Federal authorities publicly plot encouraging bounty hunters to kidnap a fugitive black radical from a foreign country for return to prison in the U.S. to achieve long-delayed justice.
This sounds like the FBI action on May 2, 2013 in placing former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur on its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list – the first female to have that dubious distinction.
Shakur was convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper during a May 1973 incident on the NJ turnpike, where one of her companions was killed and another captured. Once known as JoAnne Chesimard, she escaped from a NJ prison in 1979 and was granted political asylum in Cuba in 1984 where she lives today.
While Shakur,65, occasionally criticizes racist inequities in the U.S. – comparable to that of many politicians including Barack Obama prior to this election of U.S. President – she does not actively advocate or engage in terrorism.
Yet many contend she is a ‘terrorist’ because of her armed resistance decades ago to American racism that included police brutality – a deadly offense Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decried twice in his seminal 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. A May 10 editorial in the conservative Washington Times declared Shakur had to “pay for her crimes” suggesting Cuba send her to a cell in Guantanamo Bay – the U.S. torture prison located on land the U.S. illegally occupies in Cuba.
Although federal authorities did double the NJ state reward for the capture of Shakur to $2-million when placing her on their “Most Wanted” terrorist list exactly forty-years after that 1973 incident, the bounty hunter incident referenced above occurred before the widely condemned listing of Shakur.
In July 2012, almost a year before the Shakur listing, federal authorities discussed snatching a former Black Panther “off the street” in Portugal during a public hearing chaired by a Republican Congressman from New Jersey.
That ex-BPP member, George Wright, now 70, had escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1970 while he was serving a 15-30-year sentence for a death during a gas station robbery eight years earlier. The odyssey of Wright, who joined the BPP after fleeing prison, included escape to Algeria on a hijacked airliner, life in France, Guinea-Bissau in West Africa (where he received asylum) and then to Portugal where he married a Portuguese woman, raised a family and spent much of his life there doing charitable and humanitarian work.
In September 2011, an FBI cold-case investigation resulted in Portuguese police arresting Wright. Courts in that country, including its highest court, twice rejected U.S. extradition requests ruling that Wright (who changed his name to Jose Luis Jorge Dos Santos) was a Portuguese citizen and under Portuguese law the statute of limitation for his crime in the U.S. had expired.
During that July 2012 public hearing, the chair, NJ Congressman Chris Smith, blasted “rogue” judges in Portugal for “thumbing” their nose at the world, characterizing those judicial rulings as “indefensible.” A former U.S. State Department official, testifying at the hearing on Wright’s case, urged offering rewards to bounty hunters to “snatch Wright off the street” and smuggle him back into the United States – a blatantly extra-legal tactic.
That anti-Portugal rhetoric ignores the reality of the U.S. routinely disregarding other country’s laws, for example refusing to send 26 indicted CIA officers charged in Italy with the 2003 kidnapping and rendition of a man from Rome to a torture cell in Egypt and then refusing to send them send them to face sentencing after a court in Italy, a NATO ally, upheld the men’s convictions in absentia in a decision early this year.
Rep. Smith and others also sought U.S. government action against Portugal for failing to disregard its laws mandating refusal of the U.S. extradition request for Wright.
The murder convictions of Wright and Shakur, each evidenced systemic flaws within the U.S. criminal justice system that remain evident today. Neither Wright nor Shakur, for example, actually committed the murders producing their murder convictions, according to forensic evidence and other facts provided by law enforcement at the time of the trials.
Shakur’s original trial lawyer, Rutgers University criminal justice professor Lennox Hinds, said during a recent Democracy Now! interview, that his client was “shot in the back” while her “hands were in the air.” This rendered her incapable of firing a gun, evidence that the trial jury brushed-off and law enforcement authorities today bury when portraying Shakur as a brutal murderer.
“So, the allegation by the state police that she took an officer’s gun and shot him, executed him in cold blood, is not only false, but it is designed to inflame,” Hinds said, noting that no gunpowder residue “was found on her clothing or on her hand,” further undercutting claims of her shooting Trooper Werner Foerster.
The structural injustices corroding the Shakur trial involved an all-white jury where five of those jurors had conflict-of-interest connections to NJ state troopers (including two close relatives and a girlfriend) and the trial judge slashing funding for defense experts sought to highlight that forensic evidence of innocence according to a recent statement from the National Lawyers Guild opposing Shakur’s terror listing.
Those injustices also included the trial judge’s repeatedly holding Hinds in contempt, and after the trial, an attempt by the NJ body certifying lawyers to revoke Hinds’ law license because he had criticized that murder trial as a “legalized lynching” by a “kangaroo court.”
The institutionalized injustice evident in Shakur’s trial is a rights robbing reality with an infamous history in NJ and across America.
The July 1797 hanging in Woodbury, NJ, a few miles south of Philadelphia, of a black man convicted of murder prompted harsh contemporaneous criticism that assailed alleged proof of guilt “being found entirely on presumption.” The condemned man, Abraham Johnstone, issued a stirring retort on the day of his execution in which he claimed he was the victim of perjury, which he argued was rampant in American courts. Johnstone stated in his retort that he had been framed by persons seeking to steal his home.
While the failed extradition of George Wright has faded from news headlines, the placement of Shakur on the “Wanted Terrorist” list – triggering the prospect of a her kidnapping or, these days, of a drone strike – has fanned protests nationwide from demonstrations to a letter sent to President Obama asking that he overturn the FBI action, which has been signed by over 60 activists, academics, ministers and concerned citizens including actor Danny Glover.
That letter to Obama demanded that the FBI provide proof to document its claim that Shakur has used her asylum in Cuba to “promote” terrorist ideology.
That letter scored the FBI for equating “radical beliefs favoring fundamental social and economic change with terror.”
Supporters of Shakur contend her terrorist listing moves dangerously beyond relentless revenge rooted in the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO covert war to crush black civil rights and militant activists during the late 1960s and early 1970s (including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). A U.S. Senate investigating committee in 1975 blasted COINTELPRO’s blatant attacks on constitutionally protected activities during an attempt by the FBI to sustain America’s racist status quo.
Shakur supporters see that terror listing as another step in expanding the Terror War’s assault on domestic dissidents and erosions of civil liberties including the First Amendment right to criticize government. Supporters also see the listing as a weapon in right-wing efforts to blunt Obama Administration discussions about removing Cuba from the federal government’s list of nations allegedly involved in sponsoring terrorism.
Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the federal government is “stretching” its legal definition of terrorism when applying that tag to Shakur. Ratner, during a media interview, asserted Shakur was “wrongfully convicted” for that fatal incident that he said began with racial profiling by NJ State Police. NJ troopers were one of the first law enforcement agencies in America exposed in media coverage and lawsuits for officially sanctioned profile targeting of non-whites.
The same U.S. government that Ratner said is “choosing to ignore” the legal fact that the Cuban government has an “absolute right” to repeatedly deny U.S. extradition requests for Shakur has always given sanctuary to wanted anti-Castro terrorists, including the CIA-trained Luis Posada Carriles who bombed a Cuban airliner in 1976 killing 73 people.
Robert Saleem Holbrook is one of nearly 500 Pennsylvania inmates serving controversial life-sentences for fatal crimes committed while under 18, many who like Holbrook, were minor accomplices not the actual murderers. Holbrook recently wrote an article criticizing the terrorist listing of Shakur.
“If anyone is a terrorist, it is the agents who were responsible for a campaign of assassinations, false imprisonments, illegal wiretaps and a host of other illegal acts that emerged from COINTELPRO,” Holbrook wrote. “Assata Shakur is a freedom fighter.”
Bruce Dixon, co-founder of the news analysis website Black Agenda Report, criticized the failure of “nationally noted” black leaders (like the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus) to criticize the FBI/NJ State Police action against Shakur, for which Dixon also criticized President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
If criticism of U.S. policies is “all it takes to be a terrorist,” Dixon wrote in a commentary on BAR, “many thousands of today’s yesterday’s and tomorrow’s black and non-black political activists inside the U.S. are “terrorists” as well.”