The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

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Map of the world based on countries’ death penalty status. Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/maps-and-graphics/countries-that-still-have-the-death-penalty/

Japan is one out of the fifty eight countries (including the United States) where the death penalty is still legal and actively carried out. In Japan, crimes punishable by execution include murder, terrorism, arson, and treason. Based on reports from the Japan Innocence & Death Penalty Information Center, 106 people have been executed since 1993, and as of November 2017, 126 people are currently on death row.

Hanging is the main method of execution in Japan, and is carried out in an isolated penal institution. The Japanese Government severely restricts people on death row from having contact with the outside world. Within the detention center, the communication of people on death row is strictly limited; only lawyers and close relatives are allowed to visit death row inmates. Furthermore, people sentenced to death are informed of their impending execution only on the morning of the execution. The Japanese government insists that such last-minute notification inflicts less psychological pain on people sentenced to death.

After learning of the death penalty policies and practices in Japan, we wanted to see how advocacy against the death penalty from various sources (civil society, states, stakeholders, etc.) could make a tangible impact. These issues regarding Japan’s death penalty and prison conditions have prompted criticism from domestic and international human rights organizations. A systematic mechanism for the organizations to raise these concerns is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

The Universal Periodic Review: What is it?

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Japan’s Review during the 28th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, 14 November 2017 Source:http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

Every four and a half years, countries are required to undergo a Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council. All UN member states – 193 countries in total – are required to participate in the UPR process, whereby they are subjected to review by the United Nations and are given the opportunity to report their progress on human rights issues and to receive and respond to recommendations from other countries.

The UPR process is structured in a way that allows for feedback from the state under review, as well as from on-the-ground non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) can submit stakeholder reports with firsthand accounts of the government’s failure to respect human rights. These stakeholder reports ensure that the Human Rights Council gets an accurate, well-rounded picture of the human rights situation in the state under review before the UPR’s “interactive dialogue.”

The Advocates’ UPR lobbying pays off

The Advocates for Human Rights works with other stakeholders to research and submit reports for consideration in the UPR process. Once the reports are submitted, The Advocates continues its efforts by contacting delegations of other UN member countries and lobbying them to make recommendations to the country under review. This lobbying can be done in person or via email. Oftentimes, these recommendations pertain to a single issue. The Advocates’ lobbying process for the November 2017 UPR of Japan provides a window into this type of UPR advocacy.

In preparation for the 28th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, The Advocates submitted a stakeholder report in conjunction with The Center for Prisoners’ Rights in Japan and The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. (Readers can access the full report on The Advocates’ website.) After submitting the stakeholder report, The Advocates reached out to several country representatives to raise its concerns on the issue of the death penalty in Japan.

The Advocates sent emails lobbying against the death penalty in Japan to 26 countries. Of the 26 countries contacted, 21 countries made recommendations at Japan’s UPR dialogue (the other five were not present at Japan’s UPR). Twenty of these countries made recommendations in line with The Advocates’ lobbying. These recommendation included the following:

  • Immediately impose an official moratorium on the use of the death penalty (Australia, Belgium, Finland, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland)
  • Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims at abolishing the death penalty (Argentina, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, Uruguay)
  • Amend the Act on Penal Detention Facilities and Treatment of Inmates to ensure detention conditions meet international standards (Netherlands)
  • Open up a public debate and take concrete steps toward ending the death penalty (Belgium, France, Mexico, Norway, Rwanda, UK)

Beyond these twenty states, other representatives also made recommendations about the death penalty, echoing one or more of The Advocates’ recommendations. In total, 42 out of the 105 country representatives – a whopping 40% – participating in Japan’s UPR addressed the death penalty, demonstrating the strong international pressure for change in the country’s legal system. 

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Country representatives of those who strongly recommended an end to the death penalty in Japan. Top row (from left to right): Mr. Suresh Adhikari, Nepal; Mr. Charles Kent, UK; and Ms. Laura Aubry, Switzerland. Middle row: Ms. Katarina Andric, Croatia; Mr. Curtis Peters, Canada; and Ms. Herborg F. Alvsaaker, Norway. Bottom row: Ms. Veronika Bard, Sweden; Ms. Lone Thorup, Denmark; and Ms. Monique T.G. Van Daalen, the Netherlands. Source:http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

Japan’s Response

In a closing statement at the UPR session, Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura and other representatives from the Japanese Government responded to the recommendations offered by other UN member countries. The Japanese delegates asserted the use of the death penalty in Japan is “unavoidable” and an immediate moratorium on the death penalty would be “inhumane” to the prisoners currently on death row, because such an act would arouse their hopes for abolition of the death penalty. The delegation rejected recommendations to convert death sentences to life imprisonment, asserting that a life sentence is a “very harsh punishment” and expressing great concern that the “character of the inmate will be destroyed due to prolonged confinement.”

Perhaps the most puzzling response from the Japanese Government was on the issue of notifying death row inmates of their execution on the morning on the execution. Government representatives asserted that an “inmate’s mental and psychological stability could be undermined and pain could be inflicted upon [them] if [they] were to inform about execution before the day of the execution.” As The Advocates’ noted in its report, the daily stress of not knowing the date of an impending execution certainly does even more to undermine the inmate’s mental and psychological stability.

After viewing the entire UPR session, we see that Japan is making strides in many areas of its human rights practices and policies. But progress in some areas does not erase the injustice of the continued practice of the death penalty and poor detention conditions. At the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group report, Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura stated: “There is no end to the promotion and protection of human rights.” The death penalty violates the most fundamental human right: the right to one’s own life. We hope Japan and the fifty seven other countries that actively the death penalty soon realize that this right is fundamental and act accordingly.

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Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura (front row, second from the left), the Representative of the Government of Japan and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Human Rights. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

By Emma Lind and Xuemeng Yao.

Emma Lind is a 2017 graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota with degrees in International Human Rights and Psychology. She is a 2017 fall intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

Xuemeng Yao is a junior at Macalester College with a major in Sociology. She is a 2017 fall intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the first in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates’ work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

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Trafficking of Rohingya Refugees

Rohingya refugees
Photo credit: Getty Images

In July, the New York Times reported that a prominent, former Thai general had been  sentenced to nearly three decades in prison for conspiring in the trafficking of Bangladeshi and Burmese Rohingya, a minority, stateless ethnic group fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Dozens more, including police officers and smugglers, were also convicted of participating in the human trafficking ring after the discovery of several mass graves thought to contain the bodies of migrants were discovered in 2015 near the Thai-Malaysia border, along a route often used to smuggle Rohingya out of Myanmar. The crackdown on trafficking has increased since the mass graves were discovered; this is only one of many Thai authorities that has been caught or suspected of colluding in the trafficking of refugees.

The Rohingya are an Muslim, ethnic minority residing in the Rakhine state of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Increasing abuse, persecution, and displacement has forced the Rohingya to flee to neighboring countries; according to a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 168,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled the country in the last five years. Although the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, the 1982 Citizenship Law has consistently been used by the government to deny citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, despite recent calls by human rights organizations and the UN General Assembly in 2014 to amend the legislation. The Citizenship Law effectively renders the Rohingya stateless, and it is this stateless status which makes it particularly difficult for the Rohingya to obtain legal status in any other country.

Thailand has consistently been a common destination and transit country for many refugees. However, the Thai government does not recognize the Rohingya as refugees, and therefore does not offer them protection. In fact, Thailand has not yet ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, is not a signatory to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and has no formal national refugee legislation, so all migrants, whether refugee or non-refugee, are processed under the Immigration Act of 1979.

Thus, the Thai government treats asylum seekers as illegal migrants, and arrests and deports them as such. Thai law allows for police to arrest, detain, and fine people who have migrated illegally, even if they are children; because many refugees, particularly the stateless Rohingya, are not able to obtain legal status in Thailand under the Immigration Act of 1979, they are very likely to be subject to abuse by employers and human traffickers or to indefinite detention, abuse, and refoulement by Thai officials, even when the U.N. has recognized their refugee status. In fact, since 2004, the Thai government has not even allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct screenings on Rohingya to determine refugee status.

This lack of protection, from either Thailand, other ASEAN countries, or the UNHCR within Thailand, puts the Rohingya at great risk of trafficking. The struggles of the Rohingya were put under the spotlight in May of 2015, when images emerged of overcrowded boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya from Bangladesh and Myanmar, adrift in the Andaman Sea between Thailand and Malaysia. The migrants had paid smugglers to take them out of Bangladesh and Myanmar, but due to Thailand’s recent crackdown on trafficking, these smugglers soon abandoned the migrants. When their boats neared the shores of Malaysia and Thailand, the refugees were turned away and pushed farther out to sea by authorities, where many perished due to exposure and lack of food and water. Survivors reported suffering horrific abuse at the hands of the traffickers, who beat, killed, and deprived migrants in order to force their families to pay a ransom.

Had they managed to arrive in Thailand, they likely wouldn’t have endured a fate much better. Once they reach the mainland, many migrants are sold by their smugglers to other traffickers, who then hold them in camps along the borders of Thailand. Here, they endure equally gruesome conditions and beatings; in May 2015, Rohingya in camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border were found being held in extremely overcrowded spaces, and even in pens and cages.

Even upon rescue from these camps, migrants are not safe. Because of Thailand’s treatment of refugees as illegal immigrants, refugees found in camps are generally arrested and placed in indefinite detention. Within immigration detention centers, migrants are subject to further abuse by Thai police and officials, who, like traffickers, often beat and harass detainees in order to obtain payment, and sometimes force them to return to Myanmar, an act which violates the international principle of non-refoulement. Further, detention officers sometimes even sell refugees back to the trafficking rings they were rescued from.

Thailand has taken steps in the last decade to combat human trafficking in the country, such as passing a law in 2008 which criminalizes trafficking and details punishments for perpetrators, including imprisonment and fines, and a more recent law in 2016 which expedites the judicial process for trafficking cases. Nonetheless, problems such as inadequate identification procedures for victims of trafficking, low rates of trafficking prosecutions and convictions, and most importantly, Thai official complicity in trafficking persist.

In its 2016 Universal Periodic Review, Thailand received eight recommendations from other state delegations relating to refugees and asylum seekers. It rejected almost all of these recommendations, including those which requested that Thailand offer legal status to refugees and asylum-seekers and that it put an end to arbitrary detention and refoulement of refugees, especially children. In its report, Thailand noted that despite not being party to the international treaties regarding refugees, the country has a “humanitarian tradition” of providing assistance to displaced people. Despite Thailand’s very recent push to prosecute traffickers, the state’s clear involvement in the trafficking and abuse of such displaced people and its refusal to conduct refugee screenings on them would suggest otherwise.

In order to truly demonstrate its commitment and “humanitarian tradition” of helping refugees, Thailand must immediately halt the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, ratify international treaties relating to refugees and proceed with the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the egregious human rights violations of migrants.

By: Abby Walker, a junior at Carleton College (class of 2019) in Northfield, Minnesota studying sociology, anthropology, and education. She was a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two photo options below:

 

Thailand Immigration Police bring Rohingya refugees to a port outside Ranong City (October 30, 2013)

 

Two Rohingya refugees in a Thai immigration detention center in Kanchanaburi province (July 10, 2013)

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.

Abolishing the Death Penalty: in Memory of John Thompson

By Amy Bergquist

Amy John T

“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

 

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

My 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.

Liu Blog Post Photo

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.

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.