IAHR November 21 Newsletter

IAHR November 21 Newsletter

This week the IAHR newsletter includes four articles: 

Facing Up to the Trump Presidency by Rabbi Chuck Feinberg 

Texas Observer: Hundreds Protest Islamaphobia at Austin Mosque by Gus Bova

TA Torture Victim Turned Human Rights Champion Ends His Run Fighting for Justice by Jamil Dakwar, Director, ACLU Human Rights Program 

Petition to Release Bradley Maxwell from Solitary Confinement

 Facing Up to the Trump Presidency by Rabbi Chuck Feinberg

The election of Donald Trump to be the 45th President of the United States seriously challenges human rights and religious groups.  Mr. Trump is on record as favoring waterboarding and other human rights abuses during the interrogation of terrorist suspects and possibly other people viewed as threats to national security.  Below you will find an interview of Juan Mendez, the outgoing UN rapporteur on torture.  Mr. Mendez raises many serious concerns about how we as a country have not faced up to our recent history of torture and other abuses of detainees. 

The US Congress passed a defense authorization bill in 2015 which made it a crime for any US official to engage in torture.  Mr. Trump will need to go to Congress to reinstate torture and abusive treatment of detainees.  Thus, it will be our responsibility to mobilize our friends and colleagues to make sure that Congress does not undermine this law. 

Since the election of Mr. Trump, there has been a visible rise in abusive racist comments directed against minority students.  The Muslim community is understandably anxious.  Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped write tough immigration laws in Arizona and elsewhere, said in an interview that Trump's policy advisers had also discussed drafting a proposal for his consideration to reinstate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.  This is an ominous step.  We know that registering people of a minority group is the first step to discrimination and oppression.  Recently, I signed a rabbinic letter pledging to register as Muslim if the administration ever introduced such a practice.   

Moreover, IAHR issued the following statement: “Given the results of the recent election, IAHR assures the Muslim community that our commitment to your well-being is unshakeable.  We commit ourselves to opposing any discrimination of fellow Americans because of the religious faith they profess.  We will work with other Americans of good will to create a loving community that respects the faiths of all.”

It is unclear whether the Trump administration has thought about criminal justice reform.  But given Mr. Trump’s remarks about waterboarding and torture, we need to be concerned.  Recently, the Obama administration has been working on new policies to limit the use of solitary confinement in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  We need to make sure that these policies are not overturned.

We certainly have much to do!  IAHR is committed to ending policies and practices that promote torture in our society.  More than ever, we need your support so that we can counter the misinformation about torture, anti-Muslim bigotry, and criminal justice reform. 

Please help us by making a donation by clicking here

While there is much to be concerned about, we do encourage every American on Thanksgiving to be grateful for the many blessings of living in this land. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Texas Observer: Hundreds Protest Islamaphobia at Austin Mosque by Gus Bova

Demonstrators held signs reading “We stand with our Muslim neighbors,” “Jews reject Trump” and “You make America great.” 


Demonstrators with Interfaith Action for Human Rights held an anti-Islamophobia banner. 

A crowd of 300 gathered Friday outside an Austin mosque to show solidarity with Muslim Americans in light of a spate of Islamophobic hate crimes following the presidential election. The protesters, organized by the newly formed activist group Muslim Solidarity ATX, held signs outside the Nueces Mosque reading “We love our Muslim Neighbors” as worshippers gathered for Friday prayers.

“I just came here like every Friday; I had no idea this was happening,” said Mayce Sadi, a biochemistry student and mosque member. “It’s amazing all these people took the time to come here and show support.” 


Mayce Sadi

“It’s amazing all these people took the time to come here and show support,” said mosque member Mayce Sadi. 

Demonstrators also held signs reading “We stand with our Muslim neighbors,” “Jews reject Trump” and “You make America great.”

The mosque’s imam, Mohamed-Umer Esmail, addressed the crowd with a political message after prayers. “As long as we have wonderful people like you, America will always be great,” he said. “Together, we can get through hopefully only four years of President Trump.”

The Islamic Center of Greater Austin estimates that more than 10,000 Muslims live in the capital city. Esmail told the Observer he had heard reports of women being verbally harassed for wearing the hijab and of drivers intentionally swerving toward Muslim bicyclists.

Sadi confirmed the tense mood among the community. “What scares us is not that Trump is a racist,” she said. “It’s that so many people supported him, and you don’t know if they’re on the street or in your class with you.” 


Imam Mohamed-Umer Esmail addresses press with activist Matt Korn

Matt Korn, a local LGBTQ rights activist who first called for the demonstration, told the Observer he was motivated by stories from Muslim friends who were facing harassment. Korn said that he first connected with Imam Esmail’s mosque after Esmail participated in a vigil for the victims of the Orlando nightclub attack in June. The homophobic hate crime, carried out by an ISIS sympathizer, triggered a wave of Islamophobia that Korn sought to address by partnering with Esmail.

This month, when the presidential election set off a rash of anti-Muslim incidents, Korn reached out to the mosque again to offer support.

“I wanted to do this event to show people living in fear that there is love and support,” Korn said. “And to strengthen our community’s resolve for when worse things come down the pipe, like a Muslim registry.” Korn said Muslim Solidarity ATX will plan more public demonstrations in the future.

Gus Bova, a Kansas-Texas transplant and inveterate protest-attender, is an editorial intern at the Observer. He can be contacted at [email protected].

 A Torture Victim Turned Human Rights Champion Ends His U.N. Run Fighting for Justice, by Jamil Dakwar, Director, ACLU Human Rights Program

This week, internationally renowned Argentinian human rights lawyer and torture survivor Juan Méndez is ending his six extraordinary years as the U.N. special rapporteur on torture.

Méndez has been a fierce advocate against torture worldwide and a close ACLU partner in a wide variety of issue areas, including solitary confinement, the death penalty, gender and LGBT discrimination, accountability for CIA torture, and Guantanamo.

In his final official report, Méndez highlighted the need to adopt a set of universal standards for non-coercive interviewing in various contexts, including by law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies.

Juan Mendez

ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar had a chance to ask him some questions about his incredible work (answers have been edited for length and clarity). This Q&A is part one of two.

How would you evaluate your six-year term as the U.N. expert on torture, in terms of combating torture and impunity?

I don’t think we’re even close to being able to say that we are defeating torture or have eradicated it. It’s hard to make that assessment, however, because in all countries, torture fluctuates for different reasons — sometimes it’s used more extensively, and sometimes it’s used less extensively.

What I think has happened, however, mostly in this six-year period, but maybe a little earlier as well and hopefully continuing, is an increased awareness of the need to apply the prism of torture to situations that we don’t commonly associate with torture.

For example, there are forms of imprisonment — like solitary confinement — that undoubtedly are cruel, but that the public does not associate with torture. This also includes the mistreatment of people in settings other than detention or during criminal investigations — for example, in healthcare or social care settings.

I think we are also making inroads in associating the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment with the prohibition on discrimination of all forms. This gives us more awareness of the need to look at the mistreatment of women and girls — and also LGBT persons and other groups whose mistreatment we typically think of as discrimination — under the prism of torture. 

You called for accountability for CIA and other U.S. government officials responsible for torture in the Bush administration. In your estimation, why has the Obama administration failed so far to conduct comprehensive and independent criminal investigation to hold officials accountable for their actions?

I think the fact that the U.S. refuses to investigate, prosecute, or punish any of those episodes — and in fact puts obstacles in the way of revealing the truth about them by refusing to declassify the full Senate report — is a big drawback. I think it’s a drawback in the sense first and foremost that it creates the impression around the world that torture happens and that it is difficult — perhaps even unwise — to try to put a stop to it. And so it conditions the public and persons with positions of influence around the world to say “well this is inevitable, we have to live with it, and we can live with it.” And also, because the means of enforcement of international law are very weak, and the more powerful countries, like the U.S., get away with non-enforcement, there is an incentive to flaunt obligations by smaller states and even allies of the U.S.

Now officially, when I wrote to the U.S. government on specific cases, they didn’t say they were not and would not investigate instances of torture. It’s typically that they were looking into their options within the legal framework of domestic law in the U.S. I think, however, that in the public domain, statements by the government — including the president himself — about looking forward and not backward, about assuming that CIA officers are deemed categorically to have acted in the belief that their actions were legal because of the so-called torture memos, are unpersuasive.

There cannot be a categorical decision not to look into these matters, because that amounts to an amnesty, and amnesty for torture is a violation of international law. And you cannot invoke domestic law to violate international obligations — that is a clear standard of international law in general. But second, I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that the torture memos were illegal but constitute a basis for defense, much less to not even look at the actions themselves, given that some of the actions may have exceeded what even the torture memos seem to have authorized.

What are your plans for after you finish out your term? Would you be interested in pursuing any particular issues that you’ve focused on during your tenure?

Well, in terms of my plans generally, I’ve made a decision to stay in the field because I’ve been working on torture since before I became the special rapporteur and I intend to continue. I also intend to cooperate with my successor and with the treaty bodies and instruments that the U.N. and regional organizations have to fight against torture as much as I can.

I expect, as an academic but also as an advocate generally, to join the many organizations and individuals who are campaigning against torture around the world and to be of some service to the common cause of seeing torture eradicated if not in my lifetime, at least in the lifetime of someone who’s alive today.

With regard to specific areas of involvement that I’m interested in, some include the issues that we’ve been discussing, specifically solitary confinement, the death penalty, torture in healthcare, and others. But I am also interested in other areas, for example a better way of enforcing the exclusionary rule to forbid the consideration of evidence obtained by torture and the obligation to investigate, prosecute, and punish all instances of torture. I would also like to focus on the use of forensics to detect torture and to offer better rehabilitation services for torture. In all of these areas, I expect to contribute my efforts.

I am also particularly interested in following-up on my last thematic report to the General Assembly. This report elaborates on the legal, ethical, scientific, and practical arguments against the use of torture, other ill-treatment, and of coercive methods during questioning of persons in different investigative contexts.

In the report, I call for the development of a Universal Protocol for Investigative Interviewing and Attendant Legal Safeguards, which would identify a set of standards for non-coercive interviewing methods and procedural safeguards that should, as a matter of law, policy, and practice, be applied at a minimum to all interviews by law enforcement officials, military, and intelligence personnel. It would promote effective, ethical, and non-coercive interviewing centred on the presumption of innocence and the pursuit of truth.  

I hope that torture victims have been empowered and encouraged to participate in the enforcement of international law standards by insisting on reparations and rehabilitation, but also participation in investigations and truth-telling. A majority are drawn from the more vulnerable segments of society and suffered torture precisely because they have been disempowered. I hope they have a growing sense of participation in preventing torture for others in the near future.


 Bradley Maxwell Petition


Bradley Maxwell, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, has spent most of the last 15 years in “segregation” (solitary confinement) in Virginia prisons.  For the first 10½ years, he was kept in solitary confinement because he refused to cut his hair for religious reasons.  

Most recently, he has been in isolation continuously since October 4, 2015, without an explanation of the duration of his isolation or how much longer it will continue.  This is inconsistent with international human rights standards and the Justice Department’s January 2016 guidelines for the use of “restrictive housing.” 

We urge the Virginia Department of Corrections to either: (1) ensure that Bradley Maxwell is immediately released from segregation, or (2) provide him with a clear and complete explanation of why he cannot be immediately released from segregation, along with a path and a timeline for him to transfer to a less restrictive environment.

Sign the Petiton by clicking here.