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Blog: Criminal Justice

June 9, 2021

IHRC Issues Statement on Haiti’s Constitutional Referendum

The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, NYU’s Global Justice Clinic, and the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School issued a statement on June 8, 2021, calling on the U.S. government to heed civil society’s demand and cancel the planned constitutional referendum in Haiti. The referendum, which will ask Haitian people to vote “yes” or “no” on a new Constitution, is illegal. It is the most recent, bold effort by President Jovenel Moïse to consolidate power and comes on the heels of dozens of presidential decrees that undermine checks on the executive. Haitian civil society has widely denounced the referendum, noting its illegality and emphasizing the impossibility of holding a vote under the current administration. International actors are increasingly recognizing the illegitimacy of the referendum, and the danger to democracy that it poses.  However, continued technical support and provision of aid to the government of Haiti to hold elections means that international actors, including the United States government, are tacitly supporting the unconstitutional vote. With long experience working in solidarity with Haitian civil society, and building off our February statement, the clinics urge the U.S. government to urgently and publicly call to cancel the referendum.

Read the statement in English.

Read the full statement in Kreyòl.

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May 21, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: The Need for an Inclusive Accountability

Posted by Carmen Cheung

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published to Just Security on May 20, 2021).

If the current crisis in Myanmar is one “born of impunity”, any response that is rooted in accountability needs to acknowledge that the Myanmar military’s crimes span decades and across its ethnic regions. Some in the international community may have first learned about “clearance operations” in the context of the devastating attacks in recent years that have destroyed Rohingya villages and forced an exodus into neighboring Bangladesh. For almost sixty years, however, Myanmar’s military has engaged in forced displacement, sexual violence, torture, and extrajudicial killings against civilian populations as part of its ongoing conflict against armed groups in the country’s ethnic regions. A proper accounting in Myanmar must be inclusive of crimes committed against all its people, and inclusive of all the communities who have suffered at the hands of its military.

Decades of Impunity: A Brief History

For close to six decades, Myanmar has suffered from a crisis of impunity, one which the international community has never adequately addressed. Almost immediately after its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, civil war broke out between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) and armed organizations in the country’s ethnic nationality areas. The Tatmadaw overthrew civilian rule in 1962 and cracked down on all threats to its power, from journalists and political dissidents to the armed groups in the ethnic areas. Throughout the period of military rule (1962-2011), serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and forced labor were commonplace.

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May 19, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: A Crisis Born from Impunity

Posted by Grant Shubin and Akila Radhakrishnan

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published to Just Security on May 18, 2021). 

In his first speech since illegally attempting a coup d’etat, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing told the people of Myanmar that, “no one is above the law.” He went on, “no one or no organization is above the national interest in state-building and nation-building.” But in reality, Min Aung Hlaing and indeed all of the military (Tatmadaw) are very much above the law in Myanmar.

Of the coup’s many potential causes, perhaps the most overt is that military leadership thought they could get away with it. The military’s constitutional insulation from civilian oversight and control, the failure thus far to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and international crimes, and even periodic cheerleading from the international community for a “democratic transition” emboldened the military into thinking that subverting the will of the people could be done without major consequence. To quote the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, “This crisis was born of impunity.”

After all, the military has been getting away with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, so why not a coup?

In the aftermath of Feb. 1, a great many novel and knotted international legal questions have arisen. Chief among them is a question about the status of the constitutional order in Myanmar: the military has strained to claim that it is upholding the 2008 Constitution, while the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)/National Unity Government (NUG) have abolished the 2008 Constitution and issued a new Federal Democratic Charter that envisions a different system entirely. Rather than getting into the merits of these claims, this piece looks at the related – and in many ways inseparable – issue of how military impunity is an essential part of the narrative of the ongoing crisis and how accountability must be part of the solution moving forward. In doing so we analyze the major areas of concern in Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, the lack of concerted international action to address the military’s grave crimes, how those collective failings created an environment of impunity that paved the way for the coup, and why this path must be avoided going forward.

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February 17, 2021

Constitutional and Human Rights Crisis in Haiti


Law Clinics Call for U.S. Government to Condemn Haitian President’s Actions


In solidarity with civil society in Haiti, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law have released a statement calling on the U.S. government to denounce actions by President Jovenel Moïse that threaten human rights in Haiti.

Issued on February 13, 2021, the statement describes alarming actions taken by Moïse in the week preceding that threaten the rule of law and suggest an escalating constitutional crisis. Among the many issues cited, the statement notes Moïse’s refusal to step down after the conclusion of his term, the arbitrary detention of notable political officials, the removal of Supreme Court justices, and state violence against protestors and journalists. The U.S. based law clinics identify the crisis as part of a trend of “grave, state-sanctioned human rights abuses in Haiti” and worry that Moïse’s continual affront toward democratic checks on his power indicates his inability to “oversee free and fair elections for his replacement.”

The statement urges the Biden administration to forge a new path in U.S.-Haiti relations.

“The current U.S. administration should not continue the improper pressure that the Trump administration placed on Haitian actors to acquiesce to an unconstitutional electoral process,” the statement says. “Instead, the Biden administration should support democracy and human rights and condemn Moïse’s attacks against Haiti’s constitutional institutions. Otherwise, Moïse may be emboldened to further restrict human rights and democracy.”

The statement also asks the U.S. to halt deportations, given the political instability. “Since the beginning of February, ICE has deported more than 600 people to Haiti, many without even the opportunity to request asylum. These flights have included many children, infants and pregnant women.”

The statement concludes by making specific recommendations for the U.S. government in order to “support the rule of law in Haiti and [to] call on the Haitian government to meet its international human rights obligations.” This week, the organizers reached out to the United Nations to clarify its position on the issue.

Read the full statement here.

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October 13, 2020

Building Momentum: IHRC and ASP Launch Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings

Posted by Zac Smith JD'21

Sexual violence is all too common in conflict and post-conflict settings, causing horrific physical and psychological damage and preventing peace building efforts. As recognized in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2467 (2019), all individuals are at risk of sexual violence in conflict, and detention settings are a particular context of risk, especially for men and boys. 

Taking up Resolution 2467’s call to increase international attention and coordination on the issue, the All Survivors Project and the International Human Rights Clinic partnered to author the Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Detention Settings. Drawing from existing sources of international law and authoritative guidance, the document’s ten principles and accompanying commentary outline the international community’s responsibility to prevent and respond to CRSV. 

A red cover with a yellow block illustrating a cage with humans sitting on bars.

On Wednesday October 7, academic experts, policy makers, and diplomats came together at a virtual side event to the UN Human Rights Council to officially launch the Principles and highlight their significance. (Watch a recording of the event here.) Moderator Lara Stemple, Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and International Student Programs and Director of the Health and Human Rights Law Project at UCLA School of Law, prefaced the conversation by underlining the driving motivation for the All Survivors Project’s work — including these principles — that “human rights protections must be afforded to all people, regardless of their individual characteristics.” Panelists included Anna Crowe, Assistant Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, who supervised the Clinic’s work on the project; HE Premila Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict; Professor Manfred Nowak, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and  leader of a recently completed global study of children in detention; and Sophie Sutrich, Head of Addressing Sexual Violence for the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

The event began with opening remarks from representatives of three states that have championed CRSV prevention. Situating the place of the Principles in wider efforts to cultivate international peace and prosperity,Ambassador Jürg Lauber of Switzerland and Ambassador Peter C. Matt of Liechtenstein underlined their importance and timeliness. As Ambassador Lauber observed, “the Principles are clearly intended to be of practical use, as they contain specific recommendations for implementation.”Ambassador Tine Mørch Smith of Norway explained that “the physical hurt suffered from conflict related sexual violence does not discriminate between male and female victims.”She committed that CRSV prevention, including a focus on men and boys, would be a priority when Norway takes its seat as a non-permanent Security Council member in 2021.

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September 24, 2020

Sabrina Mahtani on Gender & Prison Alternatives


The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the Thailand Institute of Justice recently released a Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures, a handbook with information and guidance on alternatives to incarceration. Part of a Criminal Justice Handbook Series, the toolkit approaches incarceration as a last resort, providing support and guidance to make sure that women are not detained or imprisoned unnecessarily. “Now more than ever, with the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, there is a need to look towards non-custodial measures for women offenders to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system, maintain the health and safety of those in prison and ensure effective rehabilitation,” says the press release on the Thailand Institute of Justice’s website.

Human rights lawyer Sabrina Mahtani led the drafting and research, which took place in large part at Harvard Law School while she was a joint Fellow-in-Residence in the Human Rights Program and the Office of Public Interest Advising. You can learn more about Sabrina at the end of this post.

Sabrina recently spoke with HRP about developing the toolkit and where she hopes it will make the most impact.

In September 2020, the Thailand Institute of Justice and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime held an expert meeting in Bangkok to review the material for the report. Mahtani occupies the back row, second from left. Photo Credit: Thailand Institute of Justice.

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September 26, 2018

Human Rights Watch Releases Brief on Houthi Hostage-Taking in Yemen

International Human Rights Clinic Students Contribute Research

Illustration Credit: Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch released a brief on Tuesday documenting illegal imprisonment and serious abuses by Yemen’s Houthi rebel forces against detainees in their custody.  The brief uses investigative and legal research conducted by students of the International Human Rights Clinic on Houthi practices of hostage-taking and torture, and documents dozens of cases in which Houthis held people unlawfully and profited from their detention since 2014.  It also calls on the United Nations Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen to investigate and identify those responsible for abuses.

“The Houthis have added profiteering to their long list of abuses and offenses against the people under their control in Yemen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than treat detainees humanely, some Houthi officials are exploiting their power to turn a profit through detention, torture, and murder.”

International Human Rights Clinic students who contributed to this research include Zeineb Bouraoui, LLM ’18, Danesha Grady (Berkeley) ’JD 18, Tarek Zeidan, HKS MPA ’18, and Canem Ozyildirim, JD ’18.

Read the full brief here: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/09/25/yemen-houthi-hostage-taking.

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September 11, 2018

Emily Nagisa Keehn Co-Authors Case Study on Reducing Overcrowding in South African Detention Facility


Emily Nagisa Keehn, Associate Director of the Academic Program, has recently co-authored an article with Ariane Nevin from Sonke Gender Justice on human rights advocacy to reduce overcrowding in South African incarceration facilities and its relationship to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other health outcomes. Part of a research series under the Evidence for HIV Prevention in Southern Africa (EHPSA) initiative, the case study focuses on advocacy and impact litigation directed at Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility, one of South Africa’s most notoriously crowded and inhumane detention facilities and where Nelson Mandela was previously incarcerated and developed tuberculosis. Keehn and Nevin place the attempt to reduce overcrowding within the broader landscape of criminal justice reform in South Africa.

Pollsmoor Remand houses people awaiting trial and sentencing; it has experienced acute overcrowding since the early 2000s, with its occupancy spiking over 300% capacity. As the coauthors state:

“In 2015, after years of lobbying to reduce overcrowding and in the face of inertia on the part of policymakers and legislators, civil society escalated its advocacy and mounted a constitutional challenge in the Western Cape High Court with the case, Sonke Gender Justice v. the Government of South Africa.

In 2016, the judge ruled against the government and made a historic order to reduce occupancy to 150% of its capacity over a six-month period. By February 2017, the Department of Correctional Services…had already taken steps to reduce overcrowding at the facility from 252% to 174%…This case study describes the complex change process that enabled this reform and the contributions of different forms of advocacy by key actors.”

This paper is part of the series Included! How change happened for key populations for HIV prevention, commissioned by EHPSA to Sonke Gender Justice. EHPSA is a multi-country research initiative that examines HIV prevention in incarcerated populations, adolescents, and men who have sex with men. The full series of nine case studies and a discussion paper is available on the EHPSA website.

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May 31, 2018

Judge Overturns Unanimous Jury Verdict That Found Former Bolivian President and Defense Minister Responsible for Massacre of Indigenous People

 

This post originally appeared as a press release on the Center for Constitutional Rights’ website. For more information, contact [email protected].

Plaintiffs Argue Jury Made Right Decision, Promise Swift Appeal

 

May 30, 2018, Fort Lauderdale, Florida – Today, a federal judge overturned the verdict of a unanimous jury that found the former president of Bolivia and his minister of defense responsible for extrajudicial killings carried out by the Bolivian military, which killed more than 50 of its own citizens and injured hundreds during a period of civil unrest in September and October 2003. The jury’s decision, announced on April 3, came after a 10-year legal battle spearheaded by family members of eight people killed in what is known in Bolivia as the “Gas War.” The jury awarded a total of $10 million in compensatory damages to the plaintiffs. The trial marked the first time in U.S. history a former head of state has sat before his accusers in a U.S. civil court.

Today, Judge James I. Cohn upheld a motion by the defendants that argued there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict. The plaintiffs contend that the evidence presented at trial was more than sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude—as all 10 jurors did—that Bolivian soldiers killed the plaintiffs’ family members, and that the former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, are responsible for those deaths.

“The judge’s decision to overturn the jury’s unanimous verdict cannot change the truth, which the 10 jurors saw during the trial and affirmed after deliberating for nearly five days,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a plaintiff and member of the indigenous Aymara community of Bolivia, who were victims of the defendants’ decision to use massive military force against the population. “We have been fighting for justice for our family members for over fourteen years, and we have no plans to stop now. We will appeal this decision.”

Both Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín have lived in the United States since they fled Bolivia following the massacre in 2003. In Bolivia, in 2011, former military commanders and government officials who acted under Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín’s authority were convicted for their roles in the 2003 killings. Both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín were indicted in the same case, but could not be tried in abstentia under Bolivian law.

During the nearly month-long trial, the 10 jurors listened to the testimonies of 30 witnesses and heard evidence of at least 58 civilian killings and hundreds of civilian injuries carried out by the military in September and October 2003. The plaintiffs argue that the jury could have reasonably inferred that the death toll reflected the military’s deliberate use of lethal force against unarmed civilians, and that Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín consciously failed to stop the killings.

“The jury sat in trial for three weeks, deliberated for five days, and we are confident that they reached the right conclusion that the former President and Defense Minister were responsible for these killings. The judge depended on an erroneously high standard of evidence to overturn this verdict—that the defendants needed to have a premeditated plan to kill civilians—which the law does not require,” said Judith Chomsky, an attorney for the plaintiffs, cooperating through the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This case is not over, and we intend to swiftly appeal this decision.”

The family members are represented by a team of lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and the law firms of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP, and Akerman LLP. Lawyers from the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) are cooperating attorneys.

For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.


Juez revoca veredicto unánime del jurado que halló al expresidente boliviano y al antiguo ministro de Defensa responsables de masacre de indígenas

 

Los Demandantes argumentan que el jurado tomó la decisión correcta, prometen pronta apelación

30 de mayo, 2018, Fort Lauderdale, Florida – Hoy, un juez federal revocó el veredicto de un jurado que unánimemente halló al expresidente boliviano y a su ministro de Defensa responsables de los homicidios culposos realizados por los militares bolivianos, quienes mataron a más de 50 de sus propios ciudadanos e hirieron a cientos durante un período de disturbio civil en septiembre y octubre de 2003. La decisión del jurado, anunciada el 3 de abril, llegó después de una batalla legal de 10 años conducida por los familiares de ocho personas asesinadas en lo que se conoce en Bolivia como la “Guerra del gas.” El jurado otorgó un total de $10 millones en compensación por daños a los demandantes. El juicio fue la primera vez en la historia de los EUA en que un antiguo mandatario de estado se sentó frente a sus acusadores en una corte civil estadounidense.

Hoy, el juez James I. Cohn defendió una moción de los demandados que argumenta que la evidencia no era suficiente para respaldar el veredicto. Los demandantes contienden que la evidencia presentada en el juicio era más que suficiente para que un jurado razonable concluyese—así como lo hicieran 10 miembros del jurado—que los soldados bolivianos mataron a los familiares de los demandantes, y que el expresidente Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada y su ministro de Defensa, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, fueron responsables de esas muertes.

“La decisión del juez de revocar el veredicto unánime del jurado no puede alterar la verdad que vieron los 10 miembros del jurado durante el juicio y que afirmaron después de deliberar por casi cinco días,” dijo Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, un demandante y miembro de la comunidad indígena aymara de Bolivia, la cual fue víctima de la decisión de los demandados de usar fuerza militar masiva contra la población. “Por más de catorce años hemos luchado por justicia para nuestros familiares y no pensamos detenernos ahora. Apelaremos esta decisión.”

Tanto el expresidente boliviano, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, como su antiguo ministro de Defensa, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, han estado viviendo en los Estados Unidos desde que huyeron de Bolivia después de la masacre de 2003. En Bolivia, cinco excomandantes militares cuyas acciones dependían de Sánchez de Lozada y Sánchez Berzaín fueron condenados en 2011 por sus roles en las ejecuciones de 2003. Tanto Sánchez de Lozada como Sanchez Berzaín fueron imputados en el mismo caso, pero no pudieron ser juzgados in abstentia según la ley boliviana.

Durante casi un mes en juicio, los 10 miembros del jurado escucharon los testimonios de 30 testigos y escucharon la evidencia sobre al menos 58 civiles asesinados y cientos de civiles heridos por los militares en septiembre y octubre de 2003. Los demandantes argumentan que el jurado pudo inferir razonablemente que la cantidad de víctimas refleja el uso deliberado de fuerza letal que hicieron los militares contra civiles desarmados, y que Sánchez de Lozada y Sánchez Berzaín se abstuvieron conscientemente de detener esa matanza.

“El jurado estuvo en el juicio por tres semanas y deliberaron por cinco días, y estamos seguros de que llegaron a la conclusión correcta de que el expresidente y el antiguo ministro de Defensa fueron responsables de esos homicidios. El juez se respaldó en un estándar erróneamente alto de evidencia para revocar este veredicto—que los demandados precisaban tener un plan premeditado para matar civiles—algo que la ley no requiere,” dijo Judith Chomsky, una abogada de los demandantes, cooperante a nombre de Center for Constitutional Rights [Centro por los derechos constitucionales]. “Este caso no ha terminado y tenemos la intención de apelar esta decisión con prontitud.”

Los familiares están representados por un equipo de abogados de Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, y los bufetes de Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP, y Akerman LLP. Las(los) abogada(os) de Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) [Centro por la ley, la justicia y la sociedad (Dejusticia)] son abogadas(os) de cooperación.

Para mayor información, visite la página del caso (case page) del Center for Constitutional Rights.

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May 10, 2018

Emily Nagisa Keehn Co-Authors Article on Strategic Litigation to Address HIV and TB in South African Prisons


Congratulations to Emily Nagisa Keehn, Associate Director of the Academic Program, who co-authored with Ariane Nevin an article published this week in the Health and Human Rights Journal. The article, “Health, Human Rights, and the Transformation of Punishment: South African Litigation to Address HIV and Tuberculosis in Prisons,” examines the use of strategic litigation to develop and vindicate the health rights of incarcerated people in South Africa.

As the authors note: “The South African experience illustrates the value of an incremental strategic litigation strategy that begins with tackling narrow issues, such as access to anti-retroviral therapy (ART), and progresses towards challenging systemic drivers of disease, such as overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.” The article also examines “how South Africa’s strong and independent judiciary has facilitated change through the courts—despite the absence of popular support for penal reform—and how sustained lobbying, coalition-building, and mass media advocacy by activists have increased the impact of litigation.”

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