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While the US House of Representatives chamber filled for a vote today at 4:40pm, Representatives' eyes and ears turned toward the Chamber's gallery as a group of activists interrupted proceedings to call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison and denounce provisions in the Defense Appropriations Bill concerning detention policy.
Fifteen people from the group Witness Against Torture stood in the gallery to read the following statement:
Today the House of Representative is in the process of contemplating not the passage of a bill but the commission of a crime. Provisions in the proposed Defense Appropriations Bill grant the United States powers over the lives of detained men fitting of a totalitarian state that uses the law itself as an instrument of tyranny. The law would make the prison at Guantanamo permanent by denying funds for the transfer of men to the United States, even for prosecution in civilian courts.
Abandoning the civilian courts, the bill would be the ultimate concession that the rule of law and cherished American values cannot survive the fear and hatred that have consumed this country. The proposed bill makes restrictions on the transfer of detainees even to foreign countries so severe that no one -- whether cleared for release by our own government or acquitted in trials -- could be expected to leave Guantanamo. It therefore mandates the indefinite detention even of innocent human beings, which is the very essence of tyranny. Congress has an obligation to uphold the US Constitution. All Americans have the obligation to defend human rights. The proposed bill makes America a callous and reckless jailer, unworthy of the name of democracy. It must be defeated.
Guantanamo must close. Those unjustly bound must be freed. Justice must rule.
The activists were removed from the gallery by the police and placed under arrest. They will likely appear for arraignment in District of Columbia Superior Court on Friday.
Earlier today, before entering the House chamber, members of Witness Against Torture, the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), Amnesty International and other groups embarked on a March of Shame, walking between the institutions in Washington DC that continue to be responsible for unjust, illegal, and immoral American policies and conduct.
Beginning at the White House at 11am, the anti-torture activists, dressed in the orange jumpsuits and black hoods that are now emblematic of the policies of torture and abuse that the Obama administration inherited from President George W. Bush and has further entrenched. Then the group solemnly processed to the Department of Justice, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol.
The demonstrators called on all branches of government to close Guantanamo, end indefinite detention, repudiate the Military Commissions, and resist any effort to reauthorize torture in the form of "enhanced interrogations." The procession took place as the House of Representatives is dealing with a version of the 2012 defense appropriations bill that undermines US Federal Courts, keeps Guantanamo open, and attempts to expand indefinite detention.
Witness Against Torture will vigil at the Department of Justice on Friday (6/24) from noon to 2pm. These demonstrations are part of a week of activities organized by the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition International, culminating in a vigil in front of the White House on Saturday, June 25th from 7am to 7pm.
Witness Against Torture demands:
Witness Against Torture is a grassroots movement that came into being in December 2005 when 24 activists walked to Guantanamo to visit the prisoners and condemn torture policies. Since then, it has engaged in public education, community outreach, and non-violent direct action. For the first 100 days of the Obama administration, the group held a daily vigil at the White House, encouraging the new President to uphold his commitments to shut down Guantanamo.
"As long as the Biden administration continues to deploy tools like the Espionage Act to imprison those who dare to expose war crimes, no publisher and no journalist will be safe," said one of the tribunal's co-chairs.
As Julian Assange awaits the final appeal of his looming extradition to the United States while languishing behind bars in London's notorious Belmarsh Prison, leading left luminaries and free press advocates gathered in Washington, D.C. on Friday for the fourth sitting of the Belmarsh Tribunal, where they called on U.S. President Joe Biden to drop all charges against the WikiLeaks publisher.
"From Ankara to Manila to Budapest to right here in the United States, state actors are cracking down on journalists, their sources, and their publishers in a globally coordinated campaign to disrupt the public's access to information," co-chair and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman said during her opening remarks at the National Press Club.
"The Belmarsh Tribunal... pursues justice for journalists who are imprisoned or persecuted [and] publishers and whistleblowers who dare to reveal the crimes of our governments," she continued.
"Assange's case is the first time in history that a publisher has been indicted under the Espionage Act," Goodman added. "Recently, it was revealed that the CIA had been spying illegally on Julian, his lawyers, and some members of this very tribunal. The CIA even plotted his assassination at the Ecuadorean Embassy under [former U.S. President Donald] Trump."
\u201cWatch the Belmarsh Tribunal LIVE from Washington, D.C. today at 2 pm ET. \n\nIncluding Amy Goodman, @HorvatSrecko, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, @khrafnsson, @jeremycorbyn, Betty Medsger & @SMaurizi.\n\nFreedom for Assange and journalism are at stake. \n\nhttps://t.co/BsTWi02Xct\u201d— Progressive International (@Progressive International) 1674225186
Assange—who suffers from physical and mental health problems including heart and respiratory issues—could be imprisoned for 175 years if fully convicted of Espionage Act violations. Among the classified materials published by WikiLeaks—many provided by whistleblower Chelsea Manning—are the infamous "Collateral Murder" video showing a U.S. Army helicopter crew killing a group of Iraqi civilians, the Afghan War Diary, and the Iraq War Logs, which revealed American and allied war crimes.
According to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Assange has been arbitrarily deprived of his freedom since he was arrested on December 7, 2010. Since then he has been held under house arrest, confined for seven years in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London while he was protected by the administration of former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, and jailed in Belmarsh Prison, for which the tribunal is named.
Human rights, journalistic, peace, and other groups have condemned Assange's impending extradition and the U.S. government's targeting of a journalist who exposed American war crimes.
\u201c"That the extradition proceedings against Assange are an unexpected legal outcome \u2014 is a lie. Based on my experience as Ecuador's foreign minister...the British government wanted to extradite him all along." \u2014 @GuillaumeLong\n\nAttend the Belmarsh Tribunal. https://t.co/1au3neo8FD\u201d— Progressive International (@Progressive International) 1674143897
In a statement ahead of Friday's tribunal, co-chair and Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat said:
The First Amendment, freedom of the press, and the life of Julian Assange are at stake. That's why the Belmarsh Tribunal is landing literally just two blocks away from the White House. As long as the Biden administration continues to deploy tools like the Espionage Act to imprison those who dare to expose war crimes, no publisher and no journalist will be safe. Our tribunal is gathering courageous voices of dissent to demand justice for those crimes and to demand President Biden to drop the charges against Assange immediately.
Belmarsh Tribunal participants include Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, U.S. academic Noam Chomsky, British parliamentarian Jeremy Corbyn, former Assange lawyer Renata Ávila, human rights attorney Steven Donziger, and WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.
Assange's father, John Shipton, and the whistleblower's wife and lawyer Stella Assange, are also members, as are Shadowproof editor Kevin Gosztola, Chip Gibbons of Defending Rights, Selay Ghaffar of the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, The Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, and ACLU attorney Ben Wizner.
\u201cFormer U.K. Labour Party leader @jeremycorbyn is in Washington for the Belmarsh Tribunal to advocate for Julian Assange's freedom as he fights extradition from Britain to the United States.\n\n"We're standing up for the right to know. We're standing up for journalism," Corbyn says.\u201d— Democracy Now! (@Democracy Now!) 1674220962
"One of the foundation stones of our form of government here in the United States... is our First Amendment to the Constitution," Ellsberg—whom the Richard Nixon administration tried to jail for up to 115 years under the Espionage Act, but due to government misconduct was never imprisoned—said in a recorded message played at the tribunal.
"Up until Assange's indictment, the act had never been used... against a journalist like Assange," Ellsberg added. "If you're going to use the act against a journalist in a blatant violation of the First Amendment... the First Amendment is essentially gone."
Ávila said before Thursday's event that "the Espionage Act is one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation in the world: an existential threat against international investigative journalism."
"If applied, it will deprive us of one of our must powerful tools towards de-escalation of conflicts, diplomacy, and peace," she added. "The Belmarsh Tribunal convenes in Washington to present evidence of this chilling threat, and to unite lawmakers next door to dismantle the legal architecture that undermines the basic right of all peoples to know what their governments do in their name."
The Belmarsh Tribunal, first convened in London in 2021, is inspired by the Russell Tribunal, a 1966 event organized by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre to hold the U.S. accountable for its escalating war crimes in Vietnam.
"As the previous administration violated legal and ethical norms at every turn, Attorney General Merrick Garland's choice of continuity with the Trump DOJ's positions erodes the integrity of the very institution he is determined to protect," said one researcher.
Two years after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, his administration continues to advance Trump-era legal positions in dozens of court cases, a progressive watchdog group revealed Friday.
Former President Donald Trump's Department of Justice (DOJ) "consistently made a mockery of the law throughout his four years in power," the Revolving Door Project (RDP) noted in the latest release of its long-running litigation tracker.
Even though "their laughable reasoning and indefensible positions were struck down at a historic rate, many cases were still waiting for Biden," RDP wrote. "Two years into Biden's presidency, an alarming number remain, either in some form of pause or advancing forward with the Biden administration adopting Trump's position."
RDP's litigation tracker, a noncomprehensive database updated Friday to include additional cases and developments, breaks down legal actions across more than a dozen categories. A selection of the Biden administration's moves follows:
"Fidelity to Trump-era positions takes many forms," RDP pointed out. "Biden's DOJ successfully defended Trump-era warrantless searches of travelers' phones; in 2022, the public learned that customs officials maintain a huge database of travelers' copied phone data. The DOJ continued to prosecute an Indigenous woman arrested while praying on sacred grounds disrupted by Trump's border wall construction. They successfully defended the 17-year allowance Trump's EPA granted to Montana to fail to meet clean water standards for nutrient pollution."
In addition, the Biden White House persists "in siding with the pork industry against California and animal rights groups in a high-profile Supreme Court case, despite dozens of Democratic lawmakers urging a change of course," RDP continued. "National Pork Producers Council v. Ross is not the only animal farming case in which the Biden-Garland Justice Department continues to maintain Trump administration positions. The latest update to the litigation tracker shows the Justice Department continuing to defend multiple Trump-era Department of Agriculture decisions that excuse or enable the cruel treatment of poultry, lab-kept primates, and pigs in slaughterhouses."
In a statement, RDP researcher Ananya Kalahasti said that "as the previous administration violated legal and ethical norms at every turn, Attorney General Merrick Garland's choice of continuity with the Trump DOJ's positions erodes the integrity of the very institution he is determined to protect."
"While the Justice Department makes concerted strides towards a more just application of the law in many cases," Kalahasti added, "it pulls backward in others, muddling the legacy and body of precedent it is shaping in real-time."
RDP researcher Hannah Story Brown observed that although "the Justice Department has chosen continuity with its Trump-era position in amicus filings before the Supreme Court in National Pork Producers Council v. Ross... the Biden administration still has a potent opportunity to chart a better course, withother ongoing cases like Suncor v. Boulder County Commissioners, a climate damages case in which the Supreme Court has solicited the Justice Department's opinion."
Brown made clear that RDP is "watching closely to see whether the Justice Department chooses to break from or maintain the position it first adopted under disgraced former DOJ environmental attorney Jeffrey Clark in related state-level climate cases."
Under normal circumstances, maintaining the previous administration's positions "would be relatively routine," RDP argued. "Even if the White House is shifting from one party to another, it is not generally assumed that all of the federal government's litigation positions will change. Instead of a blanket reversal, each case tends to receive a thorough review before the new administration decides to stay the course or reverse."
"But these are not normal circumstances," the group continued. "At every turn and in every corner of the federal government, the Trump administration gleefully trampled the law. In fact, loyalty to the president's person—which plainly required a willingness to ignore legal constraints—was a nonnegotiable condition of employment. In the wake of such an attack, normal deference is not warranted."
"The Biden administration must move quickly to drop, reverse, or settle the cases that Trump left behind," RDP stressed. "And—we would have thought this wouldn't need to be said—the administration should adopt Trump's positions about as often as a stopped clock is accurate."
Critics warn that the Salvadoran government is "desperate for revenues" and trying to "demobilize potential grassroots opposition" to reversing a historic nationwide ban on environmentally destructive metal mining.
More than 250 organizations from 29 countries came together Friday to pressure the Salvadoran government to drop the charges against and release five water defenders who were instrumental in achieving a 2017 legislative ban on metal mining in El Salvador.
Global alarm has been building since Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Teodoro Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega were detained in northern El Salvador on January 11. In a case that critics call politically motivated, they are accused of murdering an alleged military informant over three decades ago and of illicit association, which the government of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has used to detain tens of thousands of supposed gang members.
The groups' joint statement highlights that "thanks in part to its ill-advised embrace of Bitcoin, the Salvadoran government is under enormous pressure to find new revenues" and is reportedly considering reversing the historic mining ban—despite environmental concerns and the Central American country's ongoing water issues due to the climate emergency and pollution.
"Among El Salvador's greatest heroes of this century are the brave water defenders, including several of those arrested last week."
"The five are accused by El Salvador's attorney general of an alleged murder over 30 years ago during the brutal civil war in El Salvador that claimed the lives of 75,000," explained the organizations. "The victims of crimes from that war, which saw a U.S.-backed dictatorship and right-wing death squads kill tens of thousands, have, for decades, been calling for justice."
"The current government, however, has chosen to actively uphold decades of impunity," the groups continued. "Rather than investigate or prosecute those responsible for the dozens of cases of human rights violations and crimes against humanity that members of the Salvadoran military committed against the Santa Marta community (including the murders of the Lempa River massacre in 1980, where 30 people were assassinated and 189 were disappeared), the government is now re-victimizing the community by targeting their leaders, who have been outspoken against the policies of the current government."
"This further raises questions about whether the attorney general's true motivation is to attempt to silence these water defenders, especially in light of the current administration's crusade to criminalize, persecute, and demobilize its political opponents," adds the statement, spearheaded by the U.S.-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)—which in 2009 honored the National Roundtable on Metals Mining, a coalition the arrested men helped build, with its annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.
The collective demand that Bukele's government "drop the charges against the five water defenders and otherwise release them from prison to await their trial" came a day after a Salvadoran judge ruled that the case should proceed and the leaders of the Association of Economic and Social Development (ADES) Santa Marta should remain detained.
\u201c#SantaMartaNoEst\u00e1Sola| La comunidad Santa Marta es ejemplo de organizaci\u00f3n en defensa de los bienes naturales. El movimiento ambiental acompa\u00f1a sus resistencias y demanda que se respete los derechos de los l\u00edderes ambientalistas detenidos de @ades_sm y la comunidad.\u201d— ADES Santa Marta (@ADES Santa Marta) 1674151327
"Among El Salvador's greatest heroes of this century are the brave water defenders, including several of those arrested last week, who led the 13-year fight that culminated in El Salvador's legislature voting unanimously in 2017 to make that country the first in the world to ban all metals mining to save its rivers," IPS senior adviser John Cavanagh told Common Dreams.
Cavanagh, who co-authored with Robin Broad The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed, stressed that Bukele "is desperate for revenues" because he "has so mismanaged El Salvador's finances."
"So for Bukele's government, why not arrest key water defenders if you are exploring overturning the mining ban for the revenues that gold mining brings?" he said. "This is the great fear of water defenders in El Salvador. And, this is why there is now a global outcry over these arrests."
\u201c#SantaMarta | Diversos colectivos ambientalistas est\u00e1n afuera del Centro Judicial Isidro Men\u00e9ndez, exigiendo la libertad de los l\u00edderes comunitarios de Caba\u00f1as.\n\nVidalina Morales, presidenta de @ades_sm, habla de la lucha antiminera que han librado.\n\n\u270d\ud83c\udffb @GuerreroMarvin\u201d— MalaYerba (@MalaYerba) 1674140382
Pedro Cabezas of the Central American Alliance on Mining said in an email to Common Dreams that "different from previous presidents, the government of Nayib Bukele has shown no interest in implementing pending aspects of the mining prohibitions of 2017, like environmental remediation and reparation for the victims of the mining conflicts."
"On the contrary," he explained, "recent government actions signal an imminent reopening of the mining sector: El Salvador joined the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining in 2021, legislation to create a Directorate of Hydrocarbons, Energy, and Mines was passed at the legislature this year, there are rumors that the current secret negotiations of a Free Trade Agreement with China involve negotiations on mining, and there are testimonies from the communities that representatives of mining companies are visiting their territories to offer social programs and to lease large quantities of land."
"With that in mind," Cabezas concluded, "the only explanation for the arbitrary detention of five community leaders of Santa Marta, the community that led the anti-mining struggle for more than 12 years in order to protect the fragile water supply in El Salvador, is to demobilize potential grassroots opposition to the government's plans."
\u201c\ud83d\udea8 Last week, police arrested five prominent Water Defenders in El Salvador. Together with @CISPES & @stopESmining, we call on the Salvadoran government to drop the charges.\n\n251 groups from 29 countries around the world have joined in this urgent call: https://t.co/wkfeRe4MGB\u201d— Institute for Policy Studies (@Institute for Policy Studies) 1674230613
Given Bukele and Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado's track records as well as the state of exception that began in March—under which state security forces have been accused of widespread human rights abuses—advocates in El Salvador and around the world fear for the men's safety.
As Yesenia Portillo, program director at the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), told Common Dreams: "Under ordinary circumstances, the arrests of internationally recognized water defenders would be major cause for concern. But in El Salvador today, where torture and deadly prison conditions reign under the current state of exception, this quickly becomes a matter of life and death."
While allies of the water defenders have pointed out that "the allegations against them have major holes and contradictions, President Bukele's near-total control over both the judiciary and the prosecution casts serious doubt on whether a fair trial is even possible," Portillo said. "Since Attorney General Delgado was illegally appointed last May, virtually all cases he has brought have been sent to trial—whether there is evidence or not—and even the most compelling petitions for alternative measures to avoid a lengthy pretrial detention get denied."
"We are deeply concerned for the well-being of these men and the dangerous precedent this sets in El Salvador," Portillo added. "With these arrests, the Bukele administration is indicating to the world that their idea of 'justice' is to allow the atrocities carried out by U.S.-backed state forces during the 1980s to remain in impunity, while punishing the leaders of communities, like Santa Marta, who bore the brunt of that very violence."
This post has been updated with comment from CISPES.