Calls for Iraq War Accountability amid Syria Debate

As the country has been debating military intervention in Syria, the airwaves and blogosphere, conversations on the street and phone calls to Congress have rightly been filled with talk of the catastrophe caused by the Iraq War. A decade after the invasion, Iraqis and U.S. veterans are still suffering from the impacts of the war, including widespread trauma and skyrocketing rates of birth defects and cancer from the U.S.’s own use of internationally condemned weapons, such as white phosphorous, napalm-class weapons and weapons containing depleted uranium. This week, a coalition of veterans, Iraqis and human rights groups are appealing to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Organization of American States to urge concrete U.S. action for the devastation it has imposed. The efforts request, among other measures, mechanisms for accountability and reparations in the form of health care, clean-up of toxic sites, and repairing critical infrastructure.  Acknowledgement of the painful and far-reaching human toll of war has never been more urgently needed as the U.S. weighs its next steps in Syria.

Accounting for the Iraq War Catastrophe

On Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad a couple of  months ago, Iraqi human rights activists set up a table to gather signatures beneath a banner bearing the image of Hani, a young child from the town of Hawija who lost his parents to shootings by the U.S. army. Hani is also severely disabled, one of hundreds of children in Hawija born with birth defects believed to be caused by contamination from Forward Operating Base Fort McHenry, which the U.S. operated nearby  during the war.

Underneath Hani’s image, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) was collecting signatures to support a request for a hearing on the human rights impacts of the Iraq War before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as part of the Right to Heal Initiative. The Initiative launched on the tenth anniversary of the invasion and involves OWFI, the Federation of Workers Unions and Councils in Iraq, Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Civilian-Soldier Alliance and other anti-war and human rights partners in the U.S.  These groups were alarmed that the Iraq War is fading into the past in the U.S. while ongoing crises –  such as 22 U.S. veterans committing suicide a day and babies being born in Iraq’s delivery rooms with debilitating conditions that don’t even have medical terms because they’ve never been seen before – need serious, systemic attention.

Signatures being collected in Iraq in support of the Right to Heal Initiative

The signature collection in support of the IACHR hearing request drew great support on Al-Mutanabbi Street. A lawyers’ league offered their fact-finding reports and to collect signatures in their own communities to support the initiative. Artists volunteered to hold exhibitions on the sufferings of the population at large due to the war and occupation. An individual came up to the signature stand and told OWFI how he lost all the members of his family during a U.S. raid, all in the same day, and wanted to provide testimony. OWFI also set up signature stands and went door-to-door in Samarra and Basra and, in total, collected 2,135 signatures by hand. In addition, nearly 7,292 signatures were collected online from 76 different countries, and today the initiative delivered the final list to the IACHR. We will know their decision next week.

The Right to Heal Initiative also submitted a shadow report today to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in anticipation of its review of the United States’ human rights record pursuant to U.S. treaty obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The report details the violations to civil and political rights that took place due to the war and continue to take place as a result of the United States’ war-making and occupation.

President Obama has said that we must look forward not back, but how do you tell that to the boy Hani or to the man who had lost every member of his family in a raid, or to other Iraqi civilians? Or to U.S. veterans who are still struggling with an incomprehensible level of trauma in the shadows of a country that has not only swept the atrocities of Iraq under its rug but now proposes further engagement in yet another country in the Middle East?  The very concept of justice is rooted in looking back, acknowledging what took place, and coming up with ways to move forward that give hope to a future of healing, reconciling, and peace. The international community must support the beginning of this process between U.S. and Iraqi citizens, led by those most impacted by the war, and we are urging the international human rights system to begin to take steps to make this possible.

Download the Right to Heal poster.

Laura Raymond is Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights. @laurajraymond

When a foreign military shoots a U.S. human rights defender shouldn’t the U.S. investigate?

As a teenager, Furkan Do?an would tell his parents that he wanted to bring toys, books, and food to the children of Gaza. Described by his father as a young man with a huge heart, Furkan was deeply troubled by the humanitarian situation faced by Palestinians living in Gaza due to the Israeli blockade, a situation the United Nations Relief Works Agency has described as “a crisis that transcends the humanitarian sphere.”  After graduating from high school, in 2010, Furkan joined the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, an international effort by activists who organized six ships, carrying more than 700 civilians from almost 40 countries, to sail towards Gaza to break the siege and deliver humanitarian supplies.

Three years ago, in the early hours of May 31, 2010, Israeli forces boarded the ship Furkan was on, the Mavi Marmara, while it was in international waters.   Commandos opened fire on the unarmed civilians  aboard. According to an investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council:

“[Furkan Do?an was] filming with a small video camera when he was first hit with live fire. It appears that he was lying on the deck in a conscious, or semi-conscious, state for some time. In total Furkan received five bullet wounds . . . All of the entry wounds were on the back of his body, except for the face wound which entered to the right of his nose. According to forensic analysis, tattooing around the wound in his face indicates that the shot was delivered at point blank range.”

Eight other people on the Mavi Marmara, all Turkish citizens,  were also killed. Many others, on the Mavi Marmara and other ships, were injured, among them other U.S. citizens. Passengers were detained and had their property confiscated.

Furkan’s parents had been closely following the progress of the flotilla.  When they heard about the attack, Furkan’s father, Professor Ahmet Do?an, made numerous urgent calls to U.S. officials asking them to find the whereabouts of his son.  Despite Professor Do?an’s  repeated inquiries , State Department and Department of Defense documents reveal that U.S. officials did not become aware of Furkan’s death until June 2, 2010, when the Turkish press reported it.  The U.S. officials’ first response was not to call Professor Do?an, but to await confirmation from the Israeli government.

Many U.S. citizens take for granted that if they are wounded or worse by another government, the  U.S. will, at the very least, press for an independent, credible investigation. Under the international human rights system, governments are responsible for the protection of human rights defenders, and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has concluded that, “[f]ighting impunity for violations committed against defenders is crucial in order to enable defenders to work in a safe and conducive environment.”

But instead of taking decisive action to get to the bottom of the attack against a flotilla of human rights defenders in international waters and ensure accountability, the U.S. showed an alarming amount of deference to Israel and tried to undermine international efforts to investigate the incident.  Records recently released, as a result of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ (CCR) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) efforts , show that the U.S. closely followed Israel’s lead in responding to the attack. For example, in July 2010, Matthew Andris, of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the U.S. State Department asked the U.S. staff to the Human Rights Council (UN HRC) in Geneva to, “Please approach [Israeli] Ambassador Yaar to find out if he has views on the currently proposed flotilla committee and whether he prefers that the U.S. engage or hang back on this?  There was a push in the room to engage (if its [sic] not too late) but we don’t want to unknowingly step on Israel’s toes.”

Likewise, an August 2010 State Department cable noted that the U.S. Mission to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva “explored ways to ‘turn off’ the [HRC] flotilla fact finding mission,” and that “we very strongly favor having this fact finding mission (FFM) fall away.”  The U.S. Mission sought guidance on “whether and how the United States should seek to shape the outcome.”

In the end, the HRC investigation did not “fall away.” It concluded that “Israeli forces carried out extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions prohibited by international human rights law” against Furkan and at least five others. The U.S. opposed the September 2010 HRC resolution welcoming the fact finding mission’s report. According to FOIA documents Israel had requested the United States’ help in keeping the Human Rights Council’s flotilla inquiry “contained to Geneva and out of New York.”

Instead of supporting an independent international investigation, the U.S. backed Israel’s internal inquiry, known as the Turkel Committee, which exonerated all of the Israeli soldiers involved in the attack and concluded that all of their actions were legal.  The U.S. also backed the UN Secretary General’s inquiry, which relied on the Israeli inquiry (as well as a Turkish government inquiry) and negotiations with Israel and Turkey in reaching its conclusions.

Time for an Apology and a Credible Investigation

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U.S. Veterans and Iraqis Unite to Demand the Right to Heal

A new project, the Right to Heal Initiative,  is demanding concrete action from the U.S. government to address the widespread toxicity, trauma and other serious health impacts- both mental and physical- caused by the Iraq War. On March 19, ten years to the day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iraqi civilians, U.S. veterans and allies launched the project in front of the White House with a press conference and by reading powerful testimonials about the health and human rights impacts of the war. Much of the testimony sent from Iraq spoke of the sharp rise in birth defects and cancer rates that have been seen in various cities and towns throughout Iraq since the 2003 invasion. For example, this testimony was provided from Fallujah by the Federation for Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq:

“During the American military invasion at the end of 2004, the American army used radioactive weapons, and they admitted that they used white phosphorous in bombing the city. And after about a year and a half, birth defects began to appear in the city, especially in residential neighborhoods far from the city center…The Iraqi Ministry of Environment performed a survey of the city and they found a presence of radioactive, poisonous, and harmful materials which cause cancer and deformities.”

Veterans present spoke about the far-reaching impacts of the war, both back at home and for those remaining in Iraq. We heard about experiences with military sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the lack of adequate care from the Veterans Administration. This is part of the testimony provided by Joyce Wagner of Iraq Veterans Against the War (for her full testimony please click here).

In 2010, after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual trauma, I filed a disability claim with the Department of Veteran Affairs.  After sharing the most personal and painful details of my life, I heard nothing from the VA for over a year. It took over two years before I received a letter stating that my claim was denied because, amongst other things, I had invited my rapist into my tent.  Unfortunately, my case is not uncommon… And while the Department of Defense and the VA have done an insufficient job at compensating and caring for US servicemembers victimized by their fellow servicemembers in acts of sexual violence, they have done absolutely nothing to make reparation to victims of sexual violence in Iraq.  How can I ask for justice for myself without first demanding justice for the many women in Iraq who were raped and otherwise abused in an occupation in which I participated?

As we were observing this anniversary that never should have been in front of the White House, lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights were submitting a request for a thematic hearing to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). We hope to raise these issues and accompanying demands directly to U.S. government officials through an IACHR hearing this fall as a first step to our project. Please support this hearing request by signing on to a letter to the IACHR. And stay tuned for more ways to support the Right to Heal.

Laura Raymond is Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Twitter: @laurajraymond

Solidarity After the Storm: Poor Peoples Movements from South Africa and Haiti Share Lessons More Urgent Now than Ever

by Laura Raymond and Jeena Shah, Center for Constitutional Rights

While the extent of Hurricane Sandy’s damage in the U.S. and the Caribbean is still being assessed, what’s already clear is that across the map the recovery process will be long and require massive financial and human investments by both governments and non-governmental groups alike. Lessons learned from the earthquake recovery in Haiti, particularly regarding the importance of international solidarity and recovery based on the needs of those most directly impacted, are critical for us all to heed. Though Sandy did not even directly hit Haiti, at least 52 Haitians lost their lives in the storm. Haitian activist Patrick Elie told Democracy Now on October 29, given the vulnerability of Haiti’s environment, “roads have been destroyed. Whole villages have, for all intent and purposes, disappeared.”

Those who were still homeless from the January 2010 earthquake are among those hardest hit — again. Sandy’s rains flooded many camps, damaged makeshift structures and increased the risk of contracting cholera, underscoring the ever more urgent need to rethink the flawed recovery efforts in Haiti. As Elie went on to say, “[With regard to] the refugees, the people in the camps… what this government has done is cleared the camps that were the most visible…It was mostly a cosmetic affair.”

Real and lasting recovery cannot happen without genuine input from and accountability to those most affected.

The Power of People’s Movements

It was the Saturday evening before Sandy’s arrival in Haiti. In a tent camp in Port-au-Prince, a group of homeless earthquake survivors were chanting “No land! No house! No vote!” They had just finished viewing Dear Mandela, a documentary of the work of Abahlali BaseMjondolo –the largest movement of the poor to emerge in post-apartheid South Africa. The film’s audience was chanting the words an Abahlali activist and shackdweller, Mnikelo Ndabankulu, wrote on his ballot in South Africa’s 2009 elections during a scene in the documentary. Ndabankulu’s words resonated loudly with those living in Haiti’s tent camps, who had their own refrain in response to Haiti’s highly flawed elections in 2010-2011: “We will not vote while living under tents.” In both countries, poor peoples’ movements have emerged in response to their unfulfilled right to housing. Last week these movements came together, putting their hope on international solidarity among those most affected rather than political leaders who have betrayed them or private relief organizations who have ignored their voices.

We traveled to Port-au-Prince with Ndabankulu, fellow Abahlali activist Zodwa Nsibande, and the co-director of Dear Mandela, Dara Kell, to hold screenings of the film for Haitian activists and residents of Haiti’s tent camps. Like the Haitian Constitution, South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution enshrines the right to housing. However, despite Nelson Mandela’s promise of universal housing, the number of South African families living in shacks has doubled over the past 18 years. Shackdwellers realized that they would have to lead the struggle for housing. Thus, Abahlali was born.

Displaced Haitians have also realized the same. Nearly 400,000 people still live in camps notorious for their unsafe, unsanitary conditions nearly three years after the earthquake hit Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Many people have been made homeless anew through illegal evictions from even these “temporary” encampments. During the discussions after the film screenings, camp residents discussed their own burgeoning, collective struggle for housing rights. In starting their movement, they explained that they are responding not only to government failures, but also to an entrenched and inherently problematic model of aid delivered by international NGOs. Grassroots activist Jackson Doliscar, who works with the Housing Collective, a collective of Haitian organizations working together to fight for the right to housing, remarked, “Learning about how Abahlali advances the struggle [for housing] has shown us, here in Haiti, how we can strengthen our movement.”

Lessons in “Building Back Better”

A screening the following Monday evening took place in a sprawling camp home to 30,000 earthquake survivors. The camp sits on the land of the Acra family, one of Haiti’s wealthiest families, in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas. When we arrived, camp residents were excited to share the housing plan they had devised, tired of waiting for a plan from the Haitian Government and the international aid community. The camp leaders explained that the Martelly administration and mayors have offered people $500 to move out of camps, but the offer falls far short of what is needed to find sustainable housing. So the camp residents calculated that if they pooled that money together, assisted with construction, and paid into an income-based rent-to-own housing plan, they could construct an entire community, complete with permanent housing, a school, hospital, daycare center, and public park. They had planned a peaceful march to government offices to present their plan, eager to work with officials to re-develop their community, but the mayor stopped the march, stifling their efforts to “build back better.”

The international community, led by the United States government, has its own ideas of what it means for Haiti to “build back better.”

While we were screening Dear Mandela in Port-au-Prince’s tent camps, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton and a slew of celebrities such as Sean Penn, Ben Stiller and supermodel Petra Nemcova were in northern Haiti for the inauguration of the Caracol Industrial Park, a $300 million project. Controversy over the park, home to textile factories, abounds in Haiti particularly because of its displacement of small farmers and astoundingly low wages. The industrial park has been a priority of the U.S. State Department’s Haiti reconstruction agenda, with Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills making frequent trips to the area and the U.S. providing millions of dollars in subsidies. The Haitian government has also focused heavily on the project, providing the land free of charge and granting significant tax exemptions to the Korean textile company. Meanwhile, camp residents can’t even get a response on a concrete housing proposal they devised based on the real needs of those hardest hit by the quake, much less access to land from the government or capital to start businesses.

The need for solidarity, not charity or imposition of projects based on a failed sweatshop model, was the focus of the Dear Mandela events in Haiti. Ndabankulu and Nsibande emphasized a central principle of the Abahlali movement: “There will be nothing for us without us.” They explained that Abahlali refuses any purported assistance offered by big NGOs who seek to control rather than listen to Abahlali members. “People in Haiti must tell outsiders that they cannot come and take, but [they] can come and support [you] in the way [you] need support,” explained Ndabankulu to the residents of Camp Acra, “Because being poor in life does not mean you are poor in mind…It is you who knows the right answer [when it comes to the development of your country].”

Law and Protest as Tools for Change

A broad-based movement with a decentralized leadership structure and truly participatory decision-making process, Abahlali takes to the streets and the courts to make sure the voices of South Africa’s poor are heard. After watching a screening of the film at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a Haitian human rights law office, Sophony, an activist from the Haitian women’s group KOFAVIV, remarked, “What is really inspiring to me as a woman activist is that you use the law in your struggle. [Poor people] don’t realize they can use the law in their favor.”

Dual failures – governmental and private – demand a movement by and for the people in Haiti. “No land, no house, no vote” is not simply a boycott of a failed political process, but also a commitment to allowing those with the most at stake to set priorities and determine their own futures. Last week, as South Africans and Haitians traded stories, compared challenges, and found strength in each other’s successes, the hope of international solidarity based on principles of self-determination and inclusionary democracy spoke loud and clear. Given all the challenges facing Haiti’s poor from disasters both old and very new, we hope those rushing to Haiti’s aid (again) will listen. As Doliscar expressed, “We know the work is not easy, but together, we can advance in the struggle.”

Laura Raymond is Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Follow her on twitter @laurajraymond. Jeena Shah worked as a lawyer at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti from 2010-2011. She is currently working with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Do Private Military Contractors Have Impunity to Torture?

(Image: shriekingtree/flickr)
(image: shriekingtree/flickr)

Unbelievably, in 2011 this question has not yet been settled in the courts of the United States. Human rights attorneys are headed back to court in the coming month to argue that, yes, victims of war crimes and torture by contractors should have a path to justice. Attorneys from my organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights, along with co-counsel, are representing Iraqi civilians who were horribly tortured in Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq in seeking to hold accountable two private contractors for their violations of international, federal and state law.

By the military’s own internal investigations, private military contractors from the U.S.-based corporations L-3 Services and CACI International were involved in the war crimes and acts of torture that took place, which included rape, being forced to watch family members and others be raped, severe beatings, being hung in stress positions, being pulled across the floor by genitals, mock executions, and other incidents, many of which were documented by photographs. The cases, Al Shimari v. CACI and Al-Quraishi v. Nakhla and L-3 aim to secure a day in court for the plaintiffs, none of whom were ever charged with any crimes.

The Department of Justice has thus far failed to prosecute any of the contractors involved, so the only path currently available for any accountability is through these human rights lawsuits. However, after years of litigation, the allegations of torture by contractors in these cases have still never been seriously examined, much less ruled on, by the courts. None of the plaintiffs in any of these cases has yet to have his or her day in court to tell their account of what they suffered. The reason is because the private military contractors have raised numerous legal defenses– many of which the plaintiffs’ lawyers have argued are plainly inapplicable to private corporations–which have kept the cases from moving into the discovery phase, where the nature of the contractors obligations, actions and oversight, as well as what happened to the plaintiffs would be the examined in detail. So far, CACI and Titan/L-3 have focused the courts on any question but whether the plaintiffs were tortured. As CCR and co-counsel summarize the question in their brief in Al-Quraishi v. Nakhla and L-3:

Are corporate defendants entitled to categorical “law of war” immunity for their alleged torture and war crimes when such a proposed immunity runs counter to settled understandings of the law of war and centuries of Supreme Court precedent, and would give for-profit contractors more protection from suit than genuine members of the U.S. Armed Forces?

This week, CCR and co-counsel filed briefs that argue the cases must go forward. Additionally, yesterday a number of other human rights organizations along with a group of retired high-ranking military officers are filing supporting amicus briefs to add their voices to the chorus of concern over contractor impunity. The military officers’ brief argues that, “given that employees of civilian contractors indisputably are not subject to the military chain of command, and therefore cannot be disciplined or held accountable by the military, it makes little sense to extend to them such absolute tort law immunity for their misconduct.” [cont’d.] (more…)

Do Private Military Contractors Have Impunity to Torture?

(Image: shriekingtree/flickr)
(Image: shriekingtree/flickr)

Unbelievably, in 2011 this question has not yet been settled in the courts of the United States. Human rights attorneys are headed back to court in the coming month to argue that, yes, victims of war crimes and torture by contractors should have a path to justice. Attorneys from my organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights, along with co-counsel, are representing Iraqi civilians who were horribly tortured in Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq in seeking to hold accountable two private contractors for their violations of international, federal and state law. By the military’s own internal investigations, private military contractors from the U.S.-based corporations L-3 Services and CACI International were involved in the war crimes and acts of torture that took place, which included rape, being forced to watch family members and others be raped, severe beatings, being hung in stress positions, being pulled across the floor by genitals, mock executions, and other incidents, many of which were documented by photographs. The cases, Al Shimari v. CACI and Al-Quraishi v. Nakhla and L-3 aim to secure a day in court for the plaintiffs, none of whom were ever charged with any crimes.

The Department of Justice has thus far failed to prosecute any of the contractors involved, so the only path currently available for any accountability is through these human rights lawsuits. However, after years of litigation, the allegations of torture by contractors in these cases have still never been seriously examined, much less ruled on, by the courts. None of the plaintiffs in any of these cases has yet to have his or her day in court to tell their account of what they suffered. The reason is because the private military contractors have raised numerous legal defenses– many of which the plaintiffs’ lawyers have argued are plainly inapplicable to private corporations–which have kept the cases from moving into the discovery phase, where the nature of the contractors obligations, actions and oversight, as well as what happened to the plaintiffs would be the examined in detail. So far, CACI and Titan/L-3 have focused the courts on any question but whether the plaintiffs were tortured. As CCR and co-counsel summarize the question in their brief in Al-Quraishi v. Nakhla and L-3:

Are corporate defendants entitled to categorical “law of war” immunity for their alleged torture and war crimes when such a proposed immunity runs counter to settled understandings of the law of war and centuries of Supreme Court precedent, and would give for-profit contractors more protection from suit than genuine members of the U.S. Armed Forces?

This week, CCR and co-counsel filed briefs that argue the cases must go forward. Additionally, yesterday a number of other human rights organizations along with a group of retired high-ranking military officers are filing supporting amicus briefs to add their voices to the chorus of concern over contractor impunity. The military officers’ brief argues that, “given that employees of civilian contractors indisputably are not subject to the military chain of command, and therefore cannot be disciplined or held accountable by the military, it makes little sense to extend to them such absolute tort law immunity for their misconduct.” (more…)

Citing Total Impunity in Honduras, Human Rights Attorneys Push Forward Case Against Coup Regime Leader in U.S.

Silvia Mencías with a photograph of her son, Isis Obed Murillo

If there was one watershed moment after the military coup in Honduras, it was this. Just one week after the coup ousted and forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile at gunpoint, he attempted to return to his country by plane. A crowd of thousands peacefully gathered at Tegucigalpa’s airport on July 5, 2009 to welcome him back but his plane was prevented from landing by military tanks blocking the runway. The military placed sharpshooters on buildings above the crowd. Around the time that Zelaya’s plane came into sight, the military opened fire, and shot 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo in the head. Despite the efforts of fellow protestors to save him, he died before reaching the hospital.

This horrific story does not end there. Following Isis’ death, his family was subjected to extreme threats, harassment and surveillance by Honduran police and military. A police helicopter flew low above the Murillos’ home on multiple occasions with weapons drawn and on at least one occasion fliers were dropped threatening the family that what happened to Isis would happen to them. Family members also received similar death threats via text messages and phone calls. His sister was routinely followed to her work at a bank by someone who took her picture, to the point that she was fired. The family was forced to move out of their community to escape the constant threats and surveillance. At one point, when Isis’ father attempted to attend a remembrance for Isis that was taking place in Tegucigalpa, the police forced him off the public bus on its way to the capital, and he was unable to attend. No official investigation ever took place into the shooting of their son and brother.

Last night, attorneys at my organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a motion in a human rights case we brought on behalf of Isis’s family against the leader of the coup regime, Roberto Micheletti. The motion details the atmosphere of total impunity in Honduras for human rights violations committed since the coup and the systemic attacks on the resistance movement – and urges a U.S. court to allow the case to move forward here.  [cont’d.] (more…)

Citing Total Impunity in Honduras, Human Rights Attorneys Push Forward Case Against Coup Regime Leader in U.S.

If there was one watershed moment after the military coup in Honduras, it was this. Just one week after the coup ousted and forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile at gunpoint, he attempted to return to his country by plane. A crowd of thousands peacefully gathered at Tegucigalpa’s airport on July 5, 2009 to welcome him back but his plane was prevented from landing by military tanks blocking the runway. The military placed sharpshooters on buildings above the crowd. Around the time that Zelaya’s plane came into sight, the military opened fire, and shot 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo in the head. Despite the efforts of fellow protestors to save him, he died before reaching the hospital.

This horrific story does not end there. Following Isis’ death, his family was subjected to extreme threats, harassment and surveillance by Honduran police and military. A police helicopter flew low above the Murillos’ home on multiple occasions with weapons drawn and on at least one occasion fliers were dropped threatening the family that what happened to Isis would happen to them. Family members also received similar death threats via text messages and phone calls. His sister was routinely followed to her work at a bank by someone who took her picture, to the point that she was fired. The family was forced to move out of their community to escape the constant threats and surveillance. At one point, when Isis’ father attempted to attend a remembrance for Isis that was taking place in Tegucigalpa, the police forced him off the public bus on its way to the capital, and he was unable to attend. No official investigation ever took place into the shooting of their son and brother.

Last night, attorneys at my organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a motion in a human rights case we brought on behalf of Isis’s family against the leader of the coup regime, Roberto Micheletti. The motion details the atmosphere of total impunity in Honduras for human rights violations committed since the coup and the systemic attacks on the resistance movement – and urges a U.S. court to allow the case to move forward here.

Silvia Mencías with a photograph of her son, Isis Obed Murillo

Isis was among the first victims in what became a systematic, bloody attack on the resistance movement amidst a climate of brutal repression. For the first six months of this attack on the Honduran people, Roberto Micheletti Bain was the de facto head of state and as such exercised authority over the Honduran government, the military, and the Honduran National Police. He oversaw the militarization of Honduras through roadblocks throughout the country, and the use of the military to suppress public demonstrations and shut down media outlets. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in a report issued about the Honduran coup, noted that “security forces conducted thousands of unlawful and arbitrary detentions” and that because of prison conditions and disproportionate use of force on the resistance, “thousands of [people] were subjected to inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment and even torture.” Human rights prosecutors in the Attorney General of Honduras’s office have noted that under Micheletti, the military’s lack of cooperation with investigations into abuse was absolute and that Micheletti was responsible for a total failure to hold subordinates accountable for grave human rights abuses.

In June 2011, the Center for Constitutional Rights, in partnership with the Honduran-based Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH, Spanish: Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras), launched a human rights case in U.S. courts against Micheletti, specifically for the death of Isis Obed Murillo. The complaint also details the widespread repression against political opposition that took place under Micheletti. CCR is bringing the case under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a statute that gives non-U.S. citizens the right to file suits in U.S. courts for international human rights violations. The ATS provides a way to hold human rights abusers accountable when the country where the abuse took place is unable or unwilling to do so. The suit was filed in Texas because Micheletti owns properties in Texas, which CCR argues are substantial enough to give Texas courts jurisdiction over a case against Micheletti.

An ATS case in the United States is one of the few avenues for justice that the Murillos currently have. The very same individuals involved in the coup regime still hold power in Honduras, and attacks have continued under the government of Porfirio Lobo. No one has been held criminally liable for the scores of politically motivated killings and other human rights violations that took place under Micheletti. In fact, Micheletti’s own filings in CCR’s human rights lawsuit reveal the continuing barriers to accountability: his attorneys included a statement by a Special Prosecutor in Honduras asserting that Honduras does not hold Micheletti responsible for Isis Obed Murillo’s death, despite the lack of a full investigation. According to an expert declaration submitted by Human Rights Watch researcher Tamara Broner in support of the Murillos’ case, little to no progress has been made in investigating the violence that has taken place since the coup.

Despite the ongoing violence and human rights abuses in Honduras, the United States has been working in public and behind the scenes to normalize relations with the coup regime. This is 180 degrees from the U.S. government’s initial response. Another document filed by Micheletti in his motion to dismiss was a September 2011 letter from the U.S. embassy revoking his visa because of “the continued resistance of the de facto government to accept the San Jose Agreement and the continuous failure to restore the democratic and constitutional government in Honduras.” Yet now the State Department is reportedly willing to reinstate visas for Honduran officials who were involved in the coup.

The Obama Administration’s actions make clear that there is little interest in recognizing and supporting the Honduran peoples’ demand for accountability for the human rights atrocities that have taken place and continue to take place there. The U.S. has been the loudest voice in this hemisphere in support of the illegitimately elected President Porfiro Lobo and successfully lobbied the Organization of American States to recognize the Lobo government. Secretary Clinton made readmission a priority during her meetings with Latin American heads of state in the two years following the coup. In fact, just this past October, President Lobo said, “The United States is our most important foreign ally, it’s our strongest relationship.” And it’s no wonder, really—apart from all of its diplomatic and political support, the U.S. also provides funding to the Honduran military and police, who have been implicated in numerous grave human rights abuses, including assassinations, kidnappings, excessive use of force – including firing live ammunition on peaceful protestors – and, recently, the burning and bulldozing of nearly the entire town of Rigores this past summer.

The U.S. has a moral and legal responsibility to change course and support the brave and resilient movement for democracy in Honduras that is under attack. Our political system must immediately cut off all funding for Honduran police and military, who continue to abuse their power without consequence. And our court system must allow Alien Tort Statute claims to proceed in situations where justice is not possible in the country where the abuse took place. We hope our case will help bring justice where it has been denied.

Laura Raymond is Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights

The Obama Administration: on the Wrong Side of Torture . . . Again

The Obama administration has just recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court not hear a case brought by torture victims of Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq – a recommendation that leaves the Iraqi torture victims without any redress or accountability for those responsible for their torture. Through their case, Saleh v. Titan, these Iraqi civilians, many of whom still suffer from the effects of the physical and psychological harm done to them, seek to hold the two U.S. corporations implicated in their torture – CACI International and L-3 Services (formerly Titan Corporation) – accountable in a U.S. courthouse, and have their case heard by an American jury. These two corporations – military

contractors – provided translation and interrogation services in the detention centers where some of the most notorious acts of torture are known to have taken place. Investigations into the torture – including investigations by the military itself – have concluded that contractors from CACI and L-3 were involved in “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses.” The acts of torture at issue in this case include severe beatings, electrocution, threatening detainees with dogs, food and sleep deprivation, shackling in painful positions for hours, confining detainees in coffin-sized boxes, urinating on them, exposing them to extreme heat and cold, forcing them to watch the beating and rape of other prisoners, including their family members, threatening them with rape and execution, and raping and otherwise sexually assaulting and humiliating them.

Saleh v. Titan, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and private attorneys on behalf of the Iraqi torture victims, has been winding its way through U.S. courts since 2004. The legal team argued that the Supreme Court should hear the case because a 2009 decision by an appellate court gave corporate contractors more protections than U.S. soldiers enjoy and constituted judicial overreaching. A group of retired military officers filed an amicus brief in support of the torture victims, and urged the Supreme Court to hear the case because they were “deeply concerned about the rule emerging from this case: that persons engaging in shocking behavior that the U.S. military does not itself tolerate for its own members have broad impunity from accountability.”

At a time when the administration is rapidly increasing the presence of private military contractors in Iraq as they continue to draw down the troops, the lack of any justice for the multitude of serious human rights violations – including war crimes and torture – committed by contractors in Iraq is nothing short of outrageous. The acts committed at Abu Ghraib have been widely condemned and caused great outrage in the United States and around the world. The Department of Justice has failed to prosecute any of the contractors alleged to have been involved in the torture of detainees. And, so far, civil cases such as Saleh v. Titan have not succeeded in securing a day in court, let alone compensation, for the victims.

Although the Obama administration recognized that there were serious flaws in the appellate court’s reasoning for dismissing the case, it argues that the Supreme Court should not use its limited time and resources on reviewing the dismissal of the Abu Ghraib case. In so doing, the Obama administration has effectively turned its back on the Iraqi civilians who were so mercilessly tortured in American detention centers by American soldiers and American contractors. At the same time, it has not pursued criminal charges against the vast majority of contractors accused of human rights abuses, including CACI and L-3 Services/Titan. Nor has it closed the many legal loopholes that add up to impunity for private military contractors. Congress’ own Commission on Wartime Contracting noted in a February 2011 report that “enforcement policies and controls fail to ensure contractor accountability” and that “the United States has come to over-rely on contractors.” Yet the U.S. government continues to contract out more and more functions formerly performed by troops to private corporations. The Obama administration has no plan in place for how past or future human rights violations by contractors will be handled, and instead undermines efforts by survivors of these violations to seek judicial review.

The Supreme Court can still grant the torture victims’ petition, and hear their case. In the coming months, we will know whether seven years after the torture survivors began their quest for justice and accountability, they will finally have their day in court – despite efforts by the Obama administration to keep them out.

Laura Raymond is an International Human Rights Associate at the Center for Constitutional Rights.