Empowering Death Row Exonerees To Tell Their Stories

Ray Krone was wrongly convicted and sentenced to die because of an expert witness on bite mark evidence. Despite the fact that Ray had an alibi, and that the other evidence at the crime scene did not point to him, the jury was swayed by this so-called expert.

What the jury did not know, however, was that the prosecution paid this expert around $50,000, ten times the total amount Ray had to defend himself. He spent 10 years in prison before his conviction was finally overturned.


Best Death Penalty Movie? You Decide

paradise lost 3It’s Oscar season.  And that’s great, because I like movies.  I’m not a buff or anything, which is why I wrote “movies” and not “film” or “cinema”.  But I enjoy a good flick.  As someone who campaigns for death penalty abolition, I’m especially interested this year because there is a death penalty film, Paradise Lost 3, nominated for Best Documentary.

Movies can be a powerful tool for raising awareness about an issue, or even inspiring people to take action.  In our death penalty abolition work, we have tried to promote movies we think will do that.

But what do we know?


Former Prisoner of Conscience Releases Film, Tibet in Song

Ngawang Choephel, a Tibetan entho-musicologist and Fulbright Scholar, set out to make a film about traditional Tibetan music and dance. A year later, he was wrongly convicted of “espionage and counter-revolutionary activities.”  China announced that he had been sentenced to 18 years in prison for spying. The trial was closed, and no evidence has ever been made public.

Ngawang Choephel was held in Powo Tramo prison and was reported to be in poor health, suffering from ”bronchitis, hepatitis and respiratory infections”.

Choephel’s conviction and imprisonment spurred an outcry from human rights groups around the world, including Amnesty International. Many wrote letters pleading for his release as Amnesty considered him to be a prisoner of conscience.

These efforts paid off at last in January 2002, when Choephel was granted his freedom, after serving more than six years in Chinese prisons. “You just can’t believe he got out,” said Kate Lazarus, Amnesty’s Tibet specialist, who met Choephel soon after his arrival. “You dream and you hope that these people will be released, but you never know.”

At the time of his detention he had been gathering material for the production of a documentary film about traditional Tibetan performing arts.

Tibet in Song opens September 24, 2010

The documentary he was working on prior to his arrest in China is finally being released in the U.S. on September 24thTibet in Song is a feature length documentary that celebrates traditional Tibetan folk music and encompasses a harrowing journey into the past fifty years of cultural repression inside Chinese controlled Tibet.

Director and former Tibetan political prisoner, Ngawang Choephel, weaves a story of beauty, pain, brutality and resilience, introducing Tibet to the world in a way never before seen on film.  Ngawang Choephel sets the stage for a unique exploration of the Chinese impact on Tibetans inside Tibet.


Prominent Iranian Film Director Jafar Panahi Held for Months Without Charge

Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi

Film lovers all over the world admire the many masterpieces of Iranian cinema. One of Iran’s most acclaimed film directors, Jafar Panahi, has won numerous awards including the coveted “Golden Lion” from the Venice Film Festival and he has been invited to this year’s Cannes Film Festival which opens tomorrow, 12 May. Unfortunately, the government of Iran seems to regard Mr. Panahi not as a great national treasure and source of pride but as a great danger, and has locked him up in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, without charge, for more than two months.

Jafar Panahi’s films have been described as “social realist” and often provide a critique of the treatment of women and other disadvantaged people in Iranian society. His first feature “Badkonake Sefid” (White Balloon) used non-professional actors to tell the ostensibly simple story of a small girl attempting to buy a goldfish for her family’s Nowruz (Iranian New Year) celebration. “Dayareh” (Circle), for which he won the Golden Lion, is a film comprised of interlocked tales about several socially marginalized women struggling through challenging circumstances that reveal the oppression of women. In “Talayeh Sorkh” (Crimson Gold) a Tehran  pizza deliveryman gradually unravels as he encounters indifference and condescension. Mr. Panahi’s 2006 movie “Offside” combines humor with social criticism in a story about some girls who disguise themselves as boys so they can attend a soccer match, which is off-limits to female spectators.

Several of his films have been banned in Iran but are his films the reason for his imprisonment? The Iranian government has yet to charge him with any crime, although on 14 April 2010, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance said that Jafar Panahi had been arrested because he was making an anti-government film about the disputed presidential election of 2009. After a brief detention in July 2009 for having taken part in an event mourning the killing of post-election protester Neda Agha-Soltan, He was banned from travelling abroad, including to the 2009 Berlin Film Festival in which he was due to participate.


Tune in to PBS tonight to watch a great documentary about justice

Tonight, PBS will premiere The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court. This documentary film was produced by Skylight Pictures, an outstanding team of filmmakers who collaborated with AIUSA on our 2007 documentary Justice Without Borders.  Click here for local listings, as times vary.

The broadcast date is significant, in that it marks the week eleven years ago that more than 160 governments came together to negotiate the treaty creating the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Reckoning follows the ICC’s Prosecutor as he and his team confront the most challenging of armed conflict situations, compiling evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in order to build cases against leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, militia leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the President of Sudan.

I’ve had the privilege of viewing and commenting on various stages of the film as it was being developed.  It’s a great piece of work.  With each viewing, something new strikes me.  I wanted to share with you some of the themes in the film that resonate with me today.

First, The Reckoning builds to what feels like a “Law and Order: War Crimes”- style finale, with the Prosecutor and his team closing in on a target — a sitting head of state — considered by many to be out of reach.   The crime thriller analogy is actually very appropriate, because some of the footage we see in the film is, when you think about it, crime scene footage.  It’s easy to forget that.  Mass rapes, murders, mutilations and starvation are often treated as the tragic and inevitable consequences of war, instead of as crimes which are planned — which actually require planning to implement on a mass scale — and for which specific individuals are responsible and can be held accountable.

Secondly, The Reckoning is very much a “David and Goliath” story.  Critics of the ICC’s work try to portray the Court as a big, Western-dominated bully out to get Africa.  I think you will come away from The Reckoning struck by how small the Prosecutor’s team really is in comparison with the massive crimes they are confronting.  I think you will also be struck by how relentless they are in pursuing justice for the victims, who they stress are the millions of Africans subjected to human rights abuses, instead of the few who try to obscure their culpability by hiding behind the mantle of nationalism.

Finally, The Reckoning tells the story of what is essentially an unfinished revolution.  The film explores both the breakthroughs in the advancement of human rights and the rule of law that made the ICC possible, as well as the lack of political to make enforcement a reality.  Former Nuremberg prosecutor (and one of my heroes) Benjamin Ferencz recalls how the entire body of human rights law that we take for granted today came to be in his lifetime, demonstrating how much is possible in what is essentially a blink of the eye in historical time.  Yet most of the world’s governments — some of whose representatives we see celebrating the ICC treaty at the start of the film — continue to fail to give any meaningful support the ICC in apprehending indicted war criminals.  We may still have a long way to go, but it’s possible to get there.

I encourage you to tune into PBS tonight, and if you’re as moved as I was, please take action.  Write to Secretary of State Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Rice and urge them to support the ICC’s work on Darfur.

Sensationalist Film Exploits Important Human Rights Issue in Iran

Ordinarily, human rights activists would be pleased when the rare major motion picture shining a light on human rights violations comes along. In fact, aside from documentaries, it is very unusual to see issues that Amnesty International has worked on appear on film. However, sometimes a film can so distort an important human rights issue, that it may do more harm than good to the cause.

Sadly, this is the case with the new movie opening this Friday, “The Stoning of Soraya M,” the purportedly true story of the brutal execution by stoning of an innocent Iranian village woman. For one thing, the film is marked by crude story-telling: the main character Soraya is merely a mutely suffering victim while her brutish husband, who falsely accuses her of adultery so that he can marry a teen-aged girl, is a cardboard caricature of evil and malice. More importantly, aside from the numerous inaccuracies and implausibilities, the climax of the film—a bloody and prolonged stoning scene with villagers mercilessly pelting the victim—is so sensationalized that the audience response is likely to be disgust and revulsion at Iranians themselves, who are portrayed as primitive and blood-thirsty savages.

The film is presented as an indictment of Iranian society as a whole, and the setting—a remote rural village of about 25 years ago—is presented as typical of contemporary Iran. In the film, the victim’s aunt (who though she is supposed to be an ignorant village woman, inexplicably speaks excellent English and smokes cigarettes with 1940s femme fatale flourishes) is eager to have the French-Iranian journalist, who stops in the village shortly after the incident, smuggle a tape of her relating the story out of the village. She states that she wants the whole world to know what happened there, presumably so that those on the outside (the west?) can rescue the benighted Iranian people from their barbaric practices.

In fact, Iranians themselves—and in particular Iranian women’s rights activists– have organized and carried out a vigorous campaign against the practice of stoning and have themselves been actively documenting the practice. Opposition to the practice occurs at the highest level of the Iranian legal system; the Head of the Iranian Judiciary announced a moratorium on stoning back in 2002 and it was reiterated in August 2008. Sadly, at least three people have been executed by stoning since then. Interestingly, all three were men.

By criticizing the film, I am not dismissing the importance of the issue. Amnesty International issued a major report on stoning in January 2008, in which it is described how this form of execution is prescribed for adultery—although in practice, it is usually adultery in conjunction with some other crime, such as being an accessory to the murder of a husband. Furthermore stonings are carried out in prison yards by government agents, not by members of the community.

Crucially, we must look at stoning in the overall context of executions in Iran. Stonings represent a tiny fraction of executions in that country. Iran executes more people than any other country in the world except for China. In 2008 it executed at least 346, the overwhelming majority of whom were executed by hanging, sometimes for politically motivated offenses, and often after flawed legal proceedings. But again, Iranians don’t need people from outside Iran telling them what is good for them because Iranians themselves have taken the lead in opposing executions in their country. The renowned Iranian human rights activist Emadeddin Baghi was recently awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals award, partially for his anti-death penalty activism.

I would urge those who really want to see important social issues in Iran critically examined should check out some of the great films made in Iran such as “A Time for Drunken Horses” which deals with poverty among Iran’s Kurdish minority, “The Day I Became a Woman” and “As Simple As That” about the frustrations experienced by women in Iran, and “Santoori” which deals with drug addiction.

An accurate and thoughtful film about executions in Iran would be welcome, but we will still have to wait as the “Stoning of Soraya M” is not it.

Going Beyond Headlines

IFC Films

IFC Films

The Lemon Tree is a 2008 Israeli film follows a Palestinian woman’s fight to keep her lemon grove to the Israeli High Court. Released internationally on April 17th, this film has already garnered widespread acclaim for its emotional and nuanced storytelling, focusing on the Palestinian struggle to hold onto livelihood and identity—in short, their human rights.

Actress Hiam Abbass stars as Salma, a widowed Palestinian whose only source of income is the lemonade from her lemon grove. At the film’s start, the Israeli Defense Minister moves into the mansion next door. His security forces zero in on Salma’s lemon grove as a potential security threat (providing terrorists with perfect cover) and order it to be taken down. She decides to fight the decision, and with the help of a young Palestinian lawyer, takes the case to the Israeli Supreme Court.

What’s great about this film is its desire to blur the lines and truly cultivate its characters. Too often, human rights violations become a matter of numbers and statistics, so it’s certainly refreshing to be able to put a face and a story to the headline. “I think people want to see into the psyche of the people,” said Eran Riklis, the film’s director, to Haaretz. “It’s about people trapped in a deadlock. It tells a story, shows you emotions and glides through a complex, delicate situation in an explosive setting.”

Check out a trailer for the film:

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Sri Lanka: "Just Gimme Some Truth"

Last Friday, I watched the Al Jazeera video, “Sri Lanka admits military bombed ‘no-fire’ zone,” in which the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary denies, then admits, then denies again that the Sri Lankan military bombed in the government-designated “no-fire zone” in northeastern Sri Lanka.  Recently released U.N. satellite photos show craters that the U.N. said were most likely created by bombs dropped from planes since March 16.

Later that night, I found myself thinking of some lines from one of John Lennon’s songs:  “All I want is the truth/Just gimme some truth.”

Then, one of the songs from the soundtrack for the movie “Once” came to mind:  “You’re moving too fast for me/And I can’t keep up with you/Maybe if you slowed down for me/I could see you’re only telling/Lies, lies, lies.”

It's Called Discovery

At one point in My Cousin Vinny, Vinny Gambini  (Joe Pesci, down in Alabama from Brooklyn to defend his cousins in a capital murder case) decides to go hunting with the prosecutor, in the hopes of maybe sweet talking him into getting a peek at his files.  When Vinny returns from the trip, he proudly tells his girlfried (Marisa Tomei) that the prosecutor agreed to Xerox and send over every single file he had on the case.  Marisa Tomei is not impressed; the prosecutor has to give him the files … “It’s called discovery, #$%^&^$%!” she concludes.  (She won an Oscar for saying stuff like that … )

Actually, the fictional prosecutor in “My Cousin Vinny” was being generous, providing what is called “open-file” discovery.  According to a new report from The Justice Project called “Improving Prosecutorial Accountability”, most prosecutors in criminal cases don’t turn over all their files, but get to decide which pieces of evidence are relevant for the defense to see.  As you might expect this often leads to unintentional – or intentional – withholding of evidence that could have helped the defense, and is the most common form of prosecutorial misconduct

Prosecutorial misconduct is a big problem, affecting both capital and non-capital cases.  In addition to withholding important evidence, prosecutors have also presented false testimony, coerced witnesses, fabricated evidence, and false statements to juries. According to the report, a 2003 study revealed at least 2,012 cases where sentences were reduced, convictions reversed or charges dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct.  But the report also cites a 2007 California study which found that “judges generally do not report cases of prosecutorial misconduct to the State Bar, despite a statutory requirement to do so.”

So where’s the accountability?  The report cites cases like the disbarment of the Duke lacrosse case prosecutor, and the current high-level investigation into the prosecutors of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, to illustrate how perhaps prosecutors should be held accountable, but also to demonstrate how they almost never are, because it’s rare for defendants to have the power or connections these folks had. 

The report makes several recommendations, both for preventing prosecutorial misconduct and for holding misbehaving prosecutors accountable.  For the many who have been wrongly sent to death row because of prosecutorial misconduct, and for all those wrongly convicted, this is a good start.  But we have a long way to go.