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United Nations Panel Slams U.S. Record on Police Brutality, Torture, Child Migrants & Guantánamo

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As protests continue over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the United States is facing pressure internationally over its failure to put a halt to police brutality. In a new report, the United Nations Committee Against Torture expresses deep concern over the “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” The Committee also criticizes a number of other U.S. practices on torture and imprisonment, Guantánamo Bay, and the custody of migrants including children in “prison-like detention facilities.” We discuss the report’s findings with Dr. Jens Modvig, member of the Committee Against Torture and one of two rapporteurs for its report.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As protests continue over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the United States is facing pressure internationally over its failure to put a halt to police brutality. In a new report, the United Nations Committee Against Torture expresses deep concern over the, quote, “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” The panel’s report was published following a series of hearings in Geneva last month. Michael Brown’s parents testified before the panel. Michael Brown Sr. spoke to the press after his testimony.

MICHAEL BROWN SR.: This trip is very important for the family, making a powerful step towards justice. We need your help. That’s why we’re here. We need the help to get this done. That’s why we’re here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The United Nations Committee Against Torture also questions a number of other U.S. practices. On torture and imprisonment, it criticizes the White House’s refusal to prosecute officials in the George W. Bush administration for torture and to provide redress to their victims. It also faults the United States for the indefinite imprisonment of foreign nationals at Guantánamo Bay and calls for an end to force-feedings.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. torture panel also calls on the Obama administration to release the Senate report on CIA torture, quote, “in the most complete and comprehensible form possible.” This comes as Senate Democrats have accused the White House of trying to censor key portions. The panel also called for ending U.S. custody of migrants, including children, in, quote, “prison-like detention facilities.”

To talk more about the U.N. report, we go to Copenhagen, Denmark, where we’re joined by Dr. Jens Modvig. He’s a member of the U.N. Committee Against Torture, was one of two rapporteurs for the most recent U.N. report on torture in the U.S. He’s also chief medical officer at Dignity, the Danish Institute Against Torture.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Dr. Jens Modvig. So, this was your first report on torture, the U.N. committee’s report on torture, since 2006. Why do it now, so many years later? And talk about your main findings.

DR. JENS MODVIG: Well, it should be remembered that the Convention Against Torture, which has been signed by 156 countries in the world, including the United States, obliges the state parties to send regularly, actually after each four years, a report to the committee on what has been the progress in terms of implementing the prohibition of torture and preventing that torture takes place. So, this is a regular report from the United States, and it’s a regular review by the Committee Against Torture.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And did the—did United States officials participate in your investigation or provide testimony to your panel, as well? And if so, who was it that participated?

DR. JENS MODVIG: Yes, as is normally the case, there was a delegation; 27 officials from United States, headed by Ambassador Keith Harper and Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, including the acting legal adviser of the Department of State, Ms. Mary McLeod. So, we had an oral Q&A session over two days with the U.S. delegation, and the committee had the opportunity to put questions to the report from the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, while the U.S. was presenting its record on human rights to the U.N. committee in Geneva, a group of youth activists from Chicago rose to their feet with their hands in the air to stage a silent protest. They wore T-shirts bearing the name of Dominique Franklin, a 23-year-old who died in June after police tasered him during an arrest for stealing a bottle of vodka. A member of the group We Charge Genocide, Malcolm London, said the response by U.S. officials at the hearing has been inadequate.

MALCOLM LONDON: Every day in the States, in the city of Chicago, We Charge Genocide has a report that is online for anyone who wants to view it, that documents every single day that police violate rights, abuse, sexually assault, murder and kill, particularly people who look like me, who are black and who are brown. And that is devastating. And what the state brought today does not at all cover and/or answer those questions and is inadequate. And while we’re dying in the streets, and the State Department is patting themselves on the back because they let us stand in a room—we’re not fighting for the right to stand in this room, we’re fighting for the right to be alive.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Malcolm London from Chicago, the group We Charge Genocide. He was in Geneva. Dr. Jens Modvig, if you could talk about this issue of police brutality and the significance of the parents of Michael Brown coming to testify?

DR. JENS MODVIG: Well, the Committee Against Torture takes an interest in the measures that United States has in place to control excessive use of force and police brutality. These measures is, inter alia, that all alleged cases are investigated, prosecuted and punished. And when we look at the statistics, we heard from the United States delegation that during the last five years a little over 300 cases have been criminally prosecuted of police officers. We asked for the resource of these prosecutions, but we have not received this information. So, there’s still doubt as to whether the mechanisms to hold police officers accountable for excessive use of force, police brutality and even police shootings are probably in place. Another issue of importance is whether there are independent oversight bodies that can check up on the way the power is administered in the law enforcement. And also here we have some doubts whether police review boards are sufficiently independent. So these are some of the concerns that the committee has expressed vis-à-vis the United States delegation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Dr. Modvig, could you put this in context, what’s occurring here in the United States, vis-à-vis other advanced industrialized nations, this whole issue of excessive force or killings by police of civilians as they perform their law enforcement functions? Is the United States more or less similar to other countries, or is there an outlier in terms of the amount of force used against its citizens?

DR. JENS MODVIG: Well, that’s difficult to assess exactly because there is not full transparency. We have asked the United States delegation for complete statistics about alleged excessive use of force and the reactions in terms of investigations and prosecutions and punishments. And this is the means to obtain transparency in this field. And this is the recommendations that the committee have been doing towards United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you go through those recommendations?

DR. JENS MODVIG: They are that each case of alleged excessive use of force, each complaint over police officers, needs to be fully investigated by an independent body. And in case there are bases for prosecution, then the prosecution should be done. And if found guilty, the police officers should be punished accordingly. Further, the victims that have been subjected to excessive use of force should be able to receive remedy for this.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have an opinion on the grand jury decision that was handed down against the police officer who killed Mike Brown, no indictment?

DR. JENS MODVIG: No, I think the committee respects the decision of the grand jury. We are not in a position to evaluate that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to play for you comments President Obama made six years ago, shortly before he took office, about whether the CIA officials involved in torture should be prosecuted. He appeared on the ABC news program This Week.

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that, for example, at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Obama speaking on ABC back in January of 2009.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Jens Modvig, your response to that, and what you found around the issue of torture?

DR. JENS MODVIG: There is no doubt, according to the Convention Against Torture, state parties has a very clear obligation to investigate cases of torture, to prosecute perpetrators of torture, and to punish severely according to the serious nature of the crime of torture. That is a very clear obligation according to the convention.

AMY GOODMAN: What about your findings at Guantánamo? Can you talk about what has happened in the United States over this period since 2001? President Obama, one of his first executive orders, closing Guantánamo within a year—of course, that hasn’t happened, and it’s well over six years later.

DR. JENS MODVIG: On a positive note, the U.S. delegation recognized that the convention and its absolute prohibition against torture and ill treatment also applies to extra territories outside the U.S. where the U.S. has government authority, and that this includes Guantánamo. So, first and foremost, there is no doubt that the prohibition against torture also applies for Guantánamo detainees. However, the committee has raised concern about the continued indefinite detention in Guantánamo. Apparently, the number of hunger strikes that are implemented by the detainees in protest of the detention conditions, and certainly also the procedures that are made official of how hunger strikers are force-fed, a treatment that definitely amount to ill treatment and possibly even to torture.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dr. Modvig, your report also talks about the death penalty and especially singles out an issue that we’ve covered extensively here on Democracy Now!, the issue of botched executions in the United States. Could you talk about that?

DR. JENS MODVIG: The committee has made two recommendations in connection with the execution of death penalty. The first one is to recommend to the United States to make a moratorium—that is, to stop the execution of the death penalties; and secondly, to review the procedures for executions. And the reason is, obviously, that there has been a number of procedural irregularities in connection with execution of death penalties, which have caused unnecessary, severe pain and suffering to those that were going to be executed.

AMY GOODMAN: Back on the issue of Guantánamo, do you feel government officials should be prosecuted?

DR. JENS MODVIG: I have no personal feelings in this respect. I’m only speaking about what the committee has recommended. And obviously, to the degree that torture has been committed or ill treatment has been committed, the United States has an obligation, according to international law, to prosecute those responsible for this.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the issue of solitary confinement and juvenile justice in the United States, what you found?

DR. JENS MODVIG: There seems to be a disagreement between the United States delegation and the committee of whether use of solitary confinement is widespread or not. In the committee, we have information that it is certainly very widespread. But this gives rise to one of the two recommendations, namely, to provide full statistics of the use of solitary confinement, including which groups are subjected to solitary confinement and for how long. The second recommendation of the committee is to regulate much more closely the use of solitary confinement in terms of how long it can be applied and which groups should be absolutely exempt from solitary confinement—for instance, minors and persons with mental health disorders—and also that the government publishes statistics about cases of suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm that occur among those subjected to solitary confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Jens Modvig, we want to thank you—

DR. JENS MODVIG: This is a practice that we know, from scientific studies, is mentally harmful, so it should be reduced to an absolute minimum.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us. Dr. Jens Modvig is chief medical officer at Dignity, the Danish Institute Against Torture.

DR. JENS MODVIG: Thank you. You’re welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: A member of the U.N. Committee Against Torture, was one of two rapporteurs for the most recent U.N. report on torture in the United States. We’ll link to your report at democracynow.org. When we come back, we go to Berlin to learn about a new drone report and then to Syracuse, New York, a father of four facing two years in prison for protesting outside a drone base outside Syracuse, New York. Stay with us.

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