Human rights advocates and family members gathered outside a federal courthouse in Arizona on Tuesday as the retrial began for Scott Warren, who faces up to a decade behind bars for providing humanitarian aid to migrants in the Sonoran Desert.
"The arrest and subsequent retaliatory criminal charges against Dr. Warren are an unjust criminalization of direct humanitarian assistance."
—Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International
"We are here today standing together as rural border residents in the firm belief that every life is sacred, deserving of care and dignity," Arivaca, Arizona resident Patty Miller said on behalf of the Rural Border Community Coalition. "For those of us living on the border, to deny care to those in need would be to deny our own humanity."
Warren, a 36-year-old geography professor and volunteer with the aid group No More Deaths, was arrested in 2018 for giving food, water, clean clothes, and shelter to two men traveling through the desert. After his first trial ended with a hung jury in June, federal prosecutors announced in early July that the government was dropping one felony count of conspiracy but would seek a retrial for two felony harboring charges.
Critics of Warren's case have accused the Trump administration of "criminalizing compassion." Amnesty International has promoted a social media campaign and petition calling on the Justice Department to #DropTheCharges. The international human rights group's secretary general, Kumi Naidoo, reiterated that call last week in a letter (pdf) to Michael Bailey, the U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona.
"The voluntary activities of Dr. Warren and his associated organization No More Deaths constitute vital humanitarian aid directed at upholding the right to life of migrants, and preventing the further arbitrary deaths of thousands more migrants and asylum seekers in the Sonoran Desert," Naidoo wrote of behalf of Amnesty's seven million members and supporters. "The arrest and subsequent retaliatory criminal charges against Dr. Warren are an unjust criminalization of direct humanitarian assistance."
"No one should die while attempting to migrate, and no one deserves to be punished for working to prevent those deaths," he added. "We call on you to immediately drop all the charges against Dr. Warren."
Dr. Scott Warren faces up to 10 years in prison for giving humanitarian aid to migrants in the desert. Acts of kindness like this must not be criminalized! Assert the right to give and receive aid, tell the @USAO_AZ to drop charges against Scott Warren. https://t.co/3Bq9WmM7u9
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) November 10, 2019
Thus far, the federal government has ignored calls to drop the charges and moved forward with the Warren's case. Jury selection began Tuesday morning and opening statements were expected in the afternoon.
Among the Warren supporters outside the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse in Tuscon Tuesday was his father, Mark, who asked: "What possible purpose is served by punishing Scott who, when confronted with a crisis of death and suffering in his own backyard, responded as any decent human would?"
Mark Warren, Dr. Scott Warren’s father, spoke first: “What possible purpose is served by punishing Scott who, when confronted with a crisis of death and suffering in his own backyard, responded as any decent human would?” #dropthecharges #waternotwalls pic.twitter.com/1eljy6LNfL
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— No More Deaths (@NoMoreDeaths) November 12, 2019
Ryan Devereaux, who has followed the case for The Intercept, pointed out in an article Monday that "Warren is one of nine volunteers with the faith-based organization No More Deaths that the administration has charged with federal crimes for their work in the Arizona desert" since President Donald Trump's inauguration in January 2017.
Notably, prosecutors this month filed a motion seeking to bar Warren from mentioning the president or his widely criticized immigration policies during the retrial.
NEW: The retrial of humanitarian aid volunteer Scott Warren begins tomorrow.
Prosecutors want all mention of Trump and his policies banned from court.
New research shows those policies — specifically those criminalizing aid work — are deeply unpopular. https://t.co/nnX3Qq712y
— Ryan Devereaux (@rdevro) November 11, 2019
"The government's attempts to erase the political nature of this retrial is part of their continued efforts to hide what is truly happening along the border and evade responsibility for the violence they have caused," Paige Corich-Kleim, a longtime volunteer with No More Deaths, told Devereaux. "Deaths on the border are the predictable outcome of not just border militarization, but also U.S. intervention in Latin America. Their attempts to limit the scope of evidence are self serving."
Speaking outside the courthouse Tuesday, Yvette Borja, an attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, reminded the crowd that "we must always center those most directly impacted by our cruel immigration system... We are called to stand in tireless solidarity with the migrants and volunteers that make our communities whole."