In Human Rights News: Keystone Pipeline Southern Section Opens, Special Rapporteur Visits Leonard Peltier, the Aging Prison Population, and More

In Human Rights News: January 18 – 24, 2014

In this week’s human rights news we find topics related to environmental rights, political prisoners, prisoners’ rights, the death penalty, the school-to-prison pipeline, NSA surveillance, worldwide inequality, sexual rights, and poverty.

KEYSTONE PIPELINE SOUTHERN SECTION OPENS. TransCanada began shipping crude oil through the southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline on Wednesday. The corporation has been testing the pipeline's southern portion, now called the Gulfcoast Pipeline, in recent weeks. Just last week, TransCanada was making holes and adjustments in Texas, telling one landowner that it was fitting temperature gauges on a section of the pipeline. Environmental justice advocates against the $5.3 billion project are still fighting the pipeline. There is currently a lawsuit in Nebraska and another in Texas, where advocates have appealed to the state Supreme Court. Coinciding with the opening of the Gulfcoast Pipeline, Texas landowners launched Texas Pipeline Watch, a new oversight network to ensure fast detection of any leaks or other problems. They have expressed concern over potential flaws in the pipeline, saying that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration lacks a sufficient number of inspectors. The administration informed TransCanada in September that it found dents in the line and that the company had failed to use appropriately qualified welders. "We're going to be watching these things," said Julia Trigg Crawford, a landowner in north Texas who has been fighting the pipeline in state courts. "We'll be taking measurements and testing water. Usually their fancy-schmancy detection systems are not what discover leaks. It's ordinary people. This is like a giant neighborhood watch." Read more at the Washington Post.

SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES VISITS LEONARD PELTIER. On Friday, James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, visited American Indian Movement member Leonard Peltier in prison. Indian Country Today's Gale Courey Toensing writes that this historic visit is expected to enhance the rising movement to free Peltier, an American Indian activist believed by Amnesty International and other organizations to be a political prisoner. Peltier, Turtle Mountain Ojibway, is serving his 37th year in a U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida in what is widely viewed as a wrongful conviction. He was charged with the murders of two FBI agents in 1975 and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in 1977. While Peltier says he was present for the incident, he has always denied shooting the agents. The defense team later uncovered forensic evidence to exonerate Peltier during a post-trial investigation, but the government contested the evidence at a hearing. On appeal, the government also claimed that the jury had received sufficient evidence during the trial to demonstrate that Peltier had "aided and abetted" the killings even if he had not been the actual shooter. Since then, the U.S. courts have acknowledged government misconduct, including covering up ballistics evidence and forcing witnesses to lie. However, Peltier was denied a new trial on a legal technicality. Peter Clark, Chapter Coordinator of the newly formed International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee also attended the meeting with the Special Rapporteur on Friday. "Americans can no longer afford to tolerate this miscarriage of justice and we shall make every effort to bring those judicial violations to the attention of all Americans, as well as internationally," he said. Read more at Indian Country Today.

THE AGING PRISON POPULATION. TruthOut released an article this week about the growing numbers of elderly people behind bars and what some state and federal prison systems are doing about it. The United States presently incarcerates about 125,000 people age 55 or older, quadruple the amount in 1995. Human rights groups such as the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Vera Institute of Justice have issued warnings about the rising number of aging and incapacitated people in jails and prisons. To respond to these increases, several states, including Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, are currently building hospice and geriatric units inside their prison systems. Advocates and lawmakers in some parts of the country, however, are turning to other alternatives. Advocates (including formerly incarcerated people) in New York have launched the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, which operates under the slogan, "If the risk is low, let them go." One of the campaign's first initiatives has been a public education campaign. "A lot of activities going on with parole are so outrageous, but [parole board members] get away with it because the public doesn't know," said lead organizer Mujahid Farid. Prisoner rights advocates are not the only ones pushing for more compassionate treatment toward elderly prisoners. Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 giving the state's Department of Corrections commissioner the discretion to release severely incapacitated prisoners for "palliative and end-of-life" care. Read more at TruthOut.

TEXAS EXECUTES EDGAR TAMAYO. Wednesday night, the state of Texas executed Edgar Arias Tamayo, a 46-year-old Mexican national. Tamayo's case shares parallels with those of other immigrants on death row: His case was handled by a court-appointed trial lawyer who failed to convey information that might have changed his sentencing, such as abuse he experienced during childhood and developmental problems caused by a traumatic brain injury Tamayo suffered at the age of 17. A psychologist said in 2009 that Tamayo had "mild mental retardation," potentially making his execution unconstitutional. Civil rights advocates have called the execution a clear violation of the United State's international obligations. In 2004, the United Nations International Court of Justice urged the U.S. to review the death sentences of Tamayo and 50 other Mexicans as violations of the Vienna Convention, but the Supreme Court ruled four years later that Texas is not required to comply with the international court unless federal law dictates the state to do so. In a statement released by the ACLU, Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU Human Rights Program, blames "a deadly combination of a blood-thirsty state and a stalled Congress." The U.S. Government has ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  The application of the death penalty is a human rights violation, and should be abolished. Read more here at Al Jazeera and here at the ACLU Blog of Rights.

NORTH CAROLINA AND THE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE. This week, Legal Aid of North Carolina filed a complaint with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division that alleges "over-reliance on unregulated school policing practices, often in response to minor infractions of school rules," in North Carolina. The complaint states that those policies regularly violate "students' educational and constitutional rights, as well as protections for students with disabilities and for African-American students against unlawful discrimination." The complaint is part of a pushback from child advocates after seeing the way the Raleigh Police Department handled a massive water balloon fight that broke out last May at Enloe High School in Wake County. After 24 police officers were dispatched to restore order, eight Enloe students, all 16 or 17 years old, were arrested. Being arrested as a teenager has larger consequences in North Carolina than in most parts of the country. It is one of two states that classifies 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when charged with a criminal offense and then denies them the opportunity to appeal for return to the juvenile system. Jason Langberg, the supervising attorney of Advocates for Children's Services (a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina), said that Wake County has one of the biggest school-to-prison pipelines in the country. Much of that results from the county also having one of the highest long-term suspension rates in the U.S. According to his analysis of discipline data, black students in Wake County get suspended five times more frequently than white students. "We see differences in disability, race, class," he said. "Students doing the exact same things are often treated differently." Read more at Al Jazeera.

QUESTIONABLE CLAIMS ON NSA SURVEILLANCE. ProPublica posted an article this week that discusses four "misleading assertions" that President Obama has made about NSA surveillance that have failed to stand up to scrutiny. The President said in December, "there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data," but the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has castigated the NSA for violations both in warrantless surveillance targeting persons abroad, and in massive collections of domestic phone records. In response to the President's claim that at least 50 terrorist threats have been averted because of NSA surveillance, the article's author, Kara Brandeisky, argues that it is impossible to determine the role of the NSA in these cases because the list of thwarted attacks is classified. Despite the claim that federal court oversight and Congressional oversight ensure that there is no spying on Americans, the government has phone records for most Americans and the NSA has collected tens of thousands of domestic emails and other communications. Finally, the President's statement that Edward Snowden failed to take advantage of whistleblower protections does not, in fact, apply to Snowden, who was a contractor. The protections to which the President was referring apply to employees but not contractors. Read the full article at ProPublica.

WORLDWIDE INEQUALITY. Freelance writer Graham Peebles posted an article this week on Redress Information and Analysis about the staggering problem of worldwide inequality. The disparity between the wealthy few and the billions mired in oppressive poverty is larger than ever. According to a Global Issues report, nearly half of the world's people (over 3.5 billion) live on less than $2.50 in U.S. currency per day, and 80 percent live on less than $10 a day. Peebles ties the beginning of the current trend to the "combined doctrinal political idealism" of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During their time in power, income taxes were lowered for high earners, the financial sector was deregulated, and trade unions were broken. A crucial outcome of wealth and income inequality is the acutely unequal use and distribution of water, food, minerals, information, technology, and skills. For example, the United States, which contains only 5 percent of the world's population, uses 30 percent of its natural resources. Many of these resources come from poor developing countries whose people benefit little or not at all from their extraction and sale. Despite the bleak analysis, Peebles closes the article with hope for a future in which basic rights and needs are met globally. "A more just and humane model of development, based on equitable distribution of the world's resources, is a viable alternative whose time has come." Read the whole article at Redress Information and Analysis.

OPINION PIECES. Lawyer and Feministe writer Jill Filipovic posted an op-ed on Al Jazeera this week on how making sex work legal and safe requires improved enforcement and a deeper understanding of inequity in the sex work industry. Part of the issue, she posits, is the not always clear line between voluntary sex worker and trafficking victim. "The reality of sex work is far more varied than its typical portrayals in the media would suggest, and the women who sell sex are not simply witless victims on the one hand or heartless mercenaries on the other." After discussing examples of prostitution laws in Canada and Sweden, Filipovic concludes that despite her philosophical objections, she thinks "people absolutely must have the right to sell sexual services without fearing abuse, incarceration, marginalization or stigma." Read the full article at Al Jazeera. Last Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, writer Joan Walsh published an op-ed on Salon titled, "The radical MLK we need today." She argues that King, like the late Nelson Mandela, was "deradicalized, pasteurized and homogenized, made safe for mass consumption." Rarely mentioned is the man who became something of an outcast toward the end of his life for his role in starting a Poor People's Campaign and his critiques of capitalism. Walsh writes, "Rather than remembering King solely as a civil rights leader, we must reclaim him as a radical advocate of economic justice, looking to lead a multiracial movement of poor people to complete the unfinished business of the civil rights movement." Read the full article at Salon.



in human rights news, Keystone Pipeline, Edgar Tamayo, leonard peltier, school-to-prison pipeline, sex worker rights, poverty, NSA, worldwide inequality