Amnesty International rights campaign to target alleged U.S. abuses for first time Police brutality, death penalty among subjects

October 05, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The world's leading human rights group, Amnesty International, is launching its first worldwide campaign aimed at the United States, citing abuses such as "widespread and persistent" police brutality, "endemic" physical and sexual violence against prisoners, "racist" application of the death penalty, and use of "high-tech repression tools" such as electroshock devices and incapacitating chemical sprays.

The London-based group kicks off a yearlong USA Campaign with the release tomorrow of a 150-page report highlighting what Amnesty calls an American "double standard" of criticizing human-rights abuses abroad while not doing enough to remedy those at home.

With Americans accounting for a third of its million members worldwide, Amnesty might be taking a risk in deciding to focus on alleged abuses in this country.

The campaign's theme, "Human rights aren't just a foreign affair," is intended to highlight what Amnesty says is the need for the United States to "peek into its own closet" and recognize that it can't criticize abuses by other nations unless it is willing to take a hard look at its own practices.

Curt Goering, deputy executive director of Amnesty USA, said he anticipates "overwhelming support" from American members to this effort. "Our interest is not to embarrass; it is to highlight these issues and make recommendations."

This is the first time in its 37-year history that Amnesty has undertaken a major human rights campaign focused on any Western country. The watchdog group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for its crusading efforts on behalf of people around the world mistreated by their own governments.

Amnesty says the United States is "failing to meet" its human rights obligations and the movement for greater protection of human rights around the world is endangered by U.S. violations.

The head of Amnesty International, Secretary General Pierre Sane, plans to make the case for the report -- and remedial measures Amnesty proposes -- in Washington tomorrow followed by visits to Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and New York.

"The report is played out against a national background of economic and racial injustice, a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and front-page stories of violent crimes committed by children," says the report's executive summary. "Human rights violations in the U.S. occur in rural communities and urban centers from coast to coast. They are committed by sheriffs and judges, by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials and by police and corrections officers in jails and prisons across the country."

Amnesty calls the United States the "world leader in high-tech repression," for police and prison use of painful, sometimes fatal electroshock devices such as stun guns and a stun belt, which received attention in June when it was used by a California judge to subdue a defendant who repeatedly interrupted her in court proceedings. The remote-control stun belt, which inflicts a powerful shock that can knock a prisoner over and may cause him to lose control of bowel functions, is used by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshal's Service, more than 100 counties and at least 16 states, Amnesty reports.

Also, Amnesty said that more than 60 people have died in police custody since 1990 after being exposed to pepper spray, which is authorized for use by some 3,000 U.S. police departments.

Amnesty also challenges what it says is the United States' practice of imprisoning foreign citizens who arrive seeking political asylum, sometimes putting them into jail for months alongside convicted criminals.

The State Department said that detention is required by law until a person's asylum claim can be evaluated and that authorities "make every effort to balance legitimate law enforcement responsibility with equally important humanitarian concern."

Having long crusaded against the death penalty, Amnesty criticizes the United States for having "the largest known Death Row population on Earth," more than 3,300 inmates sentenced to die.

Amnesty notes that 24 states permit the execution of those who were under 18 at the time of the crime. Since 1990, Amnesty says, the United States has been one of only six countries in the world known to have executed juveniles. The five others are Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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