This summer I am assisting government attorneys in the prosecution of civil rights abuses as an intern in Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division – Criminal Section. Among other duties, the Criminal Section is charged with prosecuting human trafficking, deprivation of rights under color of law, official misconduct, and hate crimes.
Much of my work so far has been helping to prosecute corrections department officers who engage in excessive force or sexual extortion against inmates. For instance, I was recently involved in preparing jury instructions for a prison beating case in Georgia, and I also reconstructed a chain of custody from investigative testimony so that the government can offer a semen sample into evidence. Both cases involve tragic stories of abuse by government officers over a span of several years. In cases like these, prosecution by the Criminal Section is vital to the penal system’s legitimacy. Our nation is committed to having a government of laws rather than a government of men, and that commitment extends to prisons and corrections facilities. The law may deprive a convicted person of certain liberties, but a criminal conviction does not strip a person of inalienable human dignity or the rights of bodily integrity. Officers who prey on the vulnerabilities of prison inmates turn the justice system into a tool of injustice. Hopefully, the involvement of the Criminal Section will bring clarity to these situations and will vindicate the rights of the victims.
Another aspect of my work has been helping with the Cold Case Initiative. Since 2006, the FBI has been reinvestigating unsolved murders that were committed before the 1970s and were based on racial animus. The Civil Rights division has the task of assessing whether these murders are still prosecutable, and then issuing a report on what the evidence tended to show and why the matter was never resolved. This project involves an overwhelming volume of investigative files that have recently been unsealed for the first time in decades. During my work I have had the chance to read through a number of transcripts and summaries of witness interviews and statements by victims and suspects regarding events as early as 1946. This experience has been a privileged look into some of the darker moments in civil rights history – moments when whole communities seem to have been involved in obstruction of justice after a serious crime had occurred. Reading through the investigative files has helped me to appreciate more than ever the work of the Civil Rights Division in general and the Criminal Section in particular. When the Criminal Section prosecutes a hate crime, it not only seeks justice for the victim, but also has an expressive purpose. Civil rights prosecutions signal the nation’s promise to protect the equal dignity of all people, especially where a minority group has been the historic target of abuse.
I would like to thank the attorneys who I have already been privileged to work with, my attorney mentor and supervisor, the Human Rights Center, and the donors who sponsored my fellowship. The opportunity to work at the Criminal Section has already been a formative experience for me, and I am sure that the remainder of the summer will have a positive impact on my future.
The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.
Congratulations to Philip Aguinaldo (Philippines, 2012-13). He was recently invited by the Philippine Judicial Academy, the education arm of the Supreme Court of the Philippines to be the lecturer on Anti-Human Trafficking Advocacy on July 5, 2013 in Manila, as well as a moderator and group facilitator for the same training on July 3rd and 5th. Judges, prosecutors, public attorneys, and court personnel will participate in the training.
We have many opportunities for reflection as we near the end of the 2012-13 Humphrey year. At the Year End Retreat in Maryland, groups of Fellows joyfully received certificates of completion of the Humphrey Program signed by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. It has been a year filled with challenges and hope. The Peace Building Through Restorative Dialogue Enhancement Workshop offered at the University of Minnesota is a perfect example of this.
On March 20, 2013, Humphrey Fellows started their day visiting prisoners in Lino Lakes Correctional Institution, where they had opportunities to talk to the offenders, victims and their families. In a circle dialogue with homicide survivors and prisoners, the Fellows were extremely empathetic when they heard sincere regrets from the prisoners and grief from the victims’ families. Some of the prisoners’ families were touched by simple hugs from Fellows. ”It has been years since someone has hugged me after they know what my son has done,” said one prisoner’s mother.
It was a morning filled with intense emotions, both inspiring and draining. Before the debriefing circle dialogue in the afternoon, Dr. Mark Umbreit, a Professor and the founding Director of the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, introduced Qigong and yoga to the workshop attendees as a way to rebuild inner peace and recover emotionally after the difficult morning. During the debriefing circle dialogue, Humphrey Fellows shared their thoughts and feelings about their experience at the correctional institution. Some of them raised questions about healing and forgiveness; some challenged the criminal justice system’s failure to help offenders restart their lives; and some compared the U.S. judicial system to that of their own countries. Dr. Umbreit answered questions using real cases and stories.
It was a powerful day of reflection on the meaning of forgiveness, memory, and justice, concepts that matter within every country, every community, and on a broader scale within the international community as a whole.
We are so proud of the work that Human Rights Fellows do in our local communities! 2012 Fellowship Alum Allison Boyle is utilizing her multiple talents in law and music to raise funds for her placement organization, Casa de Proyecto Libertad. At Proyecto, Allison worked primarily with immigrant victims of domestic violence. Now back in Minnesota, she works to raise awareness about the struggles faced by immigrant victims of abuse.
Allison will be holding a fundraiser at Bordertown Coffee in Minneapolis on March 27th from 6-8pm. A percentage of the profits from drink sales will go to support Proyecto. Jewelry created by Proyecto clients will also be on sale.
Allison will present stories from her work at Proyecto. The Enchantments, an all female a cappella group of which Allison is a part will perform throughout the night. We hope you will join us!
Bordertown Coffee is located at 15 16th Ave SE, Minneapolis.
On Tuesday, February 19, Humphrey Fellow Diana Quintero presented on “The Effect of Corruption on the Right to Health in Colombia”. Diana described the structure of the Colombian health care system and the role that corruption plays in denying health care to those in need of it.
Two options for health insurance exist in Colombia. Individuals may purchase insurance through private insurance companies or participate in the insurance plan provided by the government. Private insurance plans offer more benefits but are much more expensive. Government health care plans are provided to those who can not afford a private insurance plan.
Diana proposed that the Colombian government publish detailed budgets and demand accountability for corrupt practices. She and other Fellows at the presentation believe that this solution would prevent violations of the right to health in Colombia. Stay tuned for more outstanding human rights advocacy from our Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows!
Please join us on February 25th for a presentation on access to justice and human rights by Humphrey Fellow Desmond Kaunda from Malawi.