activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Category: restrictions on free speech

protesters arrested in saudi arabia for demanding the release of jailed dissidents

Nearly 200 protesters were arrested early yesterday morning in Saudi Arabia. They had gathered to demand the release of more than 50 women and children detained since Wednesday for participating in a demonstration regarding the incarceration of their relatives. Police arrested 161 men, 15 women, and 6 children yesterday for attending the protest.

Demonstrations and marches are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Criticism of the government is also disallowed. According to Amnesty International,

Those who do criticize the government are often held incommunicado without charge, sometimes in solitary confinement, and denied access to lawyers or the courts to challenge the legality of their detention. Torture or other ill-treatment is frequently used to extract “confessions” from detainees, to punish them for refusing to “repent” or to force them to make undertakings not to criticize the government. … Defendants are generally denied legal counsel, and in many cases, they and their families are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them. Court hearings are often held behind closed doors.

Despite this repression, a rising number of people in Saudi Arabia have been voicing their opposition to the government. Since 2011, protests by relatives of people incarcerated without charge or trial have been increasingly frequent.

first of several lawsuits filed against philadelphia police for arresting people who observe or record them

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed the first of several lawsuits yesterday regarding Philadelphia police officers’ pattern of fabricating criminal offenses to arrest people for recording their conduct. Yesterday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Philadelphia resident, Christopher Montgomery, who an officer arrested for using his cellphone to videotape police. The ACLU press release describes Montgomery’s arrest:

On the evening of January 23, 2011, a crowd of young people were involved in a verbal altercation in Center City. As police began arresting some of those involved, Montgomery, a Temple student and bystander, began recording audio and video with his iPhone. … An officer at the scene, David Killingsworth, approached Montgomery, shouted at him to stop recording, and grabbed the hand he was using to hold his iPhone. Killingsworth then arrested Montgomery, took his phone, and drove him to a local police district.

Montgomery was cited for disorderly conduct. When he subsequently received his phone back, his video of the incident had been erased. Yet he was ultimately found not guilty of the trumped-up charge. According to yesterday’s complaint,

Documenting police officers’ behavior in public by way of audio and video recording is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is not and, under our Constitution, could not be a crime.

year-end wrap-up: updates on 2012 posts

NDAA: On January 13, a group of journalists and activists sued President Obama regarding the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which Obama signed on December 31, 2011. Four months later, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest granted a preliminarily injunction barring enforcement of the NDAA section that allows indefinite detention of anyone who has “substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” Another four months passed before Judge Forrest granted a permanent injunction barring enforcement of that section; but the U.S. government appealed, and in October the Second Circuit Court of Appeals granted the government’s motion for a stay of Forrest’s injunction pending a decision on the government’s appeal. Meanwhile, the NDAA of 2013 could further expand the government’s power to hold people in military detention indefinitely.

RNC: The 2012 Republican National Convention protests were surprisingly calm. According to an August 31 New York Times article, no one broke windows, no tear gas filled the air, and only two people were arrested:

The lack of disturbances stood in stark contrast to the last three Republican conventions, when street battles between the police and protesters resulted in numerous arrests and prompted a flurry of court fights about police actions.

The number of protesters at this year’s RNC was smaller than expected due in part to Hurricane Isaac, the storm that caused Republican officials to cancel most proceedings scheduled for the first day of the convention.

Domestic Workers Bill of Rights: California Governor Jerry Brown displayed a lack of empathy predictable only among politicians by vetoing a bill of rights for domestic workers on September 30. Michelle Chen, a contributing editor at In These Times, describes what exactly Brown axed:

The highly anticipated Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would have enacted major protections for tens of thousands of housekeepers, nannies and other caregivers and closed loopholes ignored by federal labor law. It would have extended California’s policies for overtime pay and workers’ compensation, and helped ease in-house workers’ arduous, sometimes-abusive work routines by providing for a set amount of sleep and the ability to cook one’s own food.

Tim DeChristopher: After serving 15 months in prison, Utah climate activist Tim DeChristopher was admitted to a halfway house in Salt Lake City at the end of October. The local First Unitarian Church offered him a job with its social justice ministry. Yet a Bureau of Prisons official said he couldn’t work at the church because the job involved social justice, which was related to DeChristopher’s crime; so he accepted a job at a bookstore instead.

Pussy Riot: Two of the three infamous members of the punk collective Pussy Riot are now serving the rest of their two-year sentences at some of the harshest women’s penal colonies in Russia. (An appeals court released the third woman on bail in October.) They were transported there around October 23. According to an October 29 New York Times post by Masha Gessen, discussing several recent incidents of political repression in Russia,

Anyone can be arrested for legal, peaceful protest — and any one of those arrested can be chosen, at random, to spend days, months or years in prison.

One month later, on November 29, a Moscow court ruled that videos of Pussy Riot performances fell under a law meant to control hate speech. The New York Times reported the following:

The court called for limiting public access to Web sites and blogs displaying the videos. But the ruling is unlikely to cut off access to them, since it applies only to servers in Russia. … Thursday’s ruling cited “psycho-linguistic research” proving that the videos “humiliate various social groups based on their religious beliefs” and contain “hidden calls to rebellion and nonsubmission to authority.”

Jeremy Hammond: After anarchist hacker Jeremy Hammond was put in solitary confinement for five days around the time Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska denied him bail. He has been incarcerated for more than nine months. A release from Anonymous subsequently reported that Judge Preska is married to a client of Stratfor, the very intelligence contractor whose servers Hammond allegedly gained access to, costing the company millions and focusing “worldwide attention on the murky world of private intelligence,” according to a November 2012 Rolling Stone article. Hammond’s attorneys are trying to get Preska removed as the judge in his case, because of her apparent bias.

white house continues to support brutally repressive regime in bahrain

The U.S. continues to support the autocratic government in Bahrain, selling arms to a regime that shoots, imprisons, and tortures dissidents. Between 60 and 80 people have died since the Bahraini uprising began on February 14, 2011. After the king appointed an independent tribunal to investigate abuse in the government’s handling of protests, the tribunal released an indictment of the government on November 23, 2011.

Since then, however, the government has failed to implement most of the tribunal’s recommendations regarding how to better respond to protests. Instead, the government simply banned all protests three weeks ago, threatening legal action against anyone who attempts to organize a rally or demonstration. According to an October 30 New York Times article,

the move seemed likely to inflame the already dangerous standoff involving a protest movement that has been unable to wrest freedoms from a government that opposition activists say is methodically blocking all avenues for dissent. In recent weeks, activists have been prosecuted for postings on social media, and doctors, charged with illegal gathering and other crimes after treating protesters, have been sent to jail.

It’s unclear how the ban will change the government’s handling of protests, as many were already considered illegal and met with force. Yesterday a delegation of Bahraini activists came together in the Netherlands to bring more public attention to the worsening human rights situation in their country.

federal judge partially revives prisoner’s lawsuit regarding black panther party ten-point program

In a case decided two weeks ago, Judge Richard Posner partially revived Wisconsin inmate Toni Toston’s lawsuit against prison officials regarding harsh punishment he endured for possessing the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program. With respect to Toston’s free speech claim, Judge Posner affirmed the district judge’s grant of summary judgment in favor of prison officials. Posner revived, however, Toston’s due process claim that the prison deprived him of liberty without sufficient notice about what conduct could result in such punishment.

For copying the Ten-Point Program and putting it in the footlocker in his cell, Toston was found guilty in a prison disciplinary proceeding of possession of gang literature. The punishment was 90 days of confinement in segregation. Strangely, the prison previously permitted him to buy a copy of To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton (1972), in which the Ten-Point Program appeared, and the prison library allowed inmates to borrow two other books that included the Ten-Point Program.

Yet Posner wrote in his decision that “the Ten-Point Program could be thought by prison officials an incitement to violence by black prisoners.” In this specific case, officials apparently suspected that Toston’s motive in copying the Ten-Point Program was gang-related:

The connection between the plaintiff’s copying the Ten-Point Program … and gang activity may seem tenuous, but the defendants argue that the likeliest reason the plaintiff copied the Ten-Point Program was to show it to inmates whom he hoped to enlist in a prison gang, a local cell as it were of the Black Panthers; the Ten-Point Program would be the gang’s charter.

With respect to Toston’s punishment of segregated confinement, however, Posner decided the prison may have deprived Toston of liberty “without fair notice of the acts that would give rise to such deprivation.” As the district judge “made no findings” regarding whether Toston’s period of segregated confinement was protracted or the conditions in segregation were unusually harsh, Posner sent Toston’s due process claim back to that judge for further action consistent with Posner’s opinion.

tampa police chief says, unpersuasively, that chemical agents and mass arrests are unlikely at republican national convention

Earlier this week, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said chemical agents and mass arrests are unlikely at this year’s Republican National Convention (RNC), scheduled for August 26-30. Apparently protesters won’t need gas masks in Tampa; which is good, because in the “Event Zone” – the area surrounding the RNC – no masks are allowed, except during permitted parades or in the public viewing area. Yet the police are still spending more than half a million dollars to have 1,400 gas masks at the ready.

The draconian rules don’t end there. Crowds of 50 or more people are allowed to gather all day in city parks, but only if they have a permit. Marches are only allowed on sidewalks or along the official 11-block parade route, where they are capped at 90 minutes.

There is a designated protest area, what’s been dubbed a “free speech zone” at previous conventions, where people are allowed to be all day with no permit required. Though that arguably defeats any hope of disrupting business as usual.

(Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn asked Florida Governor Rick Scott to ban guns in the Event Zone, but Scott refused based on the Second Amendment. Apparently the Second Amendment carries more weight in Florida than the First.)

Four years ago during the RNC in the Twin Cities, law enforcement officials used chemical weapons and arrested more than 800 people. Eight years ago during the RNC in New York City, law enforcement used pepper spray and arrested more than 1,800 people. Twelve years ago during the RNC in Philadelphia, law enforcement used pepper spray and arrested more than 400 people.

We’re supposed to believe, however, that this RNC will be different.