New Report on Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terror Cases

The Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School has released a new report, Illusion of Justice, Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism cases.

The 212 page report examines 27 terror cases from start to finish.

[S]ince the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, the United States government has failed to meet its international legal obligations with respect to its investigations and prosecutions of terrorism suspects, as well as its treatment of terrorism suspects in custody.

One of the big problems is of course the FBI's overuse of terror stings. Here are the major concerns, according to the study: [More...]

  • Discriminatory investigations, often targeting particularly vulnerable individuals (including people with intellectual and mental disabilities and the indigent), in which the government—often acting through informants— is actively involved in developing the plot, persuading and sometimes pressuring the target to participate, and providing the resources to carry it out.
  • Use of overly broad material support charges, punishing behavior that did not demonstrate intent to support terrorism.
  • Prosecutorial tactics that may violate fair trial rights, such as introducing prejudicial evidence—including evidence obtained by coercion, classified evidence that cannot be fairly contested, and inflammatory evidence about terrorism in which defendants played no part; and limited ability to challenge surveillance warrants due to excessive government secrecy.
  • Harsh and at times abusive conditions of confinement, which often appear excessive in relation to the security risk posed. These include:
  • Prolonged solitary confinement and severe restrictions on communicating in pretrial detention, possibly impeding defendants’ ability to assist in their own defense and contributing to their pleading guilty.
  • Excessive lengthening of sentences and draconian conditions postconviction, including prolonged solitary confinement and severe restrictions on contact with families or others, sometimes without explanation or recourse.

The report finds:

Taken together, these patterns have contributed to cases in which individuals who perhaps would never have participated in a terrorist act on their own initiative and might not even had the capacity to do so, were prosecuted for serious, yet government-created, terrorism plots. In other cases, people who contributed to charities in the Middle East ended up convicted of “material support” based on flimsy connections to alleged terrorism.

The report makes these recommendations:

  • Restrict the use of informants and ensure the practice is subject to robust oversight. Informants should not be sent into community or religious institutions in pre-investigation stages before there is particularized suspicion of wrongdoing.
  • Develop rights-respecting partnerships with local community groups and support community-driven programs as an alternative to aggressive investigations that can lead to abuses and end up doing more harm than good.
  • Ensure that prosecutors do not charge individuals or groups for providing material support based on activity protected under freedom of expression principles of international human rights law.
  • Ensure humane prison conditions, and do not subject prisoners to prolonged solitary confinement.
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