratified and those that, alone among Western developed nations, it has failed to ratify. In 1998, the United States continued to exempt itself from its international human rights obligations, particularly where international human rights law grants protections or redress not available under U.S. law. In ratifying international human rights treaties it has typically carved away added protections for those in the United States by adding reservations, declarations, and understandings. Even years after ratifying key human rights treaties, the U.S. still fails to acknowledge human rights law as U.S. law. Moreover, the U.S. is behind the rest of the developed world in failing to ratify the key international instrument on women's rights and virtually alone in the world in failing to ratify the international children's rights convention. The United States's disregard for international human rights standards has not been limited to domestic matters. During the year, it has also opposed human rights initiatives on issues of broad international interest, including landmines, child soldiers, and the creation of the International Criminal Court. In the case of landmines, the United States refused to join the 133 nations, including nearly every major U.S. ally, that had already signed the treaty by October 1998. It blocked international efforts to end the use of child soldiers, arguing against a proposed optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would raise the minimum age for military recruitment and participation in armed conflict to eighteen. And the United States was one of only seven states voting against the statute creating the ICC at the Rome Diplomatic Conference in July; 120 states voted for the treaty.

Police Abuse

Mistreatment by law enforcement officers in the United States continued in 1998, remaining one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the country. The violations persisted nationwide, in rural, suburban, and urban areas of the country, committed by various law enforcement personnel including local and state police, sheriff's departments, and federal agents. Police have engaged in unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and unnecessarily rough treatment. While the proportion of repeatedly abusive officers on any force is generally small, responsible authorities—including law enforcement supervisors, as wellas local and federal government leadership—often failed to act decisively to restrain or penalize such acts. Police abuse continued, in part, because accountability systems to restrain abusive behavior were inadequate. Weak civilian review, flawed internal investigations, and rare criminal prosecutions by federal or local prosecutors virtually guaranteed that officers who engaged in brutality would avoid punishment of any kind. Meanwhile, civil lawsuits filed against cities and their police departments for alleged civil rights violations by officers continued to cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Measuring the extent of the problem of police abuse was made more difficult by the Justice Department's failure to compile annual statistics on the use of excessive force by police officers, as Congress instructed it to do in 1994. On the positive side, the Justice Department did begin to utilize its civil powers to identify police departments exhibiting a "pattern or practice" of abuse and requiring reforms. Race and ethnicity continued to play a central role in police brutality in the United States. In places where data were available, members of minority groups had alleged human rights violations by police more frequently than non-minority residents and far out of proportion to their representation in those places. Police have subjected minorities to apparently discriminatory treatment and in some cases have physically abused people of color while using racial epithets. Official responses to a July 1998 Human Rights Watch report on police abuse and accountability in fourteen cities differed greatly from city to city. Some cities' officials acknowledged the problems identified in the report, while other officials resorted to name-calling and denial. Human Rights Watch continued to work with the departments that expressed an interest in our findings and recommendations regarding common failings in accountability systems and to urge conditionality on federal aid to police departments that allowed impunity for officers responsible for serious abuses.

Conditions in Custody

In many jails, prisons, immigration detention centers and juvenile detention facilities, confined individuals suffered from physical mistreatment, excessive disciplinary sanctions, barely tolerable physical conditions, and inadequate medical and mental health care. Unfortunately, there was little support from politicians or the public for reform. Fifty-three percent of all state inmates were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, while criminal justice policies increased the length of prison sentences and diminished the availability of parole. The U.S. incarcerated a greater proportion of its population than any country except Russia: more than 1.7 million people were either in prison or in jail in 1998, reflecting an incarceration rate of more than 645 per 100,000 residents, double the rate of a decade before. Approximately one in every 117 adult males was in prison. Surging prison populations and public reluctance to fund new construction produced dangerously overcrowded prisons. Violence continued to be pervasive: in 1997 (the most recent year for which data were available), sixty-nine inmates were killed by other inmates, and thousands were injured seriously enough to require medical attention. Extortion and intimidation were commonplace. Most inmates had scant opportunities for work, training, education, treatment or counseling. Mentally ill inmates—estimated to constitute between 6 and 14 percent of the incarcerated population—rarely received adequate monitoring or treatment. Many local jails were dirty, unsafe, vermin-infested, and lacked areas in which inmates could exercise or get fresh air. Some jail authorities placed inmates in restraining devices for long periods far in excess of legitimate safety considerations. Severe overcrowding coupled with inadequate staffing in many jails created dangerous conditions reflected in the numbers of inmates injured in fights, who experienced seizures and other medical emergencies without proper attention, and who managed to escape. Authorities relied increasingly on administrative segregation in super-maximum security prisons to maintain control. Prisoners deemed particularly disruptive or dangerous were isolated in small, often windowless cells for twenty-three hours a day; more than 24,000 prisoners were kept in this modern form of solitary confinement at any given time. At the end of 1997, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting conditions in two super-maximum security prisons in the state of Indiana. Although excessive use of physical force in these facilities had diminished in recent years, we still found excessive isolation, controls, and restrictions that were not penologically justified, and mentally ill inmates whose conditions were exacerbated by the regime of isolation and restricted activities, as well as by the lack of appropriate mental health treatment. The Indiana Department of Corrections instituted a number of reforms that were responsive to our concerns. Most significant was the development of a special housing unit for the treatment of disruptive or dangerous mentally ill inmates that opened in June 1998. Abusive conduct by guards was reported in many prisons. The threat of such abuse was particularly acute in supermax prisons. Since Corcoran State Prison in California opened in 1988, fifty inmates, most of them unarmed, were shot by prison guards and seven were killed. In February 1998, federal authorities indicted eight Corcoran officers for deliberately pitting unarmed inmates against each other in gladiator-style fights which the guards would then break up by firing on them with rifles. In July, the state announced a new investigation into at least thirty-six serious and fatal shootings of Corcoran inmates. Guard abuse was by no means confined to California prisons. Across the country, inmates complained of instances of excessive and even clearly lawless use of force. In Pennsylvania, dozens of guards from one facility, SCI Greene, were under investigation for beatings, slamming inmates into walls, racial taunting and other mistreatment of inmates. The state Department of Corrections fired four guards, and twenty-one others were demoted, suspended or reprimanded. In many other facilities across the country, however, abuses went unaddressed. Overcrowded public prisons and the tight budgets of corrections agencies fueled the growth of private corrections companies: approximately 100,000 adults were confined in 142 privately operated prisons and jails nationwide. Many of these facilities operated with insufficient control and oversight from the public correctional authorities. States failed to enact laws setting appropriate standards and regulatory mechanisms for private prisons, signed weak contracts, undertook insufficient monitoring and toleratedprolonged substandard conditions. In less than a year, there were two murders and thirteen stabbings at one privately operated prison in the state of Ohio. Sexual and other abuses continued to be serious problems for women incarcerated in local jails, state and federal prisons, and INS detention centers. Women in custody faced abuses at the hands of prison guards, most of whom are men, who subjected the women to verbal harassment, unwarranted visual surveillance, abusive pat frisks and sexual assault. Fifteen states did not have criminal laws prohibiting custodial sexual misconduct by guards, and Human Rights Watch found that in most states, guards were not properly trained about their duty to refrain from sexual abuse of prisoners. The problem of abuse was compounded by the continued rapid growth of the female inmate population. As a result women were warehoused in overcrowded prisons and were often unable to access basic services such as medical care and substance abuse treatment. In Michigan, where women were plaintiffs in a civil rights suit jointly litigated by private lawyers and the Department of Justice, these women reported retaliatory behavior by guards, as described in more detail below. The retaliation ranged from verbal abuse, intimidation, and excessive and abusive pat frisks, to loss of visitation privileges and "good time" accrued toward early release. Men in prison also suffered from prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, committed by fellow inmates. Prison staff often allowed or even tacitly encouraged sexual attacks by male prisoners. Despite the devastating psychological impact of such abuse, there were few if any preventative measures taken in most jurisdictions, while perpetrators were rarely punished adequately by prison officials. As in previous years, increasing numbers of children were incarcerated nationwide, even as the number of violent juvenile offenders fell. Research by the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) found that only 6 percent of juvenile arrests in 1992 and 1994 were for violent crimes. Between 1994 and 1995, according to OJJDP, violent crime arrests of juveniles between the ages of fifteen and seventeen fell by 2 percent; arrests of younger juveniles for violent crimes dropped by 5 percent for the same period. Despite this declining percentage of violent juvenile offenders, and in spite of the costs associated with incarceration, most states continued to incarcerate high numbers of children for nonviolent offenses. Between 1992 and 1998, at least forty states adopted legislation making it easier for children to be tried as adults, and forty-two states detained juveniles in adult jails while they awaited trial. Prompted by a 1996 Human Rights Watch report on human rights abuses in the state of Georgia, the Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded a year-long investigation of the state's juvenile detention facilities in February 1998. The DOJ identified a "pattern of egregious conditions" that violated children's rights, including overcrowded and unsafe conditions, physical abuse by staff and excessive use of disciplinary measures, inadequate educational, medical and mental health services. In March 1998, the state and the DOJ signed an agreement that required the state to make extensive improvements. The DOJ concluded at least two other investigations of juvenile facilities in 1998, finding violations in the county detention centers in Owensboro, Kentucky, and Greenville, South Carolina. In each of these facilities, the DOJ found evidence that staff employed excessive force against juvenile inmates.

Asylum Seekers and Immigrants

Implementation of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) continued to violate international human rights standards that apply specifically to asylum seekers, as well as the human rights of other immigrants, through detention in often inhumane conditions. The IIRIRA's expedited removal proceedings, intended to process and deport individuals who enter the United States without valid documents as quickly as possible, imperiled bona fide refugees and resulted in immigrants' being detained in increasing numbers. If an asylum seeker prevails in initial summary procedures at ports of entry, he or she is detained pending a "credible fear" interview, i.e. an interview to determine whether there is a credible fear of endangerment in the country of origin: grounds for granting asylum. Asylum seekers who have proven credible fear may be released at the discretion of district directors of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), but usually they are detained throughout the process and until asylum hearings are completed—sometimes for years. More than half of the immigrants held in INS custody during 1998, some 9,000 people, were sent to local jails to await immigration proceedings. Faced with an overwhelming, immediate demand for detention space, the agency handed over control of its detainees to local sheriffs and other jail officials without ensuring that basic international and national standards requiring humane treatment and adequate conditions were met. INS detainees—including asylum seekers—were being held in jails entirely inappropriate to their non-criminal status, where they were often mixed with accused and convicted criminal inmates and where they were sometimes subjected to physical mistreatment and inadequate conditions of confinement. Though not serving a criminal sentence or awaiting trial on criminal charges, an INS detainee's experience in a local jail was no different from that of a local inmate. During an eighteen-month investigation into conditions and treatment at the jails used by the INS, Human Rights Watch found that INS detainees in jails were subjected to physical mistreatment, were not provided with basic medical care, were often unable to communicate with jail staff due to language barriers, and were subjected to severe restrictions on contact with families, friends, and legal representatives—when, in the minority of cases, detainees were able to obtain legal counsel. In a September report, Human Rights Watch called on the INS to end its use of jails to house immigration detainees; the jails' punitive and rehabilitative nature are never appropriate for INS detainees who are simply awaiting immigration hearings and who are not accused or convicted of committing a crime. Asylum seekers should be detained only in exceptional circumstances and should never be sent to jails. Until the INS ends its use of jails to hold its detainees, all INS detainees should be held in separate sections in jails. Human Rights Watch also called for INS detention guidelines for jails and a humane release policy for detainees held indefinitely. The treatment of children held by the INS was also disturbing. Investigations by Human Rights Watch in three states foundthat nearly all children received little or no information about their right to be represented by an attorney in their immigration proceedings, in violation of international standards and in breach of a consent decree which binds the INS. Some unaccompanied minors were housed with juvenile offenders, locked up and made to wear prison uniforms even though they were held for administrative reasons only. Human Rights Watch continued to work with INS officials and concerned members of Congress to seek reforms. Until a series of mid-year shootings by the U.S. Border Patrol (a part of the INS), along the U.S.-Mexico border, border-crossers' complaints of abuse continued but reports of serious physical abuses, such as shootings, beatings, and kickings, seemed to decline. Beginning in June 1998, after a Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona was shot dead, Arizona agents opened fire at border-crossers at least a half-dozen times over a three-month period, leading to one fatality in September. And along the southern California border with Mexico, Border Patrol agents shot two men fatally during shooting incidents in September. All three of the men killed by agents were reportedly holding rocks in a threatening way when agents shot them; investigations were underway at the time of this writing. Congress ordered the creation of a Citizens' Advisory Panel (CAP) in response to reports of abuse along the border; the CAP first met in 1995. In December 1997, it made recommendations for reforms in the way the INS and other agencies receive and investigate abuse complaints, but few had been implemented as of October 1998. The CAP's mandate has now expired. The mistreatment of migrant workers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory in the North Pacific Ocean, received heightened scrutiny by Congress, the administration, and human rights organizations. Companies operating in the islands mistreated thousands of laborers, primarily from China, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, who had become essentially indentured workers in garment manufacturing plants; these abuses had been allowed because the CNMI authorities were exempt from normal federal immigration, trade, and worker protection statutes. During the year, legislation to address human rights violations in the CNMI was introduced in Congress and actively supported by the Clinton administration. The Department of the Interior prepared a report that documented the trafficking of Russian and Chinese women for prostitution as well as an overall worsening of conditions for foreign workers.

Death Penalty

The United States continued to rely on the death penalty despite the international trend away from its use. Forty-five individuals were executed in 1998 as of September; the U.S. had broken its previous record in 1997, by executing a total of seventy-four persons. Among those executed were two women (the first women executed since 1984), individuals who may have been mentally ill or retarded, juvenile offenders, and foreign nationals. In April 1998, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions released his report on the death penalty in the U.S. The special rapporteur found that the death penalty was applied in an unfair, arbitrary, and discriminatory manner. The report called for a suspension of executions until significant reforms were implemented to bring the U.S. into compliance with international human rights standards. The special rapporteur's plea for a moratorium echoed the American Bar Association's similar call in 1997. The special rapporteur criticized the U.S. practice of imposing the death penalty on juvenile offenders and on mentally retarded or mentally ill persons as "a step backwards in the promotion and protection of the right to life" and in contravention of international human rights standards. From 1976 to 1997, seventy-four people were released from death row due to evidence of their innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). As in the past, race played a role in the application of the death penalty. Two 1998 studies by the DPIC illustrated this. One focused on the city of Philadelphia and found that an African-American was four times more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty than a white defendant on similarly severe murder charges and with a similar criminal background. The other examined the race of district attorneys (who make the decisions on whether to seek the death penalty) and found that nearly 98 percent of the district attorneys in states with the death penalty were white while 1 percent were African-American. The U.S. continued to be one of only six countries to execute persons who were younger than eighteen when they committed their crime. The imposition of the death penalty on persons who were under eighteen years of age at the time of their offense violates the provisions of several international and regional human rights instruments. Despite nearly unanimous international condemnation of the use of the death penalty for juvenile offenders, six countries in the world—Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Yemen—were known to have executed juvenile offenders in the 1990s. The United States led the list with nine executions between 1990 and 1998, one-half of the known worldwide total for the period. Two such executions took place in 1998 in the state of Texas—the first of juvenile offenders anywhere in the U.S. in five years. A third took place in Virginia, where Dwayne Allen Wright was executed in October. Wright was a juvenile offender and was mentally ill and may have suffered from brain damage. The U.S. continued to ignore its obligations under the Vienna Convention to notify non-national defendants of their right to contact their embassies. In April 1998, the International Court of Justice called on the U.S. to delay the execution in Virginia of a Paraguayan national, Angel Francisco Breard, until it could examine his case and decide whether the U.S.'s failure to notify the defendant of his consular rights had made a difference in his case. The U.S. decided that, with or without consular notification, Breard would have been convicted of a capital crime; the execution went ahead.


The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which the U.S. has ratified under the Clinton Administration, defines discrimination more broadly than under U.S. law as any practice or policy that is discriminatoryin "purpose or effect." Under this standard, policies that are race-neutral on their face but have a persistently adverse impact on a racial group may rise to the level of discrimination. In the U.S., areas of concern in this regard include, among others, the impact of criminal justice policies, such as the "war on drugs," application of the death penalty, and the widespread disenfranchisement of felons. The onus of harsh criminal justice policies continued to fall disproportionately on black Americans, fueling persistent complaints of racial discrimination. According to the most recent figures from the Department of Justice, one in twelve (8.3 percent) black men aged twenty-five to twenty-nine were in prison in 1996, compared to 2.6 percent of Hispanics men and 0.8 percent of white men in the same age group. Black Americans constituted a disproportionate share of the prison population: 48 percent of state prisoners, 30 percent of federal prisoners, and 42 percent of jail inmates, according to 1997 statistics, the most recent data available. The rate of imprisonment for black men was 8.5 times that of white men. According to a U.S. Department of Justice analysis, if current rates of incarceration continued, one in three of the next generation of black men would spend time in prison at some point in his life. The nation's war on drugs, for example, continued to have a well-documented disparate impact on African-Americans. Drug control policies emphasized law enforcement in low-income urban areas, contributing significantly to the number and proportion of blacks and Hispanics who were arrested, convicted and imprisoned. The arrest rate for drug offenses was six times higher for blacks than for whites. (See Drugs and Human Rights section.) More than one-quarter of all black inmates in state prisons were convicted of drug offenses, compared to 13 percent of white prisoners. For many African-Americans, the most egregious example of disparate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system was the much harsher sentencing for crack than for powder cocaine offenses under federal law. Compliance with CERD would require revision of the federal sentencing laws to ensure that blacks (convicted more frequently of crack offenses) and whites (convicted more frequently of powder cocaine offenses) receive equivalent sentences for equivalent crimes. The scale of felony disenfranchisement in the U.S.—the denial of the vote to persons convicted of felonies—was unparalleled: in 1998, an estimated 3.9 million U.S. citizens were denied the right to vote, including over one million who had fully completed their sentences. No other democratic country in the world denies as many people—in absolute or proportional terms—the right to vote because of felony convictions. The racial impact of disenfranchisement laws was particularly egregious. Thirteen percent of African-American men—1.4 million—were disenfranchised, representing over one-third (36 percent) of the total disenfranchised population. In two states, data published by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project showed almost one in three black men to be disenfranchised. In seven states, one in four black men is permanently disenfranchised. These rates of disenfranchisement are an unintended but nonetheless foreseeable consequence of harsh criminal justice policies that have markedly increased the number of people sent to prison and the length of their sentences as well as of drug law enforcement that has put hundreds of thousands of adults behind bars, a preponderance of whom are members of minority groups. In June 1997, President Clinton called for a national debate on race relations and appointed an advisory panel (the Advisory Board to the President's Initiative on Race) to compile a report of its recommendations to address the problem of racism. The panel's report was submitted to the president in September 1998, and it disappointed civil rights leaders and others by failing to make bold proposals. Meanwhile, a long-overdue U.S. compliance report on CERD remained pending. Expanding the federal statute outlawing hate crimes received strong public support from the Clinton administration, and the importance of such support was underscored by proof that racist sentiment can turn deadly—as in the brutal and degrading June 1998 murder of James Byrd, a black man in Texas, whose killers dragged his beaten body behind their pickup truck until he died. National debate on the rights of gay men and lesbians contained some ugly rhetoric in 1998, including from senior politicians of the Republican Party. The legal rights of homosexuals received greater protection at the federal than at the state level, though federal policy on the treatment of gay men and lesbians in the military—"don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue"—continued to have a discriminatory impact. In some areas, bias crimes against homosexuals increased, while groups espousing "family values" sought to "cure" homosexuality. The brutal murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, in Wyoming in October galvanized nationwide concern over hate crimes. In May 1998, President Clinton signed an executive order protecting federal civil workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the House of Representatives voted to uphold the order in August. Employment discrimination remained a problem, however, since only ten states had laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Seven states had executive orders barring discrimination in public employment based on sexual orientation, and two had state civil service rules prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. As a result, in the forty states without comprehensive laws, it remained legal for any private employer to fire, deny promotion, unfairly compensate or decline to hire people because of their—actual or perceived—sexual orientation. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would protect workers in every state from discrimination based on sexual orientation, was not acted on as the congressional session ended. (For further discussion, see section on Gay and Lesbian Rights.) Discrimination against women continued in many areas, including employment, education, and judicial and law enforcement bias in domestic violence cases. The failure to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) left women in the U.S. without enhanced human rights protections against sex discrimination.

International Human Rights Scrutiny

The low priority that the U.S. government gives to international human rights treaty compliance became increasingly apparent duringthe year. For example, the U.S. became a party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and CERD in 1994. Both treaties require reports to the United Nations, describing the nation's treaty compliance. The U.S. compliance reports on both treaties were due in November 1995, but as of October 1998, neither had been submitted. Other important human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, remained unratified. (Only two countries in the world have not ratified the children's rights convention: Somalia, which has no internationally recognized government, and the United States.) In addition, the administration did not move toward signing or ratifying core International Labour Organisation conventions intended to protect basic labor rights. United Nations special rapporteurs monitor countries' compliance with international human rights standards. During late 1997 and 1998, three special rapporteurs visited the United States. When Bacre Waly Ndiaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, conducted a mission at the end of 1997, officials at the State and Justice departments made almost no effort to facilitate his meetings with local officials or his access to prisons' death rows. There were improvements in the way the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, was treated by federal officials during her June 1998 investigation of human rights abuses of women in custody, including prisons and INS detention centers, but Michigan officials would not allow her to visit prisons in that state. (The other special rapporteur visited the United States in February and examined religious intolerance.) The federal government, by authorizing the special rapporteurs' visits, showed an increased openness, but there was far less acceptance of such international monitors at the state level. After Special Rapporteur Ndiaye released a report in April 1998 that was highly critical of the application of the death penalty in the U.S.—and called for a moratorium on its use, echoing a similar call by the American Bar Association—U.S. officials dismissed the report as unnecessary and inaccurate. U.S. officials were forced to defend the use of the death penalty before the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. At that time, U.S. officials argued that the nation had such strict due process standards that the rights of all capital defendants were being protected. Meanwhile, the U.S. acknowledged it had not adhered to the Vienna Convention's consular notification procedures in the case of a Paraguayan national, but the man was executed anyway, despite international and World Court protests.

Defending Human Rights

In a trend that began in the mid-1990s, policymakers cut funding for legal services organizations that typically represent the poor. As a result, groups and individuals defending the rights of prisoners, capital case defendants, migrant workers, and immigrants faced operating restrictions and overwhelming caseloads that combined to inhibit their ability to take on new cases or adequately represent current clients. The poorest and most desperate victims of alleged abuse or mistreatment were left with nowhere to turn to obtain legal counsel. Besides often lacking affordable counsel, individuals who challenged serious human rights abuses by state officials risked retaliation. Some of the women prisoners who reported that they had been sexually abused by prison guards in Michigan were then retaliated against for cooperating with investigators. The women were verbally abused, intimidated, lost privileges to receive visitors, and lost "good time" they had earned toward early release. Human Rights Watch, which had published a report about the retaliatory actions against the women, was subpoenaed by Michigan officials who requested all records relating to Michigan prisoners, including names of confidential sources; the subpoena was later withdrawn. In October 1998, Amnesty International launched a campaign about human rights violations in the United States. Among the issues highlighted in the campaign were prison conditions, police abuse, the death penalty, and treatment of asylum seekers.

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:

Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States, 7/98 Locked Away: Immigration Detainees in Jails in the United States, 9/98 Nowhere to Hide: Retaliation against Women in Michigan State Prision, 9/98 Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the U.S., 10/98
This report covers events of 1998

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