President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken are worried about Russian Putin critic and presidential aspirant Alexei Nevalny, currently in a Russian prison after conviction on charges of skipping bail and leaving the country and other charges. They say he is being abused and is at risk of dying in jail from a hunger strike.
That threat may or may not be real, but US objections to Russia’s treatment of a political rival or dissident, like US objections to China’s harsh treatment of democracy advocates and former democratic members of Hong Kong’s now crushed and no longer autonomous Legislative Assembly, would carry a lot more weight, and be far less laughable around the globe if these two US leaders were demanding decent treatment and release from prison of political prisoners who have been getting abused, degraded and denied adequate medical treatment at the hand of the US “justice” system.
While the list is fairly long, I will highlight three cases here.
The first and most urgent is Mumia Abu-Jamal, once a leading Black journalist in Philadelphia who was convicted in 1982 of the killing of a white Philadelphia police officer. It was a trial marked by perjured testimony from clearly coached prosecution witnesses claiming to have seen an “execution style” slaying that crime photos and a gun test conducted by myself and fellow journalist Linn Washington, Jr., prove could not have happened as portrayed by the prosecutor, a prosecutor who was himself guilty of misconduct in lying to the judge about the availability of a witness. The judge himself, Albert Sabo, was overheard by a court clerk telling another judge that he would “help them fry the nigger” as they passed in the courtroom’s robing room. Abu-Jamal, who is about to turn 67, has served 40 years in prison, more than two decades of that time on death row before his death sentence was ruled unconstitutional and converted to life in prison without parole. During all those death row years he was held in solitary confinement.
The man known as Mumia suffers from diabetes and also contracted Hepatitis C, which the prison system first failed to diagnose and then refused to treat with proper medication until ordered to do so by a federal court in a case that the state fought tooth and nail. The state delayed that case so long that by the time a federal magistrate finally ordered that he be provided with the medication that is 95% successful at curing the deadly disease, it had already destroyed his liver with cirrhosis. Now he’s been diagnosed with Congestive Heart failure and is about to be given open heart bypass-surgery to replace clogged arteries, no doubt due to his imprisonment, inactivity and poor prison diet. (Update: Abu-Jamal was later diagnosed with congestive heart failure and on Monday underwent triple bypass surgery, and is in recovery.)
Abu-Jamal is currently appealing his conviction arguing that six boxes of documents pertaining to the prosecution’s case including evidence of possible bribery of a witness discovered last year in a storeroom of the DA’s office, where they had apparently been hidden from Abu-Jamal’s attorneys for four decades, mean he did not receive a fair trial. (one document in the boxes was a letter from the prosecution’s prime “eye-witness” asking the DA for “his money.”
The city’s supposedly “progressive” DA is fighting that appeal, as is the police officer’s widow Maureen Faulkner who receives financial support for her efforts to intervene in the case from Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police and other police organizations who for years lobbied for Abu-Jamal’s execution and now want to see him die in prison.
As with Nevalny, in a Russian prisoner on a hunger strike, PA prison authorities, citing “standard policy,” are not allowing a private family physician to visit and monitor Abu-Jamal, who is scheduled to undergo heart surgery on Monday, April 18. But there are no reports that Nevalny is being chained to his hospital bed. Every time Abu-Jamal has been hospitalized — for a diabetes collapse, for hepatitis or for his heart surgery, he has been handcuffed to his bed.
Then there’s Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement activist who has been serving two life sentences in federal prison following a controversial 1977 conviction for the murder of two FBI agents who were investigating a different case on the Oglala Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier has already served 44 years in prison, also has serious medical issues, and is widely considered to be a political prisoner of the US, being punished primarily because of his advocacy of Native American rights.
And finally there’s Julian Assange, the journalist and founder of Wikileaks. Assange, an Australian citizen, became a wanted man by the US after his Wikileaks organization began exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably with the release of a gun-sight video of a cobra helicopter whose two crew members were slaughtering a group of Iraqi civilians. including two cameramen working for a US news organization, and laughing as they killed the wounded with additional fire.
Although the trove of documents provided by Wikileaks to various news organizations in the US, Britain and Europe, were all given major play, earning awards for many of those outfits, for his efforts to expose the crimes of the US war machine, Assange found himself the subject of an indictment for espionage and theft of government secrets filed by the US Justice Department. Assange was eventually in Britain when the US asked for his extradition to face federal charges in a US court.
Initially free on bail, Assange, fearing extradition and possible execution or confinement at Guantanamo after trial in a country where top leaders were calling for his death (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that he be “droned”!) he sought asylum in the tiny Ecuadorian Embassy in London. When the left-leaning leader of Ecuador lost an election to a conservative candidate, that asylum was terminated and Ecuador invited London Metro Police to enter their embassy and haul Assange off to jail to face charges of bail jumping and an extradition hearing. Since then he has been held for several years in a grim prison old in solitary confinement where friends and medical experts have said his continuous detention and solitude while hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy and in jail have caused serious health and mental problems.
When the charges Assange faced that had led to his bail were mooted and a judge rejected the US extradition request, the Trump administration appealed the decision. President Biden has rejected calls from many prominent civil liberties attorneys and human rights activists to drop the case against him.
It all makes a farce of the US criticizing the Russian government for its treatment of Nevalny, and for China’s imprisonment of democracy activists in Hong Kong.
It’s time for the US government to walk the walk, and not just emptily talk the talk.
Mumia, Peltier and Assange should all be freed and the cases against them dropped. Other prisoners in the US whose lengthy sentences are clearly the result of political persecution should also be freed. Now!
Otherwise our political leaders are just power-tripping autocrats in glass houses tossing stones at other autocrats.
Biden is so upset at Russia’s treatment of prisoner Nevalny he is warning of “consequences” if Nevalny dies in prison. Vermont Senator and supposed “socialist, progressive” former presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders is saying much the same thing. Sanders, now a powerful Senate Budget Committee chair, and President Biden should be both making a similar warning to Pennsylvania’s political, law-enforcement and prison authorities that there will be “consequences” if Mumia Abu-Jamal. dies in prison. These two Nevalny defenders should also take action to have Leonard Peltier freed from federal prison and to have the federal espionage charges against Assange dropped.
It takes no courage at all to condemn Russia. Every political hack in Washington does that. What takes principle and guts is to take actions when you’re in a position to do so and to right wrongs in your own damned country whether the media and political opponents are going to beat you up for it or not.