President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken are worried about Russian Putin critic and presidential aspirant, currently in a Russian prison after conviction on charges of skipping bail and leaving the country and other charges, being abused and at risk of dying in jail.
That threat may or may not be real, but US objections to Russia’s treatment of a political rival or dissident, like US objections to China’s harsh treatment of democracy advocates and former democratic members of Hong Kong’s now crushed and no longer autonomous Legislative Assembly would carry a lot more weight, and be far less laughable around the globe if these two leaders would also be demanding decent treatment and release from prison of political prisoners who have been getting abused, degraded and denied adequate medical treatment at the hand of the US “justice system.”
While the list is fairly long, I will highlight three cases here.
The first and most urgent is Mumia Abu-Jamal, ones a leading Black journalist in Philadelphia who was convicted in 1982 of the killing of a white Philadelphia police officer in a trial marked by perjured testimony from clearly coached witnesses claiming to have seen an “execution style” slaying that crime photos and a gun test conducted by myself and fellow journalist Linn Washington, Jr., prove could not have happened as portrayed by the prosecutor, who himself was guilty of misconduct in lying about the availability of a witness to the judge. Abu-Jamal, who is about to turn 67, has served 40 years in prison, more than two decades of that time on death row before his death sentence was ruled unconstitutional and converted to life in prison without parole. During all those death row years he was held in solitary confinement.
He suffers from diabetes and contracted Hepatitis C, which the prison system first failed to diagnose and then refused to treat with proper medication until ordered to do so by a federal court in a case that the state fought tooth and nail, delaying so long that by the time he finally was provided with the medication that is 95% successful at curing the deadly disease, it had already destroyed his liver with cirrhosis. Now he’s been diagnosed with Congestive Heart failure and is about to be given open heart bypass-surgery to replace clogged arteries, no doubt due to his imprisonment, inactivity and poor prison diet.
Abu-Jamal is currently appealing his conviction arguing after six boxes of documents pertaining to the prosecution’s case including evidence of possible bribery of a witness were discovered in the DA’s office, where they had been hidden from Abu-Jamal’s attorneys for four decades. The city’s supposedly “progressive” DA is fighting that appeal, as is the police officer’s widow Maureen Faulkner who receives financial support for her efforts to intervene in the case from Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police and other police organizations who for years lobbied for Abu-Jamal’s execution and now want to see him die in prison.
Then there’s Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement activist who has been serving two life sentences federal prison following a controversial 1977 conviction for the murder of two FBI agents who were investigating a different case on the Oglala Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier has already served 44 years in prison, has serious medical issues, and is widely considered to be a political prisoner of the US, being punished primarily because of his advocacy of Native American rights.
And finally there’s Julian Assange, the journalist and founder of Wikileaks. Assange, an Australian citizen, became a wanted man by the US after his Wikileaks organization began exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably with the release of a gun-sight video of a cobra helicopter whose two crew members were slaughtering a group of Iraqi civilians including two cameramen working for a US news organization, and laughing as they killed the wounded with additional fire.
Although the trove of documents provided by Wikileaks to various news organizations in the US, Britain and Europe, were all giving major play, earning awards for many of those outfits, for his efforts to expose the crimes of the US war machine, Assange found himself the subject of an indictment for espionage and theft of government secrets filed by the US Justice Department. Assange was eventually in Britain when the US asked for his extradition to face federal charges in a US court.
Initially free on bail, Assange, fearing extradition and possible execution or confinement at Guantanamo in a country where top leaders were calling for his death (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggest that he be “droned”) he sought asylum in the tiny Ecuadoran Embassy in London. When the left-leaning leader of Ecuador lost an election to a conservative candidate, that asylum was terminated and Ecuador invited London Metro Police to enter their embassy and haul Assange off to jail to face charges of bail jumping and an extradition hearing. Since then he has been held for several years in a gritty prison in solitary confinement where friends and medical experts have said his continuous detention and solitude while hiding in the Ecuadoran embassy and in jail have caused serious health and mental problems.
When the bail charges were mooted and a judge rejected the US extradition request, the Trump administration appealed the decision. President has rejected calls from many prominent civil liberties attorneys and human rights activists to drop the case against him.
It all makes a farce of the US criticizing the Russian government for it’s treatment of Navalny, and China’s imprisonment of democracy activists in Hong Kong.
It’s time for the US government to walk the walk, and not just emptily talk the talk.
Mumia, Peltier and Assange should all be freed and the cases against them dropped. Other prisoners in the US whose lengthy prison sentences are clearly the result of political persecution should also be freed. Now!
Otherwise our political leaders are just power-tripping autocrats in glass houses tossing stones at other autocrats.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).