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Young artists share their vision for a world without the death penalty

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Masongezi, a student from the DRC, with his poster. It reads “No to the death penalty”.

Today, October 10, is the World Day Against the Death Penalty.   I am thinking back to a conference I attended in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, just a few weeks ago, on strategies for abolishing the death penalty. The conference, in partnership with Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM), included two full days of presentations, discussions, and exhibitions. ECPM invited me to lead workshops on the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review and on conducting fact-finding to document conditions on death row in the DRC.

I found one part of the conference to be particularly powerful. As part of ECPM’s “Draw Me the Abolition” project, students around the world submitted illustrations of their conceptions of the death penalty. Four Congolese finalists were awarded diplomas at the conference and we were able to see all of the winning artwork on display. Their illustrations serve as a powerful testament to the harsh realities of the death penalty.

Below are some of the Congolese finalists and their extraordinary artwork, along with other winning posters. The illustrations, rife with pain, are indicative of the injustice of the death penalty.

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Mr. Nicolas Perron, Program Director of the ECPM, presents a diploma to one of the artists.

 

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Artwork on display by students from the DRC. “Non a la piene de mort” translates to “No to the death penalty”.

 

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A visual representation of the five countries with the largest number of executions in 2016. China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States topped the list.
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“The death penalty- a suffering for the family of the condemned.” This image depicts the ripple effect the death penalty has upon the people close to those executed.
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Mbuyi, a student from the DRC, with his artwork.
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Monungu, from the DRC, displays his poster which translates to “Why kill? No! To the death penalty”.
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“Together to cut the ropes and the death penalty” drawn by a Tunisian student.
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Artwork on display by Pakistani students.
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Posters by German finalists.
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Artwork by Mexican and Taiwanese students. The red poster reads, “We are not the god of death, we should not deprive people’s lives.”
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French student artwork. The second poster from the left reads, “To execute is to break a family.” The second poster from the right reads, “In 12 countries of the world, people are executed for homosexuality.”

Take action

  • Which posters do you find most compelling? Share this blog post to spread the word
  • Attend the upcoming screening of The Penalty at the Twin Cities Film Fest (Wednesday, Oct. 25, 7:20 pm) and stay for the post-film discussion, including The Advocates’ Executive Director Robin Phillips
  • Follow The Advocates for Human Rights and The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty on social media
  • Share why you oppose the death penalty on social media, using the hashtag #NoDeathPenalty
  • Organize an event in your community
  • Write to a prisoner on death row
  • Call on the federal government to impose a moratorium on the use of the death penalty
  • If you live in a state that still has the death penalty, call on your elected officials to end the death penalty and call on prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty

By Amy Bergquist, The Advocates’ International Justice Program staff attorney.

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Abolishing the Death Penalty: in Memory of John Thompson

By Amy Bergquist

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“Very sad news,” the subject line read. One week ago today, Elizabeth Zitrin, the former president of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, emailed me to let me know that John Thompson had died.

October 10 is the fifteenth World Day Against the Death Penalty, and it’s an appropriate occasion to reflect on John’s life and the “deadly mix” of poverty and justice.

Connick v. Thompson: John Thompson’s case goes to the Supreme Court

I first learned about John’s extraordinary life in 2010, when I was a law clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Supreme Court clerks see a lot of death penalty cases, and usually they are gut wrenching last-minute appeals before a person is executed. But John’s was different. He was indisputably an exoneree—he spent 18 years in prison—14 of them on death row—before being released on account of what my local newspaper’s obituary quaintly refers to as “evidentiary problems.” Prosecutors, violating John’s constitutional right to a fair trial, had suppressed evidence proving his innocence.

John sued the district attorney’s office, then headed by Harry Connick, Sr., and the jury awarded him $14 million—one million dollars for every year he spent on death row. The conservative-leaning U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the jury award, concluding that Thompson had proven that Connick was deliberately indifferent to the obvious need to train prosecutors on their duties to disclose evidence.

The Supreme Court, split 5-4, took away the jury’s verdict. The majority asserted that John’s case involved only a “single incident” of prosecutor misconduct, even though multiple attorneys had played a role in the suppression of multiple pieces of evidence. And because it was a “single incident,” Connick’s failure to train his prosecutors on evidence disclosure did not rise to the level of “deliberate indifference” to Thompson’s constitutional rights because those constitutional violations were not an obvious consequence of Connick’s failure to train.

Justice Ginsburg authored the dissent, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. As she does once or twice a term, when she feels particularly strongly about a case, she summarized her dissent from the bench. She wrote that the constitutional violations in John’s case “were not singular and they were not aberrational. They were just what one would expect given the attitude toward [evidentiary disclosure] pervasive in the District Attorney’s Office. Thompson demonstrated that no fewer than five prosecutors . . . disregarded his [constitutional] rights. He established that they kept from him, year upon year, evidence vital to his defense. Their conduct . . . was a foreseeable consequence of lax training in, and absence of monitoring of, a legal requirement fundamental to a fair trial.”

He needed no introduction

In June, I was in Washington DC for the biannual meeting of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and the organizers had prepared an ice-breaker activity to encourage Coalition members to get to know each other. John Thompson was attending as a member of the Board of Directors of Witness to Innocence, another member of the Coalition. As part of the ice-breaker, as fate would have it, John’s task was to find me and introduce himself.

He needed no introduction. It’s a rare occasion for a former Supreme Court clerk to meet a litigant whose case had been before the Court during her clerkship, particularly a case so memorable that, on the day the majority handed down its opinion stripping John of his jury award, Justice Ginsburg had donned her “dissenting collar” and dissented from the bench.

I apologized to John that his case hadn’t come out in his favor. John just shook his head and shared my disappointment for a moment, but then he was ready to move on. We talked about Witness to Innocence and The Advocates, and out of our conversation bubbled up the idea of reaching out to jurors who had sentenced people to death who had later been exonerated. John wondered whether the jurors in his case even knew he had been exonerated, and how such information would make them feel, having found him guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Resurrection After Exoneration

What struck me most about John was his resilience. He was arrested in 1984 at the age of 22, and released only in 2003, at the age of 41. He had survived six execution dates, but during his time in prison he missed the opportunity to watch his two children grow up, was denied the chance to go to college or start a career, and even missed out on such mundane things as learning to use email.

Yet upon release, John hit the ground running. He founded an organization called Resurrection After Exoneration. As he explained:

Exonerated prisoners (exonerees) and returning long-term prisoners re-enter the free world with high hopes of a fresh start but are soon trapped in the cycle of poverty and disillusionment that led to their original imprisonment. To enable us to break this cycle, I will create for us a positive understanding of life’s potential and for society an understanding that recidivism (even by exonerees) is caused by lack of opportunity. If returning prisoners succeed, the whole community benefits.

Returning prisoners are people stripped of self-sufficiency, control and autonomy. In response, I came up with the idea of an exoneree-run re-entry program: Resurrection After Exoneration. The program has been designed to empower us to regain these attributes by creating an opportunity to rise up as individuals and say “I can do this”, rather than having someone else tell us “You must do this.”

John used his facebook page to share joy and love. In addition to proud photos of his grandchildren, he shared videos of “incredible stories” and affirmations to “stay strong!”

2017WorldDayPosterENPoverty and justice: A deadly mix

John’s observation that “poverty and disillusionment” had led to wrongful convictions, and were often waiting at the prison gate after exonerees’ release, highlights the saliency of the theme of this year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty, Poverty and Justice: A Deadly Mix. The Equal Justice Initiative estimates that 95% of all people on death row in the United States come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

How did John even become a suspect in the crimes he did not commit? As a 22-year-old self-described “small-time weed dealer” trying to support his two children, he bought a ring and a gun from the murderer, not knowing that the ring was the victim’s and the gun was the murder weapon. His public defender didn’t press prosecutors when the blood sample that would later prove John’s innocence was not in the evidence locker when he went to inspect the evidence before trial.

Proving John’s innocence wasn’t cheap. The pro bono team that had taken on John’s case had run out of options, and at the 11th hour they decided to hire a private investigator to dig through some microfiche. That private investigator uncovered the blood evidence that prosecutors had concealed.

It’s likely that a suspect with ample financial resources never would have been tried, much less convicted and held on death row for 14 years, with a similar set of facts and evidence.

A worldwide problem

People from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds around the world are more vulnerable to be sentenced to death than others. A recent study conducted by the National Law University of New Delhi found that 74% of people sentenced to death in India are from economically vulnerable backgrounds. A study in Nigeria found that the overwhelming majority of people on that country’s death row are economically disadvantaged.

The World Coalition has identified many factors that illustrate the injustices people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds face in death penalty cases around the world:

  1. Unequal access to education and information. People living in poverty often lack a formal educational background that would enable them to understand and participate fully in legal proceedings initiated against them, and that would empower them to assert their rights under the law.
  2. Bail and pretrial release. A person who obtains pretrial release is better able to prepare a defense, yet people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds often cannot afford bail to secure their release.
  3. Access to counsel. In India, for example, 89% of prisoners sentenced to death did not have legal representation before their first magistrate hearing, even though the law entitles them to such representation.
  4. Effectiveness of legal counsel. In many jurisdictions, the legal counsel the state provides to indigent defendants is less effective than the legal counsel that more affluent defendants can hire. These state-appointed attorneys may be less experienced, underpaid, and overworked. As Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the NGO Reprieve, put it, “The death penalty is not for the worst criminal, it’s for the person with the worst lawyer.”
  5. Cost of building a strong defense. In Nigeria, for example, if a suspect is not able to pay for gasoline, the police will not travel to see witnesses to assess the suspect’s alibis. Expert witnesses and witnesses to rebut the state’s evidence can also be costly.
  6. Bias and discrimination. Whether the sentence is pronounced by a judge or a jury, finders of fact often harbor explicit or implicit biases against people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
  7. Corruption. In many countries where corruption is prevalent, a defendant must pay bribes to have petitions heard or even to meet with counsel. In Nigeria, police often release a suspect in exchange for payment. Colleagues in Malaysia tell me that even though the law requires prosecutors to disclose evidence to the defense, they often fail to do so and face no legal consequences.
  8. Conditions on death row. The conditions of detention on death row often depend on the financial resources of the convicted person. In some countries, a prisoner without access to financial resources may have difficulty accessing health care or quality food.
  9. Family. Being charged with a death-eligible crime and sentenced to death can place a heavy financial toll on the person’s family. Family members often sacrifice every available resource to assist with the person’s defense, driving the family further into poverty.

In memory of John Thompson, I would add to this list that exonerees are often deprived of compensation that would help them rebuild their lives. In a 2013 I attended a powerful meeting of Journey of Hope . . . From Violence to Healing, where I learned that in many states, prisoners sentenced to death are not eligible to participate in prison education and vocational training, because such programs are “not consistent with their sentence.” And as John noted, in many states exonerees aren’t even eligible for the job training programs that parolees get, because exonerees aren’t on parole.

Take action

John Thompson was one of the lucky ones. The Supreme Court stripped him of the jury’s $14 million award, but he persisted, using his 14 years of freedom to make the world a better place by fighting for criminal justice reform, for accountability for prosecutorial misconduct, and for much-needed services to assist exonerees.

You can make a difference, too. The goal of World Day 2017 is to raise public awareness of the reasons people living in poverty are at greater risk of the death penalty. Here are some things you can do:

  • Share this post with your family and friends
  • Attend the upcoming screening of The Penalty at the Twin Cities Film Fest (Wednesday, Oct. 25, 7:20 pm) and stay for the post-film discussion, including The Advocates’ Executive Director Robin Phillips
  • Read John Thompson’s op-ed called “The Prosecution Rests, but I Can’t,” published soon after the Supreme Court’s decision in his case
  • Follow The Advocates for Human Rights and The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty on social media
  • Share why you oppose the death penalty on social media, using the hashtag #NoDeathPenalty
  • Organize an event in your community
  • Write to a prisoner on death row
  • Call on the federal government to impose a moratorium on the use of the death penalty
  • If you live in a state that still has the death penalty, call on your elected officials to end the death penalty and call on prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty

Amy Bergquist is a staff attorney in The Advocates’ International Justice Program.Amy and John Thompson

 

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Preparing a Minor for an Asylum Interview: Five Challenges

Editor’s Note: The Advocates for Human Rights works with hundreds of refugees seeking asylum. In this post, Courtnie Gore, the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow in our Refugee and Immigrant Program, reflects on five challenges and tips she has learned in her first year of working with 34 clients who are unaccompanied minors.

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Drawings by children represented by legal fellow Courtnie Gore
  1. Establishing trust. In a first meeting with a child, I have to remember that this child has met a lot of “me’s.” That is to say, they have sat across a table from a stranger who asks very invasive questions. They are scared and don’t trust me. So, my initial approach is just to relate to them. I ask them to draw a picture of their home in the country they came from. This allows the child not to think about the painful circumstances that brought them into my office. I have them describe everything in the picture. They beam up with pride when they talk about the fruit  in front of their house, their neighbors, or pets they’ve left behind. From that point on, we can talk more about their time in their home country–the good,  the bad, and the persecution.
  2. Understanding their immediate situation. While the child needs to be able to share their story with us, we also have to realize there’s a lot they might lack in their day-to-day lives. It’s important to understand what is going on in their current home and whether their basic needs are being met. Unaccompanied minors often have a strong sense of loyalty to whomever takes them into their home here in the U.S. Thus, they may be hesitant to share details that would paint a relative or guardian in a bad light. Some undocumented guardians mCat drawingay have concerns about going to court or taking the minor to get his or her fingerprints taken. It’s important to address these concerns so you and the client can focus on the case.
  3. Listening deeply. A child doesn’t tell a linear story. That means we have to do a lot of piecing the puzzle together. A child may tell you their relative raped them. What they won’t tell you is that their grandmother often left them alone with the uncle, who is a known drunk and abuser. It’s important to confirm events and put the stories in chronological order. Putting all the pieces of the puzzle together is essential.
  4. Practicing for the asylum interview. This is one of the most challenging parts of the interview prep process. The asylum interview is a whole different ballgame–it’s like starting at square one. The child will be sitting across the desk from yet another stranger. At that point we have to make sure they are not vague, shy, or prone to retract back to how they were when they first came to our office. We have to prepare the child-client for the worst. Asylum officers have asked questions like, “Did your parents pay for you to come here?” to “Why didn’t you live with another relative?” in domestic abuse cases. You have to prepare the child for whatever might come.
  5. Coming to closure. The asylum interview could possibly be the last time you see a client. Some clients are okay with that. However, some are left feeling extremely vulnerable. It is important to follow up with them to see what additional referrals or needs they might have, such as medical attention, therapy, or other resources.

In September, I was thrilled to learn that my first client, an 11-year-old boy from Guatemala, was granted asylum. That day, I discovered that representing unaccompanied minors is as rewarding as it is challenging.

By Courtnie Gore, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at The Advocates for Human Rights

House drawing

My Domestic Violence Monitoring Mission to Montenegro

FeaturedMy Domestic Violence Monitoring Mission to Montenegro

By Angela Liu, Dechert LLP

“Domestic violence is a “style of communication between the parties.”  It is the “victim’s choice . . . to be communicated to her with violence.”

My jaw dropped.

I then quickly pulled myself together from a momentary state of shock as I listened to a mediator in Montenegro matter-of-factly explain his thoughts on domestic violence. By this point in our mission, I kept thinking that I would get used to the way our interviewees spoke about domestic violence. After all, we had spent an intense week in six cities throughout the country — from the Albanian border to the Serbian border — interviewing members of Parliament, judges, prosecutors, police, social workers, doctors, and even the victims themselves. But in each interview, like in this one with the mediator, I always learned something new.

As a white collar and securities litigator at Dechert LLP, an international law firm, I joined the monitoring mission with The Advocates for Human Rights to Montenegro, having never done any domestic violence work, let alone traveled to the Balkans. But I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity when our firm committed its resources to pursue the monitoring mission in Montenegro in 2015, a country that was a part of the former Yugoslavia and gained its independence in 2006.

Having the honor of learning from Rosalyn Park and Amy Bergquist, two impressive Advocates attorneys at the forefront of the human rights movement, we paired up in teams and started each day early in the morning traveling to a new city so that we could begin interviewing around 9 a.m. Our days were packed with organized interviews that very rapidly revealed that domestic violence was not only a widespread problem in Montenegro – it was also a very private one. I was struck how I took for granted our comparably victim-centered laws, practices, and education, as I heard story after story about how keeping the family together – as opposed to keeping the victims safe – came first. I witnessed the defense and excusal of offenders as interviewees pushed back about depriving offenders their rights: “where will the offender go if evicted?” was a reoccurring theme. In interview after interview, I heard about the lack of coherent coordination and adequate resources. And for the first time, as an associate, I viscerally understood why the rule of law and even how our physical courtroom is set up is so important – something I take for granted every day here in the U.S.

What impressed me the most about Montenegro wasn’t just the rugged mountains that explained why the country is called “Black Mountain,” nor was it the coastline that looked like it was straight out of movie. What impressed me the most was undoubtedly the resiliency and strength of the victims of domestic violence. I had the opportunity to interview one such victim who showed me photographs of bruises all over her body that were submitted to the court. She so bravely explained how she came up against road block after road block with every institutional response and is currently mired in multiple court proceedings to tell her side of the story. I saw victims weaving beautiful rugs at a women’s shelter as they heroically learned a new skill to have some form of economic independence. And as we stayed in that same shelter one night, I was moved by the incredibly strong women that are fighting every day with limited resources to help these victims. Our partners Natasa Medjedovic at SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence – Niksic and Maya Raicevic at Women’s Rights Center were examples of such strength, who challenged the seemingly accepted notion that “just being a patriarchal society” is an adequate response to the problems these victims face.

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Pictured above: Angela Liu, Megan Walsh, Maja Raicevic, Rosalyn Park, Milica Milic, Natasha Medjedovic, Tamara Radusinovic, and Amy Bergquist.

This trip, however, could not have been made possible for me without the support from my firm to which I am very grateful, and I would encourage other firms to continue their support as well. What I took away from the pro bono experience was how just taking the time and honing your own fact finding and deposition skills can impact the laws and practices of an entire country in a tangible way. It’s hard not to fall in love with a profession when you get to practice and develop your skills, let alone in a context where you’re seeing prosecutors, police, and doctors begin to consider using particular laws or protocols while being interviewed; or members of Parliament, judges, and even the victims ask for advice or more training to make their country better.

After two years of work, the 200+ page report based on our mission is now finished. It shines a light on the laws and practices in Montenegro, which will be helpful in advocacy in the country and at the United Nations. I also hope that one day domestic violence will never be known as a chosen style of communication in Montenegro.

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Nevertheless, She Persisted

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Photo credit: Kaia Kegley

In Homer’s epic poem  The Odyssey, Telemachus instructs his mother Penelope:

“Go back to your quarters… Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all, for mine is the power in the household.”  

The role of women in society has clearly progressed since the days of Homer.  Indeed, women now comprise 20% of the seats in the US Congress – holding 21 seats in the US Senate and 84 seats in the House of Representatives.    Given this progress, you would hope that the days of men trying to publicly silence would be over.  You would especially hope that the efforts to silence women wouldn’t happen in the US Senate to powerful and accomplished women like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.  You would hope that these women would be allowed to speak – and not be subjected to different standards than their male peers.  But, that is not what happened earlier this year.  It is bad enough when ordinary women are silenced – but, the efforts to silence these powerful women sends a troubling message to the girls of my generation.

In  February 2017, by a vote of 49 to 43, Senate Republicans voted to formally silence Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, during the debate over Jeff Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General.  Senator Warren had tried to read into the record a letter written by Coretta Scott King objecting to President Reagan’s nomination of Sessions to the federal courts back in 1986.  In her letter, King said that Sessions used “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”   Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell  said that Warren had “impugned the motives and conduct  of our colleague from Alabama.”

Senator McConnell then invoked Senate Rule 19 – a  Senate rule that allows the presiding officer to enforce standards of decorum on the Senate floor (“No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words  impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator”) – to stop Senator Warren from speaking.  He then famously said:

“She was warned.  She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

What stands out about Senator McConnell’s  efforts is the rule used to silence Senator Warren has rarely been invoked since its creation was prompted in 1902 after a fistfight erupted on the Senate floor.  It is hard to imagine that Senator Warren’s comments were more egregious than words spoken by men on the Senate floor over the years.  Was it worse than when in 2015 Senator Ted Cruz accused Senator McConnell of lying?  In fact, Bernie Sanders, only a few hours later, read the same letter and was able to finish without interruption.

In early June, two senators interrupted Senator Kamala Harris while she was in the midst of questioning Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein with respect to the independence that would be given to Special Counsel Mueller.  She had limited time – and was seeking a yes or no answer to what she thought was a straightforward question.   She was interrupted for not providing the witness with the “courtesy” for all questions to be answered.  As the former Attorney General of California, Senator Harris is an experienced litigator.  Some observers have argued that she was held to a different standard then many using the same questioning techniques.

This kind of silencing has not just happened to American politicians.  Back in 2011 in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron, told Angela Eagle, a Member of Parliament to “calm down dear”  as she was trying to make a point during a debate in the House of Commons.   Attacking Mr. Cameron’s “patronizing and outdated attitude to women,”  MP Harriet Harman noted:  “Women in Britain in the 21st century do not expect to be told to ‘calm down dear’ by their prime minister.”

The good news  is that, unlike in the times of Homer, the silencing of these women politicians has not gone unnoticed.  Even girls my age are taken aback at what we see as men applying different standards to women.   However, we are even more heartened by the reaction as people across the country spoke up noting the inequality.  Plus, we are heartened by the fact that neither Senator Warren nor Senator Harris wilted at their silencing.  They just continued to speak up using other channels.

The other day I saw a baby onesie with the phrase “Nevertheless,  She Persisted” emblazoned on the front.  Senator McConnell’s words have become a rallying cry for women and even baby girls.  I wonder if Senator McConnell wishes he had just let Senator Warren speak.

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman.  Jenna is a high school  student in Washington, D.C. 

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Welcome Home Blog Series: Oromos organize and build bridges to hold Ethiopia accountable for human rights abuses

This is the third in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. Read additional posts here.

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Samuel Berhanu, one of the founders of the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church and United Oromo Voice

 Minnesota is home to not only the largest Oromo community in the United States, but also the largest population of Oromo people outside of Ethiopia. The Oromo people have arrived in Minnesota over the past 30 years as a direct result of political persecution and other human rights abuses in Ethiopia.  Across the diaspora, Oromos continue to actively engage with the politics of their country of origin and encourage the governments of their adopted countries, including the United States, to apply pressure on Ethiopia to improve its human rights record.

 

One such organization is the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church in Minneapolis, founded in part by Oromo diaspora member Samuel Berhanu. Samuel and others in his organization are dedicated to introducing Minnesotans to the Oromo people and educating them about the human rights violations Oromos experience at the hands of the Ethiopian government.

History of Persecution by the Ethiopian Government

Despite being the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo people face discrimination based on their ethnicity as well as their real or perceived political opinion. Reports from civil society in Ethiopia reveal the government’s alarming disregard for civil and political rights. These reports include accounts of extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, detention without formal charges, prolonged incommunicado detention, inhumane detention conditions, surveillance of government critics, and pressure on the judiciary to rule in the government’s favor. The government’s repressive tactics have stifled political dissent, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and weakened civil society. [The Advocates for Human Rights documented these human rights abuses in the report Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora, as well as in reports submitted to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child; the UN Committee on the Rights of Persona with Disabilities; and the UN Human Rights Council.

Western States have largely overlooked the plight of the Oromo, instead supporting the Ethiopian government, which is dominated by one ethnic minority group. Since 1991, the United States has identified Ethiopia as an ally in the Horn of Africa and an ally in the war on terror. Samuel explains that, with the largely Muslim populations in neighboring Somalia and Sudan, the United States considers Ethiopia a stabilizing force within the region. Western leaders then use this designation to justify the financial and military support afforded to the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, despite the human rights abuses the Ethiopian government perpetrates.

Mobilizing to Build Bridges

Samuel and other members of the diaspora are working toward changing the United States’ approach to the human rights violations occurring in Ethiopia. The Peace and Justice Committee originally formed as part of the congregation of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church with the goal of influencing the Ethiopian government by appealing to the Western governments. The Peace and Justice Committee has helped build the capacity of the Oromo community to set priorities and engage in advocacy about human rights in Ethiopia.

The Committee worked with The Advocates’ International Justice Program staff attorney Amy Bergquist to organize a two-hour workshop attended by over 50 members of the congregation, as well as other concerned Oromos. At the workshop, participants identified priority issues and explored the different stakeholders who have the power to improve the human rights situation on the ground in Ethiopia. They then mapped out the people and organizations that influence those stakeholders to help Oromos in the diaspora better target their advocacy efforts.

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Oromos participating in an advocacy workshop organized by the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church. Photo credit: Amy Bergquist

Since then, the organization has expanded its reach to include non-Christian and non-diaspora members through a new organization called United Oromo Voice. Like the Peace and Justice Committee, United Oromo Voice is devoted to fighting against the injustices and human rights violations committed by the Ethiopian government.  Samuel hopes that United Oromo Voice will encourage Minnesotans to engage with the Committee’s advocacy work.

Facing the challenges ahead

One of the obstacles facing the Peace and Justice Committee is successfully bringing together differing political opinions within the Oromo community. While the diaspora community largely seeks to end the human rights violations in Ethiopia, members disagree on the proper means of achieving that end. Some Oromos seek to work with the Ethiopian government, while others believe that succession is the only solution. Samuel makes a distinction between the role of the diaspora and the role of Oromos who remain in Ethiopia, explaining that at the end of the day, it is up to the people currently in Ethiopia to decide which approach is best. Samuel believes that their role as Oromos in the diaspora should be to provide a voice for Oromos remaining in Ethiopia, appealing to the West to exert pressure internationally.

Like other diaspora community organizations, the biggest obstacle is that members are trying to juggle work, family life, and the importance of the cause. Samuel does not seem to mind the burden, explaining that,

“God brought me here not to just live my own selfish life . . . I have to think of those who can’t make a voice for themselves.”

Our Redeemer Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church and United Oromo Voice

Website: https://www.oromochurchmn.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oroec/

Volunteer Opportunities: The Peace and Justice Committee along with United Oromo Voice are currently seeking volunteers to assist with their projects and advocacy work. United Oromo Voice needs short-term and long-term volunteers to help with projects including community outreach, diplomacy, advocacy, media, and writing letters to government officials. If you would like to get involved, contact Samuel Berhanu at samueelb@gmail.com.

Learn More: To learn more about human rights violations against the Oromo people in Ethiopia, read:

Oromo Protests One Year On: Looking Back; Looking Forward;

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora;

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests;

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review;

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia 

By April Will, a second-year J.D. student (class of 2019) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She was a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.    

This is the third in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. The first blog posts highlighted the contributions of the Karen Organization of Minnesota and the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota.

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All students deserve safe and equal access to education

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Photo credit: Jenna Schulman

On July 13, Education Secretary Betsy Devos began her first steps in re-evaluating the Obama-era policies regarding sexual assault and consent on college campuses by engaging in a series of “listening sessions” for various groups impacted by Title IX and sexual assaults on campus. At issue is the so-called “Dear Colleague” letter issued in 2011 by the Obama Administration which urged institutions to better investigate and adjudicate cases of campus sexual assault. The 19-page letter set standards for universities to follow when investigating and adjudicating sexual assault charges, including using a “preponderance of the evidence” standard (rather than a “clear and convincing evidence” standard). Secretary Devos says she is now looking into whether these police are too tough and whether they deprive students who are accused of their civil rights – noting that “a system without due process ultimately serves no one in the end.”

While Secretary Devos was having her meetings inside the Department of Education, I stood on the steps of the building attending a “Survivor Speakout.” The goal of the Speakout was to highlight the reasons why Title IX’s protections are imperative in ensuring that every student can access an education that is safe and equal. Survivors, loved ones, and advocates alike stood together sharing stories about how their educations have been affected by gender-based violence. I watched as both men and women, young and old, stood together holding signs which read “ ____ needs Title IX because ____”.

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Photo credit: Jenna Schulman

I had two takeaways from the Survivor Speakout. First, Secretary Devos and others must listen to the story of survivors. We cannot go back to the days – which were not so long ago – when student complaints of sexual assaults on campus were dismissed or ignored. We cannot go back to the days when people were scared to come forward. The group Know Your IX is promoting a hashtag on Twitter – hashtag DearBetsy – asking people to post their stories about sexual assault. Before making her determination, I hope that Secretary Devos and others listen to more victims stories.

Second, Secretary Devos and her staff including Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson are doing victims a great disservice when they spread a narrative that many or most of assault allegations on campus are false. In an interview with the New York Times, a week before, in remarking that the investigative process on college campuses has not always been fairly balanced between the accuser and the accused, Ms. Jackson observed that “90 percent” of the accusations fall into the category of “‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.” Ms. Jackson subsequently apologized for those remarks calling them “flippant” and noting that “they poorly characterized the conversations I’ve had with countless groups of advocates.”

Nonetheless, in having this debate, people have to be careful about normalizing a notion that most accusations are false or only the result of a drunken evening. Following Ms. Jackson’s statement, the National Women’s Law Center, joined by over 50 organizations, replied with data Ms. Jackson and Secretary Devos should hear: “ In 2016, the US Department of Justice conducted a climate survey on several campuses to find that an average of 24% of transgender and gender non-conforming students, 23% of female students, and 6% of male students are sexually victimized on campus. This study replicated the findings of federal research conducted in 2007 and 2000. Additionally, a meta- analysis has shown false reports are extremely rare, constituting only 2-8% of complaints.”

Secretary Devos has not revealed her plans — but suggested that she may take action in the near future. She said: “We need to do this right, we need to protect all students and we need to do it quickly.” The current process may not be perfect. However, I hope in making her revisions Secretary Devos remembers the victims. On the steps of the Department of Education during the “Suvivor Speakout” I heard a lot of women with stories to tell. I hope she hears them too – as all students deserve to have a safe and equal access to education.

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman.  Jenna is a high school  student in Washington, D.C.