United States hide information about its political prisoners

Most of the 54 prisoners convicted for political motives are racial or national minorities; many are imprisoned for decades; after 9/11, civil rights restrictions only worsened in the country

The diplomat Andrew Jackson Young was a leading figure when Jimmy Carter led the United States between 1977 and 1980. Born in New Orleans, black and a Democrat, he was about to turn 45 when he became the ambassador of the United Nations.

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While holding that position, in July 1978, he did a famous interview to French newspaper Le Matin. The subject was the repression against dissidents in the Soviet Union, but he did not resist touching a nationwide sore spot.

“We still have hundreds of people that I would characterize as political prisoners in our prisons”, said Young, talking about activists who had been imprisoned in the 60s and the 70s.

Things almost fell apart.

Young suffered impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, saving his mandate by 293 to 82 votes. President Carter referred to his speech as an "unfortunate statement". The truthful diplomat would never again play any significant roles his country’s politics.

After nearly four decades of the resounding confession, little has changed, despite the end of the Cold War.

The United States continues to hide that it has political prisoners because they are not good for the image of a nation that calls itself the leader of the free and democratic world. Incidentally, the U.S. claims that it sends its tanks and planes around the planet to export freedom.

A few dozen of the hundreds of prisoners recognized by the former ambassador remain in the dungeon. Many died or fulfilled their sentences. However, new dissidents were captured over time.

Opera Mundi, after interviewing several leaders of humanitarian organizations and researching its archives, can verify a list of at least 54 prisoners convicted for political reasons.

The list includes only activists who have been tried for alleged crimes committed on U.S. territory. Guantanamo outcasts, for example, are not included in this math.

Most prisoners are racial or national minorities.

The most significant contingent comes from former Black Panther Party and its ramifications.

Several of these inmates have been behind bars for more than 40 years, before Young even recognized the political and social drama that would tarnish any nation.

President Barack Obama, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, made sure to remember the martyrdom of Madiba, who spent more than 28 years locked up by the apartheid regime, serving sentence for conspiracy and armed resistance.

If he showed the same compassion towards his compatriots, he would find 37 prisoners who have spent more time, some by many years, than the South African leader. All equally locked up for conspiracy or armed resistance.

Bob Fletcher/Smithsonian Museum

In the southern State of Alabama, a sign calls upon people to vote, it goes back to the origins of the Black Panthers

Other Western countries which faced internal conflict processes, such as Italy and Germany, gradually left their leaden years behind. The militants of the insurgency - for example, affiliated to the Red Brigades or to the Baader-Meinhof group - gradually regained their citizenship.

Down south, Latin American nations also overcame the scourge of political prisoners, inherited from dictatorships that relied on the geopolitical sympathy of the White House.

Ramsey Clark, 88, former USA attorney general

Internal pressure

The United States, however, prefers to leave these wounds open. They do not hesitate to draw attention to charges against human rights in other places, but refuse to clean up the mess in their own back yard.

The contradiction between discourse and reality seems so deep that it is causing defections in the center of power.

Lawyer Ramsey Clark, now 87, is perhaps the leading advocate of this grand dissent.

As General attorney, he headed the Department of Justice between 1967 and 1969, during the administration of Democrat Lyndon Johnson, when the main anti-segregation laws were passed.

His disapproval grew, however, with the escalation of repression led by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), then under the command of John Edgar Hoover, whose main targets were organizations fighting against racism and the Vietnam War.

After stepping down, he gradually took charge of public and legal causes against the system.

"Political prisoners have no legal recognition, they're treated as enemies of the state," he says with his low and paused voice, every syllable revealing his Texan accent. "The goal is to serve as an example for new generations, establishing the price to pay if they resort to rebellion and insubordination."

Many of the convicts, in fact, consider themselves prisoners of war, victims of the military offensive aimed at subduing the African-American people and preserving a white supremacy regime. That was the reason why they believed their self-defense actions and armed attacks were legitimate.


"There are many fabricated convictions, pressure on witnesses and suppression of evidence that would favor the defendants," said attorney Robert Boyle, 61, dedicated to the defense of political prisoners since he graduated from university. "A tacit agreement, that ties the judiciary and the police, determines special rules of repression against members of revolutionary groups, often violating the legal process."

Robert Boyle, 61, political prisoners' attorney

Even Amnesty International, which normally ignores armed conflict cases, corroborates Boyle’s thesis.

The cases of Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (African name of David Rice), leaders of the Black Panthers in Omaha, Nebraska, illustrate such argument. Poindexter has been imprisoned for 45 years, serving a life sentence for the murder of a police officer. Langa, after spending the same amount of time in jail, died in march 11th, 2016.

The only condemnatory evidence was the testimony of a tortured teenager who was threatened with the electric chair if he did not blame the two activists. The severity of the sentence caused the leaders of the most famous humanitarian organizations in the world to classify them as prisoners of conscience.

Abundant violation allegations compete with critics to the process' rules and their execution.

"Political prisoners rarely receive the benefit of probation to which they are entitled," says Boyle, with a bitter smile of who sees oneself banging their head against a brick wall. "In addition to the unwillingness of the evaluation tables, the pressure from the police associations to prevent the release of those who are charged with the death of a colleague is huge."

Often the convictions were based on a device never intended for common crimes. It's a law, established in 1861, which created the “seditious conspiracy” offense, in order to punish the state governments that rose against the Union.

The law was used again in the persecution of communists and anarchists during the first two decades of the last century, before becoming a part of the repressive menu of the Cold War.

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"Seditious conspiracy is an instrument to criminalize political contestation," explains attorney Bret Grote, director of the Abolitionist Law Center, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, organization dedicated to pressure for changes in the criminal law. "The seditious conspiracy does not require the material proof of crimes; therefore people are convicted for criminal intent."

This law was the reason why the community leader Oscar López Rivera was sentenced to 55 years. He has been imprisoned since 1981. The major crime for which he was tried for was to have participated in the Armed Forces of National Liberation, a separatist group of Puerto Rico, his birth country, by many historians considered a kind of North American colony, although benefiting from the status of an autonomous state.

The Jericho Movement March gathered a crowd in 1998 and asked for amnesty for the political prisioners in the USA

A Vietnam hero, awarded with the Bronze Star Medal, Rivera can’t be effectively connected to any proven offense, but his association with a separatist party was enough to make him languish behind bars.

The US after 9/11

Few of the 54 political prisoners still have the possibility to appeal, even though many may restate, year after year, requests for parole, which are routinely denied.

Those who were convicted by state judges would also be eligible for a pardon of their sentences by the respective governors. The federal prisoners depend on the good will of the President, who can’t interfere in states' decisions.

However, an iron curtain hides the saga of these men and women.

The cartoonist Emory Douglas, a member of the Black Panthers, used to ilustrate the party's newspapers 

Everything got worse after the 2001 attacks and the declaration of the "war on terror", with the adoption of the Patriot Act, which further weakened the legal safeguards suspects of operating against the state had.

New waves of prisoners, mostly of Muslim origin, were thrown in jail alongside the old imprisoned fighters.

The media, usually eager to report foreign humanitarian abuses, rarely tells or investigates this North American tragedy.

The Justice Department, insistently contacted by Opera Mundi, promised to give its version of the events, but preferred to remain silent and said, through its spokesman, that it had no interest in talking about the matter.

It is important to notice that “nothing to declare” has always been the preferred response of governments that wish to conceal the brutality of the violence they practice or cover up.

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