9/25/98 WASHINGTON - Amnesty International, launched 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 electro-shock devices and incapacitating chemical sprays.
The London-based group kicked USA Campaign with the release 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. Amnesty might be taking a risk in deciding to focus on alleged abuses in this country with Americans accounting for a third of its million members worldwide.
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.
This was 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.
Obligations not met
Amnesty says that the United States is "failing to meet" its human-rights obligations and that the movement for greater protection of human rights around the world is endangered by American violations. Critics might challenge Amnesty's decision to use both its financial resources and moral authority on its high-profile USA Campaign when repressive regimes - Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, to name a few - openly brutalize their citizens with little regard to due process of law, international public opinion or criticism by Amnesty International.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley, avoiding a clash with Amnesty, said, "We welcome their scrutiny. . . . In keeping with our recognition of the universality of human rights and our openness as a democratic society, we are proud of our political and judicial systems, which we believe are the envy of the world."
`Background of injustice'
"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 U.S. the "world leader in high-tech repression," for police and prison use of painful, sometimes fatal, electroshock devices such as stun guns and stun belts. Also, Amnesty said that more than 60 people have died in police custody since 1990 after being exposed to pepper spray.
Violence against inmates
Amnesty points to a high level of physical and sexual violence against prisoners "with guards at times inciting attacks or not acting to prevent them," and it notes that minorities, particularly African-American men, make up a disproportionate share of the prison population. "A particularly disturbing development is the growth of high-tech security units, where inmates are placed in long-term or even permanent isolation," the executive summary says.
"Despite being outlawed under international standards, shackling of prisoners - including their transportation in leg irons - is widespread in the U.S. prison system."
Amnesty also challenges what it says is the U.S. practice of imprisoning foreign citizens who arrive seeking political asylum, sometimes putting them in jail for months alongside convicted criminals.
The State Department's Foley 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."
Death penalty criticized
Having long crusaded against the death penalty, Amnesty criticizes the U.S. 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 people who were under 18 at the time of the crime. Since 1990, Amnesty says, the U.S. 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. It also cites the execution of 30 mentally impaired people in the past decade.
The report says many local authorities ignore their international obligation to inform arrested foreigners promptly of their right to consular assistance under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention, which the U.S. ratified in 1969. More than 60 foreign nationals are under death sentences, and most were not informed of their Vienna Convention rights, the report says.
Amnesty's USA campaign makes a series of recommendations, including establishing independent bodies to investigate alleged police brutality and prisoner abuse, banning electroshock devices, curtailing detention of asylum seekers and ratifying several international human-rights accords.
Amnesty asked that the U.S. ban the death penalty for juvenile offenders as a first step toward abolition of the death penalty. Although that is unlikely, the Clinton administration is - as Amnesty urges - pressing the Senate to ratify an international convention to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.
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