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Amnesty International slams Ferguson over human rights abuses

Amnesty International released a searing report on human rights violations that took place in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown Jr.
Police advance through a cloud of tear gas toward demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
Police advance through a cloud of tear gas toward demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

Amnesty International has released a searing report on human rights violations it witnessed during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown Jr. in August.

The litany of alleged abuses the group says protesters suffered at the hands of law enforcement run the gamut from the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to the use of high-frequency acoustic devices to disperse crowds, the latter of which can cause serious health risks including loss of balance, ruptured eardrums and nausea.

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The 20-page report is the culmination of incidents documented by an Amnesty International delegation that was on the ground in Ferguson between Aug. 14 and Aug. 22.

Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, following an altercation that ended with Wilson firing upward of a dozen gunshots at Brown, at least six of which struck the unarmed teenager.

Several witnesses say Wilson fired on Brown as he attempted to flee and that the fatal shots came as Brown turned with his hands up in surrender. Police say Wilson, who is white, shot the black teen in self-defense after Brown reached for the officer’s gun during a tussle.

The shooting sparked ongoing protests that have at times turned violent, including showdowns between heavily-armed police and supporters of Brown. Since the shooting and protests, hundreds have been arrested for petty and sometimes vague, possibly unconstitutional offenses. The arrests and complaints of various police abuses, including beatings and mass-tear gassing of innocent protesters, have drawn the eye of an international community concerned about global human rights.

The report comes nearly a month after President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, in which he framed Brown’s killing in the context of global struggles.

“I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within our own borders. This is true. In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri – where a young man was killed, and a community was divided,” Obama said. “So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.”

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Amnesty International in its report said Brown’s killing and the series of events it triggered “raise a range of human rights concerns, including the right to life, the use of lethal force by law enforcement, the right to freedom from discrimination, and the right to freedom of expression and assembly.”

Brown’s killing, considering the conflicting reports offered by police and witnesses, spur a number of concerns, not the least of which are international standards for lethal force by law enforcement strictly as a last resort. That standard, they say, may have been violated because of multiple accounts that indicated Brown was shot after he attempted to get away from Wilson.

“Irrespective of whether there was some sort of physical confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer, Michael Brown was unarmed and thus unlikely to have presented a serious threat to the life of the police officer,” the report noted. “As such, this calls into question whether the use of lethal force was justified, and the circumstances of the killing must be urgently clarified.’

Officer Wilson has not been arrested or charged in Brown’s killing. The St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office convened a grand jury weeks after the shooting to decide if the officer should be charged. The prosecutor’s office expects a decision from the grand jury by mid-November.

Because of the racial undertones to the case— a white officer gunning down an unarmed African-American — the Justice Department is currently conducting a separate investigation into the shooting parallel to the probe being conducted by county police. The Justice Department is also investigating the entire Ferguson Police Department to determine the veracity of a long list of allegations made by residents indicating a pattern and history of discriminatory police practices.

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The report includes concerns about racial discrimination and excessive force not just in Ferguson but nationwide and lists a number of other killings by police of young, unarmed black men. urging the United States government to “do much more to address systemic racial discrimination and ensure policing practices nationwide are brought into line with international human rights standards.”

In the wake of growing anger by Brown’s supporters and the swelling of demonstrations that at times included several hundred, the police responded with heft. Mine-resistant armored vehicles assembled on public streets, some with snipers peering down the barrel of rifles trained on peaceful protesters. Police with assault rifles formed blockades. Others pushed back protesters with leashed but snarling police dogs.

"I condemn the excessive use of force by the police and call for the right of protest to be respected. The United States is a freedom-loving country and one thing they should cherish is people's right to protest," Navi Pillay, the United Nations high Commissioner for Human Rights, told Reuters in the early weeks of protest. "Apart from that, let me say that coming from apartheid South Africa I have long experience of how racism and racial discrimination breeds conflict and violence," she said. "These scenes are familiar to me and privately I was thinking that there are many parts of the United States where apartheid is flourishing."

She noted America’s deep racial divide, segregation and broad disparities in income and incarceration among African Americans in particular. Pillay likened those circumstances to South African apartheid. "Apartheid is also where law turns a blind eye to racism," she said.

Members of the delegation witnessed police aiming military-style assault rifles at peaceful protesters and members of the media. The report highlights one instance in particular that happened about five days after the delegation arrived in Ferguson. A member of the St. Ann Police Department (various local departments aided local police in crowd control), pointed an AR-15 automatic rifle at a group of journalists and threatened to kill them.

The incident, as noted in the groups report and by numerous news outlets, was filmed by a journalist and went viral the following day. In the  video, the heavily-armed officer is seen walking toward a group of protesters with his rifle raised. According to the delegation, people can be heard telling the officer to lower his gun. Instead, the officer kept his gun raised and yelled, “I’m going to fucking kill you! Get back, get back.”

“What’s your name, sir?” a voice can be heard calling out. The officer responds, “Go fuck yourself!” The officer was suspended and eventually resigned days later.

The officer’s actions were counter to the U.N.’s Basic Principles for the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, according to the Amnesty International report.  

The report also highlights concerning ways in which police dispersed crowds during protests, including the spraying of pepper spray and rubber bullets -- but also the manner and reasons for which protesters were arrested.

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Since protests began, hundreds of protesters have been arrested and charged with mostly petty offenses of failure to disperse or violations of noise ordinances. But dozens of protesters have also been arrested under vague ordinances that included a five-second rule in which protesters were threatened with arrest if they stood in one place for more than five seconds. The rule has since been struck down by a judge.

Along with the complaints, the report offers a host of recommendations for policing protesters. For example, Amnesty recommends that law enforcement ensure enjoyment of the human right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression; law enforcement agencies comply at all times with international human rights obligations and standards of policing; and law enforcement officials investigate effectively, impartially and promptly all allegations of human rights violations.

Brendan Roediger, an assistant professor at St. Louis University school of Law, said Amnesty International’s report is an important one for the international community, but will likely spur little more than a blip on the domestic legal front. “Unfortunately because we don’t participate, as a country, in any of the international enforcement mechanism it doesn’t matter very much,” Roediger said. “But it matters very much to the rest of the world. The rest of the world is watching us violate international law but there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

In March, a U.S. delegation to the U.N. faced blistering criticism from an international committee in Geneva over a slew of human rights concerns including controversial stand-your-ground laws, the death penalty, voting rights and racial disparities in education.

Groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the Dream Defenders and several other organizations sent representatives to Geneva as lobbyists and observers. The groups filed a joint submission ahead of the review detailing issues and concerns. Those concerns included abuses by American border patrol agents, the federal government’s inability to tamp down zero-tolerance school discipline policies and police brutality.

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“We’re not meeting international human rights standards and most people in the United States are under the impression that our laws meet human rights standards,” Ejim Dike, executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, who attended the questioning before the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee, told msnbc at the time. “But we are not exceptional and the U.S. government should be held to the same standard as the rest of the world when it comes to international human rights.”