activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Tag: rule of law

judge who presided over wounded knee trials will step down from the bench in april

On Thursday, Judge Warren Urbom announced that he will retire in April. Urbom managed cases against more than 130 defendants arising from the 71-day American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973. He dismissed charges against the majority of the activists and found 6 guilty. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned 4 of those convictions.

On August 14, 1974, Judge Urbom acquitted the defendants in U.S. v. Jaramillo, because military equipment and officers were used at Wounded Knee contrary to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. That Act limits the military’s role in domestic law enforcement activities to situations involving congressional authorization or a presidential declaration that a civil disorder exists. As Army personnel at Wounded Knee influenced decisions and serviced and maintained equipment on loan to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Marshals, Urbom concluded that there was a reasonable doubt as to whether law enforcement officers were lawfully engaged in the performance of their official duties.

Urbom gained the trust of the defense committee, because his acquittals saved many defendants from being tried by South Dakota juries. Yet some legal workers and defendants subsequently felt betrayed, such as when Urbom found activists guilty or concluded that Indian tribes didn’t have complete sovereignty. As John William Sayer wrote in Ghost Dancing the Law,

It is true that the rule of law, particularly as enforced by judges like Nichol and Urbom, offered the Wounded Knee defendants some protection from excessive government abuse. But the defendants and their attorneys, including those who give credit to Nichol and Urbom, quickly point out that without their well-organized and very public campaign around the trials, the rules might not have provided protection or allowed alternative voices to be heard in the courtroom.

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chinese government says it will reform controversial system of forced labor camps

According to official statistics, China has 350 labor camps throughout the country. Approximately 160,000 inmates are held without trial in these facilities. As today’s Guardian article explains,

China’s “re-education through labour” system, in place since 1957, allows police to sentence petty criminals to up to four years’ confinement without involving the courts, a system critics say undermines the rule of law and is used against political activists.

Human Rights Watch agrees that police use the system to harm activists:

In practice, the system has frequently been abused by the police to punish human rights defenders, petitioners seeking redress for abuses, and political dissidents. Detainees are often forced to work in harsh and dangerous conditions. They are given hard quotas to complete on a daily basis, and those who fail to meet these targets, as well as those who are considered disobedient, are in some cases subject to physical abuse, cruel inhuman or degrading treatment, or even torture.

State media reported today that the Chinese government will reform the system of forced labor camps this year. Although earlier reports said China would abolish the system, those reports were removed from media websites without any explanation. How the government will reform the system is unknown, but to be meaningful, the reforms must go beyond procedural improvements (e.g., a hearing or legal counsel for the defendants).

a postulate: those with whom society disagrees frequently wind up in court

According to John William Sayer,

Debates over the rule of law too often seem to focus on whether the law went astray. Yet a body of law designed to protect property and political power need not stray very far in its application, if at all, to discredit and destroy those who seek to voice alternatives to the assumptions that underlie the prevailing social order. Few, if any, who have even come remotely close to having an audience for such change have escaped the courtroom.

Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials (1997), page 230.