USA: authorities in 'politically-motivated' campaign against activists assisting migrants - new report

Those assisting people to access their rights in the border region have been targeted by the US authorities © Alli Jarrar/Amnesty International

Humanitarian workers subjected to surveillance, interrogation, arrest and prosecution

‘The Trump administration’s targeting of human rights defenders … sets it on a slippery slope toward authoritarianism’ - Erika Guevara-Rosas

The US has conducted a “politically-motivated” campaign of intimidation against people defending the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers on the US-Mexico border, said Amnesty International in a new report today.

Amnesty’s 44-page report - ‘Saving lives is not a crime’: politically motivated legal harassment of migrant human rights defenders by the USA -  shows how the US authorities have subjected human rights defenders to surveillance, interrogations, invasive searches, travel restrictions, and, in some cases, false arrest and unlawful detention.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are accused of increasingly using the criminal justice system to deter activists, lawyers, journalists, and humanitarian volunteers from challenging - or simply documenting - the systematic human rights violations that US authorities are committing against migrants and asylum-seekers.

Amnesty interviewed 23 human rights defenders, who detailed the restrictions they’ve faced because of their work.

Ten of them - five activists, three lawyers, a journalist and a clergy member - were included on a Department of Homeland Security surveillance watchlist as part of a dubious criminal investigation into human smuggling. They spoke of how the authorities have used the border region as a criminal dragnet, exploiting their authority to conduct warrantless searches, interrogate travellers about their finances and professional networks, and search their electronic devices - apparently seeking to build criminal cases against them.

So far this year, the US authorities have prosecuted nine volunteers from the No More Deaths organisation for providing humanitarian aid to migrants and asylum-seekers on the Arizona-Mexico border, where thousands of people have died in the past 20 years. In one case, Dr Scott Warren has been prosecuted for the alleged crimes of harbouring and conspiracy to transport two migrants, simply for having provided them with water, food and medical assistance in the desert town of Ajo, where he lives. The case ended in a mistrial on 11 June, yet federal prosecutors have still not yet dropped the charges against Dr Warren.

The intimidatory campaign documented by Amnesty has been in violation of the US Constitution, US and international law, and the Department of Homeland Security’s own policies - all of which prohibit discriminatory restrictions of freedom of speech and expression. In some cases, the US and Mexican authorities have reportedly collaborated in unlawful behaviour against human rights defenders on their shared border.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director, said:

“The US Government is disgracing itself by threatening and even prosecuting its own citizens for their vital work to save the lives of people in a desperate situation at the border.

“The Trump administration must immediately end its politically-motivated misuse of the criminal justice system and its abuse of powers to search, detain and interrogate human rights defenders at the border. Instead of targeting lawyers, journalists, and activists for trying to stop human rights violations, the government should be listening to them.

“Humanitarian volunteers have been saving the lives of migrants and asylum-seekers for years, in hostile desert terrain that authorities have weaponised against migrants with deadly effects.

“The US Government must immediately drop all charges against Dr Warren and adopt and implement exemptions from criminal prosecution in all situations involving the provision of humanitarian aid.

“The Trump administration’s targeting of human rights defenders through discriminatory misuse of the criminal justice system sets it on a slippery slope toward authoritarianism.”

Brave campaign

Amnesty’s Brave campaign is currently campaigning for better protections for human rights defenders, including asking the UK Government to prioritise the issue. 

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‘Saving lives is not a crime’