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U.S. political prisoners have endured decades of abuse, many face death in prison

By Richard B. Muhammad -Editor-in-Chief | Last updated: Apr 25, 2010 - 9:05:14 AM

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New report calls for justice for U.S. political prisoners and takes human rights case to the United Nations

(This is part one of an occasional series that will run in The Final Call newspaper.)

CHICAGO ( - When it comes to the United Nations and countries charged with rights violations, the United States is usually the chief accuser of others and remains a self-ordained defender of human rights.

But a recent report filed with the world body raises the ugly issue of political prisoners and repression in America and her human rights violations.

“The United States is very, very concerned when its citizens begin to raise questions in these international forums, because the United States still prefers to posture itself, including the Obama administration, as still the leader of the free world and that they don't have any human rights violations and they certainly don't have any political prisoners, and we have to dispel that notion in the international community,” said Stan Willis, of the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

Atty. Willis filed the report April 14 as part of a process in which the United Nations reviews the status of each country and its human rights record. The U.S. is currently under review and will respond in November during a gathering in Geneva, Switzerland.

The United Nations' Universal Period Review process was introduced in 2006 and community-based, non-governmental and other organizations are allowed to point out human rights issues within their countries and where they feel violations of international law or UN treaties have been committed.

For Black America, the process is another way to hold the U.S. government accountable and to demand the release of Black Power era leaders and members of organizations whose political views are objectionable, said Mr. Willis, in an interview.

Beyond freeing an aging population of some 100 former Black Panthers, members of the MOVE organization and other revolutionary-oriented groups, taking the issue to the United Nations puts America and her dirty laundry on front street, said the longtime activist and lawyer.

“They (American officials) do not want to have these issues reach the world's people. How do you go into Iraq or Afghanistan telling people about their democracy when you got Black people that are locked down in prison for 30-40 years as political prisoners?”

Whether the problem was leftist ideology, nationalists and those calling for a Black homeland, demands for a new economic order or Native American rights and anti-Vietnam War efforts, government security agencies infiltrated dissident groups.

The security activity went hand-in-hand with crackdowns on Black, Latino, Native American and even some White groups demanding a more just and peaceful society—and greater demands for respect for rights and opposition to police violence.


‘They (American officials) do not want to have these issues reach the world's people. How do you go into Iraq or Afghanistan telling people about their democracy when you got Black people that are locked down in prison for 30-40 years as political prisoners?’
—Atty. Standish Willis
“Such repression resulted in murders, injuries, false arrests, malicious prosecutions and lengthy imprisonments of scores of political activists,” the report said.

The continued incarceration and mistreatment of these prisoners violates UN treaties and conventions that guarantee human rights, forbid torture and outlaw racial and political targeting by government, the report charges.

Surveillance and destroying organizations

The plight of political prisoners is largely rooted in the 1960s-1970s era surveillance against Black groups, which included respected civil rights organizations as well as so-called Black radicals, according to Mr. Willis. About two-thirds of the jailed dissidents are Black, he said.

The FBI teamed with local law enforcement to attack, disrupt and destroy groups like the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was admitted during congressional hearings in 1976 empanelled to probe these secret domestic wars.

The covert Counterintelligence Program run by then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and approved by the White House, focused in specially on the Black Panther Party, and most political prisoners are either former Panthers or from MOVE, a radical “back-to-nature” group whose homes were bombed by the Philadelphia Police Department in 1985.

“U.S. political prisoners have languished in U.S. prisons for decades under cruel and inhumane conditions. Several have died in prison; others have endured years of solitary confinement, poor medical health care, various other forms of abuse, and perfunctory parole hearings resulting in routine denial of human rights,” the report noted.

The report calls for the unconditional release of political prisoners jailed as a result of the government's Counterintelligence Program, an executive review of all cases related to the covert operation, a murder probe into the deaths of Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and actions to repair and redress harm done and to prevent similar acts in the future.

While Atty. Willis is pushing the plight of political prisoners, he said the impact of the government wrongdoing went beyond the heavy price young activists paid at the time.

“Movements move forward with masses of people but they move forward with a certain kind of leadership,” said Mr. Willis.

During the revolutionary times of the 1960s and 1970s, youth and students were influenced by the efforts of the Nation of Islam, Congress of Racial Equality, and NAACP as well as the African liberation movement on the continent and Cuba's revolution, he continued.

A type of leadership was developing that America had never seen before and the government moved to crush that leadership, Mr. Willis said.

The Panthers and SNCC were wiped out and law enforcement and government sent clear signals that if others persisted in demanding progressive action they would also be destroyed, he said.

“Our community suffered. Our community deserves reparations just on that issue because it set us back in the 1960s and we see where we are now, we haven't recovered from that,” he said. “It's not just those in prison that suffered, and they certainly suffered mightily because they have been locked down and some of them are dying in prison. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered. But the community suffered,” he said. Young leaders Hampton and Clark headed the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. They were shot and killed in a police raid on a west side home in 1969.

U.S. power vs. the power of the people

While the U.S. wields considerable power at the United Nations, in particular with its veto power on the Security Council, Atty. Willis rejects the notion that holding the superpower to international standards is a futile effort.

The General Assembly is largely made up of delegates from around the world, and public opinion and moral authority is bigger than U.S. power, he said.

The lawyer pointed to fighting in Chicago for two decades for Blacks tortured in a police precinct and officers under former police commander John Burge. It was only after the case, which involved hundreds of suspects coerced into making confessions because of torture, was put before international bodies that U.S. law enforcement officials moved against Mr. Burge. He will go on trial May 10 in federal court and is accused of obstruction of justice and perjury.

“It was only after the United Nations mentioned torture in the context of Abu Grahaib, Guantanamo Bay and Chicago, in the same paragraph, that John Burge was indicted within months of that,” Mr. Willis said. The Justice Dept. reached out about the case after the world body noted the violations, he said.

International forums and broader remedies

More involvement is needed in international forums, where violations of basic rights to education, health, employment, housing, and abuses of discrimination and police brutality can be brought out, Mr. Willis argued.

Essentially the forums provide a way to call attention to government failures or misdeeds and ask that the UN or other bodies where the U.S. holds membership to investigate and demand America comply with international law or treaties. The forums can also be highly embarrassing for the world's greatest democracy.

“We can have a mighty voice because when we speak in the international context it resonates with African people all over the world, unlike anybody else, and they look for us to speak because they know we are in the lion's den,” said Atty. Willis.

The U.S. civil rights laws also say what government can't do, while the international standards stress what countries must do, Mr. Willis explained. Under the United Nations standards, countries must educate children and localities could not argue that because of a lower tax base Black children get a lesser quality or failing education, he explained.

Remedies are much broader in the international context, which include reparations as a common remedy, but civil rights laws don't provide for reparations, Mr. Willis added.

It's not just going to Geneva but confronting local entities, like school districts, and being able to redefine education and press districts to come in line with international standards, he said. Blacks have also tried to take their struggle to the United Nations in the past, Mr. Willis said.

“We have a history of trying to get there, but we haven't got there because I think we got so focused on civil rights we forgot there is a remedy out there and we can draw on the collective sentiments of the world community by trying to take our case into a more international forum,” he said. “We don't have to rely on who is the president, we can force the president because the president and the administration is very, very sensitive to world opinion. There is no question about that,” he said.

Concerns about the arrest and targeting of Arab and Palestinian communities and Muslims after 9-11 and 23-hour-a-day lockdowns make government abuses relevant today, Atty. Willis said.

Political prisoners have traditionally been locked down, not because they violated prison policy or disrupted prison but because officials don't want disruption based on ideas, he said.

The Obama administration, unlike its predecessors, has taken the position that they support human rights and the U.S. has a member on the Human Rights Council, said Mr. Willis.

His goal is to get the political prisoners on the agenda, but filing a report isn't enough, he said.

It will take more awareness and education of the Black community, activism and lobbying for political prisoners at the United Nations, town hall meetings to explain where the issues are, and getting the academic and faith communities to weigh in on the problem, he said.

“It's a way of organizing our people and encouraging them to take these international forums seriously and adding that to their tools of raising issues related to various problems we have in the United States. It doesn't mean you stop doing anything else.

“The fact that I am trying to raise issues in the international forum doesn't mean I am stopping suing police,” he said.

“It just means this is an additional weapon that we have to try to get this country in compliance with international human rights laws.”