What’s Left of Human Rights?


Talk about a spade calling a spade a spade while both pretend to be hearts:

Congress has approved legislation which “normalizes” trade with Russia, but also will penalize Russian officials involved in human rights violations. Large majorities of the Senate and House said yea to the bill, which is on its way to the president, who is welcoming it.

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Sergei Magnitsky

The human-rights section is called the Magnitsky Act and is attached to the larger trade bill. Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer and whistleblower who died in a Moscow prison three years ago, and was allegedly tortured.

Russian officials decried the Congressional action, threatening to pass a similar law.

Strange, is it not, to see this legislation coming from a Congress that continues to approve funding for Guantanamo and secret prisons like Bagram, and a president who has waged war against whistleblowers both at home and abroad. Also, neither Congress nor the president appears anxious to prosecute military or CIA officials for torture abuses during the Iraq or Afghanistan invasions.

Meanwhile, last Tuesday, the U.S. Senate voted 98-0, with two abstentions, to approve the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). You may recall that, in the dead of night on Dec. 31, 2011, President Obama signed the 2012 NDAA. It included his added clause allowing the military to arrest anyone in the world, including American citizens, who he deems suspicioned of terrorism, and imprison them without charge or trial.

The new law seems to allow the same practice, only with Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s amended yet questionable language, which has brought voiced concerns from the conservative Washington Times and the progressive American Civil Liberties Union.

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In a Nov. 30 Washington Times article headlined “2013 NDAA and Feinstein Amendment Fail Constitutional Test,” Blake A. Filippi said, “Congress is now poised to reaffirm the President’s ability to prosecute persons within the USA through military tribunals, allow continued indefinite detention without charge or trial, and do nothing to limit the practice of extraordinary rendition.”

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Chris Anders, the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel, a day earlier on the ACLU website, cited three problems with Feinstein’s amendment:

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  • It would NOT make America off-limits to the military being used to imprison civilians without charge or trial. That’s because its focus on protections for citizens and green-card holders implies that non-citizens could be militarily detained. The goal should be to prohibit domestic use of the military entirely. That’s the protection provided to everyone in the United States by the Posse Comitatus Act. That principle would be broken if the military can find an opening to operate against civilians here at home, maybe under the guise of going after non-citizens. This is truly an instance where, when some lose their rights, all lose rights — even those who look like they are being protected.
  • It is inconsistent with the Constitution, which makes clear that basic due process rights apply to everyone in the United States. No group of immigrants should be denied the most basic due process right of all — the right to be charged and tried before being imprisoned.
  • It would set some dangerous precedents for Congress: that the military may have a role in America itself, that indefinite detention without charge or trial can be contemplated in the United States, and that some immigrants can be easily carved out of the most basic due process protections.

Anders also included a paragraph from the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League’s note to Congress:

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The [Feinstein] amendment is of particular concern to the Japanese American Citizens League because of our historic concern stemming from the Japanese American incarceration experience during World War II. Nearly half of the internees were not United States citizens, and would not have been protected by this amendment. In consideration of due process and the rule of law within the United States, we urge you to oppose the Feinstein amendment, unless revised to protect all persons in the United States from indefinite detention without charge or trial.

The Senate has sent the bill to the House and called for a conference committee of both houses to finalize the bill. The House approved the unamended bill earlier this year.

Dangers to American human rights aren’t limited to the NDAA. We’ve tracked, through several Peculiar Progressive columns, the government’s efforts at surveillance of innocent American citizens ranging from phone taps to monitoring the Internet and emails.

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In a recent action, a group of state and local police this week asked Congress to have the major phone service providers hold all Americans’ text messages for two years, in case police might need to review them regarding possible future crimes. How’s that for securing your freedom?

Russia, of course, has moved forward with its own efforts at both censoring protests-including the notorious jailing of Pussy Riot members-and the Internet.

We’ll try to keep you updated on such issues at home and abroad, in hopes you’ll get organized, get educated, and get active in having your lawmakers and government stop telling you they’re protecting you while abusing your human rights.