The National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) urges the US to apply international human rights standards to protect and ensure the rights of political prisoners currently incarcerated within its own prison system.
NCBL presented the plight of political prisoners in the United States to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council (HRC) as part of a Universal Periodic Review on November 5, 2010.
The Council, created by the UN General Assembly in 2006, addresses international human rights violations and makes recommendations to end such violations.
In August 2010, prior to the November meeting, the US government had submitted a report to the HRC, in which it stated its efforts to strengthen human rights commitments and comply with international human rights standards.
But that report had failed to mention the plights of political prisoners, who have languished in US prisons for decades.
In a compilation of civil society reports submitted to the HRC in October 2010, the US already had been urged to free its political prisoners.
At the November 2010 meeting, the US appeared before the HRC and engaged in an interactive dialogue with other HRC member states in a review of the United States’ human rights compliance.
Members raised the issue of political prisoners during this interactive review, and as a result of the review, the HRC published 228 recommendations, including actions concerning political prisoners, for the US government to take in order to improve the status of human rights.
On November 9, 2010, the US published a response to the HRC’s recommendation, in which it again neglected to address the human rights violations committed by its FBI, which had resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of dozens of African-American political activists and others during the 1960s.
Though the United States consistently denies the existence of political prisoners, these activists—individuals who dared to challenge the status quo of America’s harsh treatment of black people—were ensnared by the nation’s own repressive Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
Many were members of organizations such as the Black Panther Party and were not content to remain silent in a system of de facto slavery.
Instead, they demanded quality education, health care and an end to rampant police violence against black people.
The Black Panthers and groups like them were targets of government surveillance under COINTELPRO, and members were harassed, beaten, falsely arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to unreasonably lengthy prison terms in a system bloated with contempt for them and their righteous causes.
In 1976 a congressional subcommittee, popularly known as the Church Committee, was formed to investigate and study the FBI’s covert action programs.
The Church Committee concluded that the FBI had “conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights to speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”
Even if one were to grant credibility to the FBI’s stated reason for its violations of constitutional and human rights, there exists no justification for the continued incarceration of these now elderly prisoners—though overwhelming statistical evidence supports the fact that the rate of recidivism for elderly prisoners is virtually nonexistent.
Additionally, several have died while incarcerated, due to lack of health care, as governors across the country are unwilling to grant clemency to political prisoners.
These prisoners’ human rights were not only violated by the operations of COINTELPRO and their subsequent arrests and convictions in the 1960s, but continue to be violated as they watch other prisoners, who were convicted of crimes of the same or less seriousness are released on parole.
Where death sentences were not initially imposed by the courts, parole boards have repeatedly denied granting parole, despite exemplary records during their incarcerations—essentially making certain that those activists will die in prison.
It is absolutely beyond dispute that they remain locked down precisely because of their past political associations.
Parole boards reserve this “special treatment” for them, no matter how exemplary their institutional adjustment or how impressive the evidence is for successful reentry into society once released.
Hence, this well-oiled machine continues to operate against political prisoners in America.
This government’s failure to recognize these occurrences does not make their existence any less real, and in fact its continued refusal to acknowledge the evidence is itself an additional violation of human rights.
The United States has no moral authority to chastise other governments for human rights violations until it addresses its human rights violations, including the atrocious treatment of political prisoners.
The NCBL was one of dozens of human rights groups that submitted reports to the HRC documenting the scale and extent of human rights violations within US borders.
In March 2011 the HRC will hold its regular session for the formal adoption of the US outcome document.
Thus, the government of this country still has an opportunity to address this critical issue.
But until the US acknowledges and takes steps to address its wrongs, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, in coalition with other organizations, will continue to expose this national shame.