Category Archives: Overseas

Result

A few weeks ago I wrote about Bradley Manning’s treatment in prison.

It now appears his conditions have improved significantly:

Under the old prevention order, Manning was forced to strip naked and wear just a smock at night, he had no bedding and was not permitted any personal items in his cell. He was kept locked up in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in a windowless cell, and allowed only to walk in a yard on his own for that final hour.

In Fort Leavenworth, by contrast, he has a large window that lets in natural light. He has a normal mattress and bedding and his clothes are not removed at night.

Manning can have personal objects in his cell, including books and letters from family and friends, as well as legal documents relating to his case. He can write whenever he wants.

His new life of detention is also considerably less lonely. There are five other pretrial prisoners and Manning spends much of the day in their company. His cell is connected to a common area used by four of the detainees with a television and exercise machine, table and shower area.

You can read the full article at the Guardian.

Nail in the Coffin

The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law

Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1895)

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Eighth Amendment, United States Constitution

Then look at how the system treats a remand prisoner:

23-hour/day solitary confinement; barred even from exercising in his cell; one hour total outside his cell per day where he’s allowed to walk around in circles in a room alone while shackled, and is returned to his cell the minute he stops walking; forced to respond to guards’ inquiries literally every 5 minutes, all day, everyday; and awakened at night each time he is curled up in the corner of his bed or otherwise outside the guards’ full view

In addition the prisoner is now stripped of his clothing nightly and forced ‘to stand outside his cell naked during a morning inspection’.

The prisoner has not been convicted of anything, and yet has served a period on remand harsher than many custodial sentences.

What’s worse, this is supposedly being done for his own good. It is brought in under the Orwellianly-named “prevention of injury watch”. Against the recommendation of the prison psychiatrist.

This will sound quite abstract. Imagine it this way:

Go to your bathroom. Turn all the lights on. Take any reading materials you may have out. You can have one book or magazine, but that’s it. Put a mattress on the floor. Put your phone and laptop away. This is your world.

Get a stranger to lock you in. Have him open the door every five minutes to make you respond. Now sit there. Don’t do anything. Wait until you’re let out, cuffed, to another room where you live. Walk around in a circle for an hour. If you stop, you go back to the bathroom. If you speak, you go back to the bathroom. After an hour, you go back to the bathroom. Sit there. Don’t do anything. Respond to the stranger when told. When he tells you to go to sleep, take off all your clothes and give them to him. Sleep on the mattress. On your back only. If you change position you will be woken and forced back onto your back. The stranger will continue to open the door to check on you through the night. You will be woken at 6. You will stand outside the bathroom naked. The stranger will ‘inspect’ you. You get your clothes back. Back into the bathroom you go. Now sit, and let the process repeat itself.

Think you’d keep your sanity?

Is this the treatment of a presumed-innocent man by authorities genuinely concerned for his safety?

The prisoner’s name, not that it matters, is Bradley Manning.

Overcriminalisation

The Economist highlights a problem with the US criminal justice system.

There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. Rules concerning corporate governance or the environment are often impossible to understand, yet breaking them can land you in prison. In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased.

In another article it gives a good example of the ensuing madness

IN 2000 four Americans were charged with importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, in violation of a Honduran regulation that Honduras no longer enforces. They had fallen foul of the Lacey Act, which bars Americans from breaking foreign rules when hunting or fishing. The original intent was to prevent Americans from, say, poaching elephants in Kenya. But it has been interpreted to mean that they must abide by every footling wildlife regulation on Earth. The lobstermen had no idea they were breaking the law. Yet three of them got eight years apiece. Two are still in jail.

This phenomenon is not unique to either the US, or an ideological position. Although we are by no means as bad, Tony Blair created almost as many criminal offences as he had days in office. Similarly, in the first article I mentioned, The Economist blames this trend on ‘an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives’. Even FOX News thinks things have gone too far.

The criminal law is meant to be a system of last resort for conduct that society finds either sufficiently abhorrent, or for which there is no other effective response. It is increasingly being viewed as a panacea for all manner of social and political problems: pull the criminal justice lever, and the problem will vanish: women wearing veils, “anti-social behaviour”, offensive posters. I have personally seen the criminal law used out of pure economic protectionism, and the potentially devastating impact it has on lives and families. It has no basis in any notion of justice, but is pure coercion.

It has to stop.

The Dangers of “Kicking Ass”

The United States is playing a dangerous game with the BP Oil Spill.

Unlike others, at least President Obama has refrained from referring to BP by its old name of “British Petroleum” (which it hasn’t used since its merger with Amoco 12 years ago). Nevertheless, while the rhetoric may seem like a good idea while the mid-terms are coming up, in the long run US politicians may come to regret their behaviour.

It should go without saying that BP deserve a degree of opprobrium. There are serious concerns over their safety record, and the effects of the oil spill are catastrophic. BP will incur serious liabilities for the damage inflicted. To their credit, they have so far not attempted to avoid these.

The first is that the desire to “kick some ass” is not in the interest of anyone other than a politician in search of a soundbite. Satisfying though it may be in some quarters to punish BP for their accident, this will hurt those most badly affected by the spill. An irony of compensation is that when you have been mistreated by someone, it becomes in your interest that they are as financially successful as possible. This is because they need enough money to be able to pay you compensation: if they are in financial difficulties, you risk not receiving the full amount you deserve. The courts are aware of this conundrum, and avoid imposing what is termed “crushing liability” for this reason. Inflicting further damage on BP’s balance sheet and share price is unnecessary, irresponsible and will only hurt those worst affected by the spill.

I say “further” because BP’s value is not just being affected by the negative publicity (rightly deserved) coming from the spill, but the positioning from Washington. In particular, BP’s share price is falling because of the threat of the US injuncting BP paying dividends to its shareholders. This is entirely unnecessary: BP currently has enough to meet its obligations to both its shareholders and the victims of the spill. The effect is only to damage the overall financial health of the company, which isn’t in anyone’s real interest.

More damaging to the US though are the long-term political effects. The rhetoric coming from Washington reeks of protectionism; were such measures attempted by another EU state, this would end up in court. The tit-for-tat retaliations are already beginning, and the US has far more to lose from this than the UK. While BP has agreed to halt its dividend, hurting UK pensioners, the quid pro quo has been that it will not pay the wages of those laid off by the moratorium on deep-sea drilling. The anger at that will be directed at the White House, not BP.

In particular, the US is vulnerable to being held to the same standard as BP. The extent could be very damaging indeed. American banks could be held liable for causing contagion that spread to, and severely damaged, the UK economy. US companies that have polluted the here, or tobacco companies that have caused lung cancer in the UK could even face liability. American efforts to protect Warren Anderson, the then-chairman of Union Carbide from extradition to India over the Bhopal disaster are particularly galling when compared to their treatment of Tony Hayward. A very reasonable request that American firms be held to the same standards as BP could be damaging politically and economically.

BP has caused damage, they are at fault, and they must pay out. But kicking them benefits nobody.