United States of America
United States of America
Head of state and government: William Jefferson Clinton
Capital: Washington, D.C.
Population: 267.8 million
Official language: English
Death penalty: retentionist

More prisoners were executed in 1999 than in any year since 1951. Police brutality, deaths in custody and ill-treatment in prisons and jails were reported. In October the US submitted its initial report to the UN Committee against Torture, five years after ratifying the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The report acknowledged there were areas of concern but stated that torture did not occur except "in aberrational situations and never as a matter of policy". US authorities continued to violate international standards protecting children. AI's year-long worldwide campaign against human rights violations in the USA continued throughout most of the year. It called on the authorities at local, state and federal level to take action on a wide range of human rights concerns including the death penalty, police brutality, prison and jail conditions and the treatment of refugees, and called on the government to ratify international human rights treaties.

Death penalty
In 1999, 98 prisoners were executed in 20 states, bringing to 598 the total number executed since the end of a moratorium on the death penalty in 1977. The USA continued to violate international standards such as the prohibition on the use of the death penalty for crimes committed by children under 18 years of age. In October the government urged the Supreme Court not to examine US obligations relating to this ban in connection with an appeal by Michael Domingues who was on death row in Nevada for a crime committed when he was 16. The Supreme Court announced in November that it would not consider the appeal.
* Sean Sellers was executed in Oklahoma in February for murders committed when he was 16 years old.
There was continued concern about racism in application of the death penalty.
* In June, Brian Baldwin was executed by electric chair in Alabama despite appeals from 26 members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, DC, calling for a stay of execution in view of the "clear pattern of racial discrimination in his case".
Trials for capital offences continued to fall below international standards. Eight prisoners under sentence of death were released from death row in 1999 after evidence of their wrongful conviction emerged, bringing to 84 the number of inmates released after being sentenced to death since 1973.
* David Junior Brown was executed in North Carolina in November despite serious questions surrounding his conviction.
Foreign nationals charged with capital offences continued to be denied their right to seek assistance from their consulates, in violation of international standards.
* The day before German national Walter LaGrand was due to be executed in Arizona, Germany filed a request for "provisional measures" at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ issued an order for the execution to be halted. However, despite a recommendation from the Arizona parole board for a stay to allow the ICJ time to examine the appeal, Walter LaGrand was executed in the gas chamber on 3 March. The German government decided to pursue its legal claim against the USA in the ICJ.

Police brutality
Police brutality — including misuse of pepper spray and police dogs, and deaths from dangerous restraint holds — and shootings by police in disputed circumstances, continued to be widely reported. Systematic human rights abuses were uncovered in several police departments. Several police departments, including the New York Police Department (NYPD), were reportedly under federal investigation, under a 1994 law which allows the Justice Department to sue police agencies accused of a "pattern or practice" of abuses.
Many of the unarmed suspects shot by police were members of ethnic minority groups; some were shot while fleeing the scenes of minor crimes or during routine traffic stops. There was widespread concern that many police forces unfairly targeted motorists who were members of minority groups for stops and searches, a practice known as "racial profiling". A bill requiring the US Attorney General to keep national statistics on race and police traffic stops was reintroduced into Congress but had not passed into law by the end of the year. Meanwhile, some individual states passed their own legislation to outlaw "racial profiling" and some police agencies set up their own monitoring systems. There was also concern at several cases involving mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals who were shot in circumstances suggesting that they could have been subdued by non-lethal means.
Although few police officers were prosecuted for ill-treating suspects, trials were pending in several high-profile cases.
* There were reports that police ill-treated demonstrators protesting during the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle (Washington) in December. There were allegations that police used pepper spray and tear gas indiscriminately against non-violent protesters, unresisting residents and bystanders. There were also reported incidents of excessive use of force by police against people held in King County jail after arrest. The allegations were being investigated by local civil rights groups and a Seattle city council panel at the end of the year.
* Allegations that Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers from Rampart Station beat and shot unarmed suspects, planted evidence and lied to cover up their actions were being investigated by a special board of inquiry at the end of the year; more than a dozen officers had been fired or suspended. The scandal, which came to light through the testimony of a police officer arrested on unrelated charges, raised concern about the effectiveness of the LAPD's monitoring mechanisms, despite reforms over the past few years.
* In April the US Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the New Jersey State Police for an alleged "pattern and practice" of discriminatory traffic stops. Similar lawsuits filed by civil rights groups against various state or local police departments were pending in a number of states including Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
* In October the Justice Department sued the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department for tolerating a pattern of civil rights abuses, including excessive use of force, false arrests and improper searches.
* Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a frail, mentally ill African American woman in her fifties, was shot dead by a Los Angeles police officer in June after she tried to lunge at officers with a screwdriver. An initial LAPD internal review ruled the shooting to be within policy, although the officers were criticized for using "faulty tactics". Following the fatal shooting by an LAPD officer of Felix Valenzuela, who was 16 years old, unarmed, naked and bleeding, in November, the LAPD established a task force to review its procedures for dealing with disturbed individuals.
* In December an NYPD officer was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment for the torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997. The officer had beaten and kicked Abner Louima and thrust a broken stick into his rectum, causing serious injuries to his small intestine and bladder. A second police officer found guilty of taking part in the assault was awaiting sentencing at the end of the year. Two other NYPD officers were charged with second degree murder for killing Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot at 41 times outside his home in February after officers apparently mistook him for a criminal suspect.
In June the Justice Department held a national summit on police brutality attended by community, police and civil rights representatives. This was one of several government initiatives aimed at increasing police accountability and improving relations between communities and the police.
In September and October AI held hearings on police brutality in Los Angeles, Chicago and Pittsburgh and was working with local organizations to draw up further recommendations at the end of the year.

Ill-treatment in prisons and jails
Ill-treatment in prisons and jails, including physical and sexual abuse and abusive use of electro-shock weapons, continued to be reported. Several prisoners died, some reportedly as a result of beatings by guards. Many reported abuses took place in isolation units in high-security prisons.
There were continued concerns about conditions in so-called "supermaximum security" segregation units, where growing numbers of prisoners were kept in long-term isolation in small, sometimes windowless cells, in conditions of reduced sensory stimulation. In March a federal district judge ruled that the "extreme deprivations and repressive conditions of confinement" in segregation units in Texas prisons violated the US constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. A state appeal against the ruling, which dealt with a range of Texas prison conditions, was pending at the end of the year.
There were continued concerns about the use of electro-shock equipment including remote control electro-shock stun belts, stun shields, stun guns and tasers (a device which fires darts connected to wires through which an electric shock is transmitted). AI urged federal, state and local law enforcement and correctional authorities to ban stun belts and suspend the use of all other electro-shock equipment pending a rigorous, independent inquiry into the use and effects of such equipment.
* In January a federal court issued a preliminary injunction in the case of Ronnie Hawkins banning the use of stun belts in Los Angeles County courtrooms on the grounds that the "chilling effect" of the fear of the pain inflicted through its activation could deter defendants forced to wear such belts from properly participating in their defence. A judge had ordered the stun belt worn by Ronnie Hawkins to be activated during a court hearing in June 1998 after he had repeatedly interrupted the proceedings verbally. An appeal by the county against the ruling was pending at the end of the year.
* On 15 April, the stun belt that Jeffrey Weaver was wearing during his capital trial in Florida was activated.
* Federal and state investigations opened in July into allegations of systematic beatings by guards of prisoners in X Wing in Florida State Prison, a punitive isolation unit. One prisoner, Frank Valdez, died of injuries sustained while he was being "extracted" (forcibly removed) from his cell in July; all his ribs were broken and his body showed imprints of boot marks. Earlier beatings, which guards had tried to cover up, came to light after prisoners wrote to a newspaper about their plight. Nine guards were suspended and one was charged in November with aggravated assault in connection with Frank Valdez' death. Inquiries were continuing at the end of the year.
* Serious human rights abuses, including racist abuse and misuse of stun weapons, were reported in Red Onion and Wallen Ridge state prisons, two new "supermaximum security" facilities in Virginia. AI called for an immediate ban on use of electro-shock weapons in Virginia prisons. In Red Onion State Prison it was alleged that shackled inmates, most of whom were black, were routinely made to wear stun belts and were arbitrarily shocked; had painful rubber pellets fired at them; and were subjected to racist slurs. Alleged abuses at Wallen Ridge included prisoners being beaten, shocked with stun guns while in restraints, verbally racially abused and deprived of sleep and medical attention.

Children in custody
A federal juvenile justice bill was under consideration which threatened to allow more children to be incarcerated with adult prisoners, in violation of international standards which stipulate that they should be held separately. The bill had not come before Congress by the end of 1999. There were continued reports of ill-treatment of children in custody.

There were concerns regarding the treatment of asylum-seekers, many of whom were locked up on arrival and detained indefinitely, often together with criminal prisoners and in inhumane conditions, without knowing if or when they would be released.

Women in prison
There were many reports of ill-treatment of women inmates; the number of women held in US prisons and jails had tripled since 1989. Abuses included the use of restraints on sick or pregnant prisoners and inadequate medical care. Sexual abuse of women prisoners by male staff continued to be reported in various jurisdictions. AI called for female inmates to be guarded only by female officers, in line with international standards but contrary to common practice in the USA; for measures to protect inmates who report abuses from retaliation; and for a ban on the routine shackling of pregnant women.
In March the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, issued a report of her 1998 visit to the USA in which she cited concerns about widespread sexual abuse and the cruel use of restraints on pregnant prisoners and detained asylum-seekers. In calling for a series of reforms, she recommended that certain posts in women's prisons — such as those responsible for guarding housing units and body searches — should be restricted to female staff.
* In April AI published its findings following a visit to Valley State Prison for Women in California in November 1998. AI detailed concerns including harsh conditions in the prison's Security Housing Unit where women, some of them mentally ill, were held in punitive isolation, sometimes for comparatively minor infractions.
The Californian authorities later informed AI that they had tightened procedures for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct in Californian prisons. However, no changes to the Security Housing Unit conditions were reported. In September more than 40 prison staff were reported to be under investigation for sexual misconduct in several women's prisons in California.
* In October, a state inquiry was announced into complaints of widespread sexual abuse by guards at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Virginia. Complaints ranged from officers giving gifts to inmates in return for sexual favours, to rape. Inmates reported that most prisoners were afraid to report abuse because they feared reprisals from guards.
Six states — Massachussetts, Montana, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia — introduced laws in 1999 criminalizing all sexual contact between prison staff and inmates, bringing to 43 the number of states in which such legislation was in force by the end of 1999.
In July Illinois passed legislation ending the practice of using shackles on pregnant women in prisons and county jails while being transported to hospital, during labour and after giving birth.

Other concerns
AI called for the release of Leonard Peltier, based on its longstanding concerns about the fairness of the proceedings leading to his conviction. Leonard Peltier, leader of the American Indian Movement, had been convicted in 1977 of the murder of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and sentenced to two sentences of life imprisonment.
In September President Clinton granted conditional clemency allowing the immediate release on parole of 11 Puerto Rican independence supporters serving long sentences for politically motivated offences.

Intergovernmental organizations
In May the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the incommunicado detention by US forces of 17 Grenadians for between six and nine days following US military action in Grenada in 1983 had failed to comply with US obligations under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man to prevent arbitrary detention. The case had been filed against the US government in 1991 by the 17 former detainees, most of whom were members of the Grenadian government or military who were subsequently convicted of responsibility for the murder in October 1983 of former Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop.

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