A few days ago, I wrote at UN Dispatch that:

The intervening parties in Libya should make it clear to the rebels that no amount of revenge violence against civilian supporters of the Gaddafi regime, or loyalist tribes, or foreign migrant workers or any other group will be tolerated.

Likewise, the international community should be absolutely clear that it expects prisoners of war to be treated humanely, in accordance with international law, regardless of which side they fought for.

Now, here’s the LA Times today:

Rebel forces are detaining anyone suspected of serving or assisting the Kadafi regime, locking them up in the same prisons once used to detain and torture Kadafi’s opponents.

For a month, gangs of young gunmen have roamed the city, rousting Libyan blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa from their homes and holding them for interrogation as suspected mercenaries or government spies.

Over the last several days, the opposition has begun rounding up men accused of fighting as mercenaries for Kadafi’s militias as government forces pushed toward Benghazi. It has launched nightly manhunts for about 8,000 people named as government operatives in secret police files seized after internal security operatives fled in the face of the rebellion that ended Kadafi’s control of eastern Libya last month.

These are profoundly ominous developments.

A story from the other side of the world

A Twitter link led me to Blog-a-stan, the blog of an American Ph.D student doing her dissertation research in Kazan, Russia. Immediately, I was hooked by the author’s dark humor and storytelling. And when I came to the half-way point in a post titled Sud’ba (“Fate”) I stopped, and shivered, because I knew the story already.

Read, and then I’ll explain.

Tanya was sitting wrapped in a goat fur blanket rocking herself back and forth. It was only 8pm but they seemed to have already finished off a bottle of vodka and Valeria was now opening the second. “Leslie, come, sit, eat with us” she said. “Oh I just ate” I said but sat down for conversation. Tanya was moaning and crying and Valeria began to explain that her only daughter had just died. “It was a stomach illness. They did an operation but 100 days later, two days ago, she died. She was 37 years old.” Tanya sobbed and shook. I said how sorry I was to her, my eyes wide, slowly becoming conscious of the fact that I was rocking back and forth on my own chair empathetically. “Sud’ba” Tanya shook her head, “Sud’ba,” she sobbed as she tightened the goat hair blanket around her. I tried to remember the word, which I knew I knew but couldn’t find in my head at the time, only to look it up in the dictionary later and remember it: “Fate.” Valeria explained that Tanya’s husband had died five years ago of cancer so now she was all alone in her house. And she continued, hesitantly, touching my arm as she explained, “Tanya can’t sleep at her place any more. It’s just too sad for her there. Would you mind if she stayed here with us for awhile?” For a moment, and I know this is awful, but for a moment the thought crossed my mind that the dead daughter was an elaborate ruse and that they were together and felt they needed to come up with an excuse for Tanya sleeping over all the time. “Of course I don’t mind,” I said with the utmost sincerity, whichever story was true I was happy to have Tanya stay. From then on I became accustomed to walking in to find Tanya with Valeria at the table, a bottle of vodka by her side that they would stay up late drinking rocking back and forth and talking about “Sud’ba.” Valeria too is a victim of Sud’ba at the moment as her ex-husband is currently insisting she sell the dacha she uses on the weekends and there’s nothing she can do about it. Both situations strike me as things we would deal with not just emotionally but practically through lawyers in the States to regain our control over the situation. We would find a pretense for suing the hospital for the botched operation, take the husband to court to insist on our right to half the property, maybe even the whole thing. And while this wouldn’t take the pain away, particularly in the first case, it would at least give us a feeling of some agency over this damn Sud’ba.

Yes, I know this story, with some slight differences. My version has loose leaf tea instead of vodka, an old comforter from Bagram Airbase instead of a goat hair blanket, and a young Afghan man in the place of a middle aged Russian Tatar woman.

But the grief-stricken rocking, and the wide-eyed American, and the very real, physically wrenching absence of justice, the rule of law and human agency are the same. So is the sud’ba.

State-building: ur doin it wrong

I facepalmed when I read a recent Foreign Policy interview with  Mohammad Farid Hamidi, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s representative at the Working Group on Conflict-Related Detention.

Why did I facepalm? This:

Though he wasn’t consulted for either the Stone Review or Gen. McChrystal’s assessment, Mohammad Farid Hamidi, the Commission’s representative at the Working Group on Conflict-Related Detentions in Afghanistan, had some additional insights that U.S. reviews should have included.

Seriously? Really? The AIHRC was not consulted?

If we’re not going to listen to Afghans like Hamidi at this late hour…I just don’t know.

New York State bans shackling prisoners during childbirth

Earlier this summer, Human Rights Watch (one of many organizations that campaigned to end the policy of shackling pregnant inmates) wrote to the New York State Assembly:

Shackling of women in these circumstances represents a grave health risk and an unacceptable and unnecessary affront to women’s dignity. By passing NYS 1290, the New York state legislature would join a growing community of medical authorities, international bodies, and penal systems that have come out against this dangerous practice and in favor of ensuring the human rights and constitutional rights of women in state custody. We urge you to vote in favor of this important legislation.

Women who are shackled are at risk for injury during transportation to medical appointments, can suffer added pain during delivery, and may be deprived of appropriate care during examinations and delivery.[ii] Officials from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have stated that “physical restraints have interfered with the ability of physicians to safely practice medicine by reducing their ability to assess and evaluate the physical condition of the mother and the fetus … thus, overall putting the lives of women and unborn children at risk.”[iii] This risk is heightened by the fact that the pregnancies of women in custody are usually already high-risk.[iv] In addition, the humiliation brought on by the shackling is inflicted on a population with a high incidence of past sexual or physical abuse.[v] Finally, it is inflicted without a persuasive security justification: The large majority of women in prison are there on account of convictions for non-violent offenses,[vi] and those jurisdictions that have restricted the use of shackles have not reported security problems.[vii]

The Assembly, to its credit, passed legislation that bans shackling unless the woman in question is a threat to hospital staff or guards. New York Governor David Paterson signed the legislation into law this week. This change in policy is, as Michael Mechanic put it in Mother Jones, “a small, humane step for a very, very troubled American institution.”

Six states now prohibit shackling inmates during childbirth under either all of most circumstances. Forty-four more to go.

New York –somewhere below Kenya, Guatemala, Brazil and Bulgaria

…in transparency, when it comes to juvenile prisons.

Mie Lewis gives an account of her struggle to obtain information on girls in juvenile prisons that reads like something from the undemocratic world:

Back in the winter of 2005, I was a novice researcher at Human Rights Watch, trying to find out what life was like for girls held in youth prisons in upstate New York. Getting information was almost impossible. The New York juvenile justice agency — called the Office of Children and Family Services, or OCFS — was one of the most secretive and defensive that Human Rights Watch had ever encountered, even compared with agencies in places like Bulgaria, Guatemala, Kenya, and Brazil.

Because OCFS refused to let human rights monitors into its facilities, we scraped together information from every place we could, tracking down girls who had recently been released, finding sources inside the agency and even lurking in prison parking lots in mid-winter to talk to the parents of incarcerated girls.

This week, the Department of Justice released a scathing report on inhumane conditions in juvenile prisons in upstate New York. What the New York Times describes in its article on the report is inexcusable:

Excessive physical force was routinely used to discipline children at several juvenile prisons in New York, resulting in broken bones, shattered teeth, concussions and dozens of other serious injuries over a period of less than two years, a federal investigation has found.

Lewis continues:

First, the Justice Department’s report shows us that these four youth prisons, at a minimum, are corrupt beyond repair. They should be closed. Now. More effective, cheaper and safer alternatives to incarceration have worked elsewhere, are working in New York, and need to be expanded.

Second, in the coming legislative session, the New York state senate must pass the bill, which has been introduced several times, creating an Office of the Child Advocate, separate from OCFS. The abuses in youth prisons thrive in darkness. An independent child advocate means transparency and accountability, which are the only way to keep these abuses from happening over and over.

There have been more than enough damning reports, broken bones, and abandoned children. We know where the problems lie, and how to solve them. It will take genuine political will and public pressure that goes on far longer than a news cycle to make sure that two years from now we don’t hear the same heartbreaking revelations again.

According to the DoJ report, a federal takeover of New York State’s juvenile prisons is being considered. It says a great deal about the New York State Government that its incarcerated children were forced to endure so much, for so long, while officials actively sought to prevent human rights advocates like Lewis from uncovering abuses.

America leading by example, yet again.

File this under “things that make me ashamed of my country”

It would have been nice of  the judge who sentenced sixteen year old Sara Kruzan  to life without parole for the crime of killing her pimp (the man who raped Kruzan and forced her into prostitution when she was just a middleschooler) to have weighed seriously not only Kruzan’s young age, but also the fact that she was also, very obviously, a victim of human trafficking.


Some thoughts on the Phoenix Liberian case

By now, most of you have heard the heartrending story of the little Liberian refugee girl who was raped by four boys, also Liberian refugees, in Phoenix, AZ.  The four boys ranged in age from 9 to 14 years old. When the girl’s parents learned what happened, they told the police to take their daughter away, that the shame she had brought on her family was too great to bear. The girl was subsequently placed in foster care.

Like I said, most of you know these details already. And if you’ve read the news stories, you also know what the knee-jerk media and public reaction to this story has been — oh, those savage Africans!

Right wing columnist Phyllis Chesler even titled her column –I’m not kidding– “Child Barbarians in Phoenix: Obama Extends their Stay,” and used what happened in Phoenix to advance her argument that people from the “Third World” are inherently criminal, violent, animalistic and unassimilable into American society.

She wrote:

Most Americans have no idea how different our culture is from cultures in the Middle East, central Asia, or Africa. If differences are acknowledged, America and the West are blamed for them. The barbarism, genocide, perpetual civil and religious wars, the cruelties of Sharia law (stoning, cross-amputations, be-heading), and the utterly tragic treatment of women, children, and the poor in the Third World– all are blamed on western imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism.

Not true–or so I have been arguing for years. Some barbarism is indigenous to a region. But even if it were true–what’s to be done now? Should we willingly welcome cannibals [Huh? -Ed], gang-rapists, child-rapists, polygamists, (dis)honor murderers to our shores?

Terrible things happen in the Third World: Children as young as five are routinely kidnapped into slavery, or forced to become suicide bombers or child-soldiers. Children see their mothers raped, their fathers tortured, their parents and other relatives brutally murdered. Male children are forced to rape their own mothers, female children are forced to sexually service men old enough to be their grandfathers. No one protects, consoles, re-educates, or “treats” them as trauma victims.

Immigrants bring both their barbarism and their traumatized histories right along with them when they come to America.

Anti-refugee blogger Ann Corcoran also weighed in. Displaying her inimitable talent for creatively combing prejudices, she wrote :

This is a heinous practice we are well aware of with followers of Islam—-blaming the rape victim.  But these Liberians are likely not Muslims, so I was interested to learn that this cultural problem was coming into the US with other refugee cultures as well.

Predictably, one of her commenters responded:

The family of the rape victim should be deported immediately. They don’t understand nor to they have the same values that we Americans have. They have no business being here. The families of the rapists should also be investigated. We shouldn’t have to allow people with these sort of views to live in this country. They don’t seem to understand what civilized people allow. We can’t have them breeding a generation of this kind of thinking in this land. I am sorry if this sounds harsh, but if they came here for a better life, that is fine, but if their values will alter our way of life, then they shouldn’t be allowed to come.

Americans also commit rape, just like Americans also murder and abuse their children and intimate partners. As has been proved time and again, foreign born residents –including refugees- are actually less likely to commit violent crimes than Americans born in this country. These are not opinions, they are facts. (See here and here.)

A climate of impunity for violence against women, much of it sexual, has existed in Liberian society for a long time, and reached unfathomable proportions during Liberia’s civil war. This is also true.

But so is the tremendous effort Liberian activists have put into ending that culture of impunity and changing social attitudes toward women and victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Like every other society, Liberian society is not culturally or attitudinally monolithic. Certain opinions are widely (though not universally) held, but extrapolating the actions or opinions of any individual or small group of individuals to the entire racial, ethnic, religious or national category that person or those individuals fall into is illogical, dangerous bigotry. It reduces people to categorical absolutes, dismisses all of life’s messiness as predestination, and encourages faulty assumptions about violence, culture, and causality.

The parents of the rape victim in Phoenix have done themselves and the rest of the Liberian refugee community in the United States no favours by abandoning their daughter and telling the press how ashamed of her they are, but they do not represent all Liberians refugees, or all Liberians. Prominent Liberians from U.S.-based activists to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have condemned the reaction of this family and expressed their support for the victim. The Liberian diaspora has recoiled in as much horror at the entire situation as everyone else.

This is not about Africans.

This is not about Liberians.

This is not about refugees.

And this is not about your agenda or my agenda when it comes to immigration.

This is about a little girl in Phoenix who had something terrible done to her, parents who betrayed their child when she needed them most, and yes, four little boys who will now be swallowed by the criminal justice system and whose lives will forever be defined by a crime they committed as juveniles.


The county prosecutor for Maricopa County has stated that the 14 year old boy will be tried as an adult, while the 9, 10 and 13 year olds will be tried as juveniles. Instead of receiving counseling and rehabilitation to re-enter society, these boys will spend years, possibly decades in the case of the 14 year old, in some of the worst prisons in the democratic world.

Childhood is defined legally and understood socially by a person’s age, not by his or her behaviour or capacity. Ten year olds are fully capable of drinking and smoking, but we don’t let them do those things. Fifteen year olds are certainly capable of fighting in wars –but we don’t let anyone enlist in the armed forces until she or her reaches age 18, and we view combatants below that age elsewhere in the world as victims of adult manipulation and unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

A few nights ago, I asked a lawyer friend to explain the rationale behind trying children as adults and sentencing them to hard time in adult prisons. He said that there isn’t a sound legal rationale behind it –it’s purely pandering to a lynch mob mentality for political gain, buying votes by satiating voters’ desire for retribution without the consideration of mitigating circumstances. It’s not that we view child offenders as adults when they commit terrible crimes, he explained, it’s that we stop caring that they are children.

All of that made perfect sense to me. There are many aspects of American political culture that are incredibly illiberal and backward, and our attitude toward juvenile offenders is one of these. Not until 2005, following the Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons, did it become illegal everywhere in the United States to apply the death penalty to juvenile offenders.

Even then, the court ruled 5-4, and the decision is still controversial. Think about that: it’s controversial for the United States to no longer be executing people for crimes they committed as kids. Prior to Roper, fifteen states still allowed the execution of juvenile offenders as young as 16 years old.

What is in store for the Liberian refugee children at the center of the Phoenix tragedy? For the little girl, I hope, all the medical and psychological services she needs, with or without the future involvement of her parents in her life. It is also my sincere wish that she finds the kind of unconditional love she was denied by her parents.

For the boys, life from now on will be nasty, poor, solitary, and bereft of opportunities for rehabilitation. Given where they will stand trial, convictions are all but guaranteed, and the resulting sentences will likely be lengthy, custodial ones. The conditions in Maricopa County jails violate minimum humanitarian standards. Infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio runs Maricopa like his personal, authoritarian fiefdom. I wrote about Arpaio last year. If you think I’m being dramatic and exaggerating what the Liberian boys will face in the days ahead –or you believe the boys deserve whatever is coming to them– I suggest you keep reading.

Continue reading

Thoughts for the weekend



Next time I come across one of those ‘Feminism Killed Romance/Chivalry/Marriage/Civilization’ pieces that seem to be so popular right now, I think I’m going to start projectile vomiting Exorcist-style.


Dozens killed in suicide bombings: Iraq is going to pieces. I didn’t think the surge would work, but I didn’t want it to fail. On the contrary, I very much wanted to be wrong in my prediction, and I still do.


I am disappointed that Ashraf Ghani has hired James Carville to advise him in his bid for the Afghan presidency. Carville represents all that is mercenary, cynical and deeply illiberal in American politics.


A trusted friend sent me a very reassuring email from Sarajevo, basically telling me to chill, and that Dodik knows he has already lost, but enjoys theatrics. Despite the deadlock, we push ahead, keeping sight of larger goals that move us beyond divisive politics –that was his message. This friend of mine is his country’s future, I am convinced.


Ann Corcoran hates refugees. And Muslims. But more than anything else, she hates vulnerable Muslim minority refugees. Iraqi Palestinians, for example. On my other blog, I wrote about this.


I keep telling my boss that I have hope that the reformists will win out in Iran. I believe they will, and I look forward to visiting a democratic Iran some day. I want to sit in a cafe in Tehran with my peers and listen to them tell me how they forced their government to recognize them as citizens and not mere subjects, how they won.


“The most important lesson the struggle taught me and my friends is that no one is endowed with remarkable courage. But courage is another word for learning to live with your fears. Now, after eighteen years and the Chilean Truth Commission, courage has again evolved a new definition: the guts not to give in to easy justice. To live within the confinements of reality, but to search day after day for the progressing of one’s most cherished values.”

-Jose Zalaquett, at the opening of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


“One cannot expect morality from politicians, but one can hold them to the ethics of accountability.” -Antjie Krog. From  ‘None More Parted Than Us’ in the amazing book Country of My Skull.


I know a lot of people think  Amnesty International letter (now email/fax) writing campaigns on behalf of prisoners of conscience are futile, but they’re not, even when the subject of the campaign remains imprisoned. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right when she said this:

I know from the time of the GDR (East Germany) how important it was that people around the world made sure that the people stuck in (Stasi prisons) Bautzen and Hohenschoenhausen … were not forgotten. Iran must know, particularly in the age of modern communications, that we will do everything in our power to ensure that these people (arrested in Iran during the recent turmoil) are not forgotten about.


Thinking of Bosnia, of Srebrenica, of the grim anniversary. A powerful letter by a member of Women in Black (Belgrade), translated and published here:

And my dear Senka…

I missed you…so much…yesterday in Srebrenica…Again at the place where crimes were committed in my name, in our name…
Srebrenica…every time…it is an experience that will be remembered…the physical experience above all…which can never be forgotten…it’s here again…in me…and me with her (Srebrenica).

Meeting with the Women of Srebrenica…meeting with women whose bodies have been emptied of children killed by Serbs in my, in our name…

That’s them, those are “our” women…the same ones that followed the trial of the “Scorpions” with us, the same ones who we visit in Tuzla, and the ones that we meet in Srebrenica every year…You know this best…You know…Home is where you are loved…They always welcome you with a smile in their eyes, the same eyes that will never see their loved ones again…Serbs killed them! And they always open their arms to us, the same arms that will never hold their children again…Serbs killed them! And they come to you with a pure heart and a pure soul…they hug you and kiss you and even say thank you… to us, people from a brutalized, shameful, guilty land…And then you just want to die…to be gone…to vanish…to cease to exist…

And then…after all, after you have been burned by the July sun…wearing black…when you feel so guilty that you think this is it…Srebrenica is inside you…and that, my dear Senka, is confronting the past…our feminist approach…No abstract process…and it’s not happening to someone else, someone  far away…it’s happening to us in a land of  humanity, we who live in a land deprived of its humanity.

And then I remembered you…You, my image of you, every time we would travel back together from Bosnia…that horrible…hard…weight and silence I would see in your eyes…In front of me I see a large eyeball, a mouth of stone, which gives the impression that the verdict is already there…in front of me is a stone jury…
“We are guilty…”

I love you,