• Sheet of paper Report

Annual Report: United States Of America 2011

June 16, 2011

Head of state and government: Barack H. Obama
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 317.6 million
Life expectancy: 79.6 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 7/8 per 1,000

Forty-six people were executed during the year, and reports of excessive use of force and cruel prison conditions continued. Scores of men remained in indefinite military detention in Guantánamo as President Obama's one-year deadline for closure of the facility there came and went. Military commission proceedings were conducted in a handful of cases, and the only Guantánamo detainee so far transferred to the US mainland for prosecution in a federal court was tried and convicted. Hundreds of people remained held in US military custody in the US detention facility on the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. The US authorities blocked efforts to secure accountability and remedy for crimes under international law committed against detainees previously subjected to the USA's secret detention and rendition programme.

International scrutiny

In November, the USA's human rights record was assessed under the UN Universal Periodic Review. The US delegation stated that the USA would conduct a "considered, interagency examination of all 228 recommendations" that came out of the process and would provide a formal response in March 2011.

Detentions at Guantánamo

On 22 January, President Obama's one-year deadline for closure of the Guantánamo detention facility passed with 198 detainees still held in the base, about half of them Yemeni nationals. By the end of the year, there were still 174 men held there, including three who had been convicted under a military commission system which failed to meet international fair trial standards.

On 5 January, the White House announced that the decision had been taken to suspend transfers of Yemeni detainees from Guantánamo to Yemen, following an attempted bombing of a commercial airliner over Detroit two weeks earlier in which the suspect had alleged links with militants in Yemen. The suspension remained in force throughout the year.

On 22 January, the Guantánamo Review Task Force issued its final report of an interagency review – ordered as part of President Obama's executive order of 22 January 2009 – of the cases of 240 Guantánamo detainees. The Task Force concluded that 48 detainees could neither be prosecuted nor released by the USA. It also revealed that 36 detainees had been referred for possible prosecution, either in a federal court or by military commission, and approved the transfer or release of 126 detainees "subject to appropriate security measures". The 126 included 29 Yemeni nationals. A further 30 Yemenis were approved for "conditional" detention, a designation which meant they could not be released from Guantánamo unless the "security situation improves in Yemen"; or "an appropriate rehabilitation program becomes available"; or "an appropriate third-country resettlement option becomes available".

Trials of Guantánamo detainees

In April, the Pentagon released the rules governing military commission proceedings. The new manual confirmed that the US administration – like its predecessor – reserved the right to continue to detain individuals indefinitely even if they were acquitted by military commission.

Two Guantánamo detainees were convicted by military commission during the year, bringing to five the total number of people convicted by military commission since 2001, three of whom had pleaded guilty. In July, Sudanese national Ibrahim al-Qosi pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges and was sentenced the following month to 14 years' imprisonment. In October, Canadian national Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old at the time he was taken into US military custody in Afghanistan in July 2002, pleaded guilty to five "war crimes" charges. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison by a military commission "jury", but under a plea trial agreement this was limited to eight years. The Canadian and US authorities agreed to support his transfer to Canada after he serves one year in US custody.

Five Guantánamo detainees accused of involvement in the attacks of 11 September 2001 – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, ‘Ali ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and Mustafa al Hawsawi – remained in Guantánamo at the end of the year, 13 and a half months after Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the five would be transferred for prosecution in a federal court in New York. The five detainees had been held incommunicado for up to four years in secret US custody before being transferred to Guantánamo in 2006. They were charged in 2008 for trial by military commission.

By the end of the year, there was still only one Guantánamo detainee who had been transferred to the US mainland for prosecution in a federal court. In November, Tanzanian national Ahmed Ghailani, who had been transferred from Guantánamo in 2009, was convicted by a US District Court in New York of involvement in the bombings of two US embassies in east Africa in 1998. In pre-trial rulings in May and July, the judge had denied defence motions to dismiss the indictment against Ahmed Ghailani on the grounds that he had been tortured in secret CIA custody prior to being transferred to Guantánamo in 2006 or that he had been denied the right to a speedy trial in the five years he had spent in CIA and then military custody prior to being transferred to New York. Ahmed Ghailani was due to be sentenced in January 2011.

US detentions in Afghanistan

Hundreds of detainees were held in the newly constructed US Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP) on the Bagram air base in Afghanistan; the DFIP replaced the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in late 2009. For example, about 900 detainees were being held in the DFIP in September. Most of them were Afghan nationals, taken into custody by coalition forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The US authorities stated that the DFIP would eventually be transferred to the control of the Afghan authorities "for incarceration of criminal defendants and convicts", and that "transitioning operations" would begin in January 2011. The speed of transition, the Pentagon said in October, would depend, among other things, on "operational conditions", Afghan judicial capacity, and whether the Afghan government was "fully trained and equipped to perform its prosecution and incarceration responsibilities in accordance with its international obligations and Afghan law".

Litigation continued in the USA on the question of whether detainees held at Bagram should have access to the US courts to be able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention. In May, the US Court of Appeals overturned a 2009 ruling by a District Court judge that three Bagram detainees – who were not Afghan nationals and were taken into custody outside Afghanistan – could file habeas corpus petitions in his court. After the Court of Appeals refused to reconsider its decision in July 2010, US lawyers for the detainees returned to the District Court to pursue the litigation, which was continuing at the end of the year.

Amnesty International and other organizations wrote to the US Secretary of Defense in June raising concerns about allegations that detainees held in a screening facility at Bagram air base had been subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, including prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation and exposure to extreme temperatures.


There continued to be an absence of accountability and remedy for the human rights violations, including the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance, committed as part of the USA's programme of secret detention and rendition (transfer of individuals from the custody of one state to another by means that bypass judicial and administrative due process) operated under the administration of President George W. Bush.

In his memoirs, published in November, and in a pre-publication interview, former President Bush admitted that he had personally authorized "enhanced interrogation techniques" for use by the CIA against detainees held in secret custody. One of the techniques he said he authorized was "water-boarding", a form of torture in which the process of drowning a detainee is begun.

On 9 November, the US Department of Justice announced, without further explanation, that no one would face criminal charges in relation to the destruction in 2005 by the CIA of videotapes made of the interrogations of two detainees – Abu Zubaydah and ‘Abd al-Nashiri – held in secret custody in 2002. The 92 tapes depicted evidence of the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques", including "water-boarding", against the two detainees.

The "preliminary review" ordered in August 2009 by Attorney General Eric Holder into some aspects of some interrogations of some detainees held in the secret detention programme was apparently continuing at the end of the year.

On 8 September, the full US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the US administration's invocation of the "state secrets privilege" and agreed to dismiss a lawsuit brought by five men – UK resident Binyam Mohamed; Italian national Abou Elkassim Britel; Egyptian national Ahmed Agiza; Yemeni national Muhammad Faraj Ahmed Bashmilah; and Bisher al-Rawi, an Iraqi national and UK permanent resident – who claimed they were subjected to enforced disappearance, and torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of US personnel and agents of other governments as part of the USA's secret detention and rendition programme operated by the CIA. The six judges in the majority pointed to the possibility that "non-judicial relief" might be open to the plaintiffs, and that action to this end could be taken by the executive or Congress.

There were calls for the USA to investigate how much US officials knew about the torture or other ill-treatment of detainees held by the Iraqi security forces after new evidence emerged in files released by the Wikileaks organization in October. (See Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen entries.)

Prison conditions

There were complaints of cruel conditions for prisoners held in long-term isolation in super-maximum security units. Complaints included ill-treatment of prisoners held in the federal system under Special Administrative Measures.

  • Syed Fahad Hashmi, a student, was held for more than three years in pre-trial solitary confinement in the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York. He was confined for 23 or 24 hours a day to a small cell with very little natural light. He had no outdoor exercise and very limited contact with his family. In April, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to help al-Qa'ida. His attorneys had filed unsuccessful applications for alleviation of his pre-trial conditions, citing their effect on his health and ability to assist in his defence. He was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment in June.
  • Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, former Black Panther Party members, remained in solitary confinement in prisons in Louisiana, where they had spent more than 35 years confined to sparse, single cells, with no work or rehabilitation programmes. The conditions were first imposed after the murder of a prison guard in 1972. Appeals challenging the fairness of their convictions for the murder, as well as their cruel conditions of confinement, were pending in the federal courts at the end of the year.

Unfair trials

In June, a new appeal was filed in the case of Gerardo Hernández, one of five men convicted in 2001 of acting as intelligence agents for Cuba and related charges. The appeal was based, in part, on evidence that the US government had secretly paid journalists to write prejudicial articles in the media at the time of trial, thereby undermining the defendants' due process rights. In October, Amnesty International sent a report to the Attorney General outlining the organization's concerns in the case.

Violence against women

In July, Congress passed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which gives Indigenous women who survive rape a better chance of obtaining justice. The law improved co-ordination between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies in investigating such crimes, and took steps to restore tribal authority and resources to deal with crimes on tribal land. The law was introduced in response to concerns raised by tribal organizations and in Amnesty International's 2007 report Maze of Injustice, which exposed the disproportionately high levels of sexual violence against Indigenous women and widespread impunity for perpetrators.

Right to health – maternal mortality

Hundreds of women continued to die from preventable pregnancy-related complications. Wide disparities persisted in access to good quality health care based on race, ethnicity, immigration or Indigenous status, geographical location and income. There were calls for federal and state governments to take all necessary steps to improve maternal health care and outcomes, and eliminate disparities.

A law was passed in March that would expand health care coverage by 2014 to more than 30 million people in the USA who were uninsured. A number of legal challenges to the legislation were pending in US courts at the end of the year.

Children's rights

On 17 May, the US Supreme Court ruled that the imposition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-homicidal crime on a perpetrator who was under 18 at the time of the crime violated the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment. The majority noted that support for this conclusion came in the fact that the USA was the "only Nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders". The majority also noted that Article 37(a) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) prohibits life imprisonment without the possibility of release for crimes committed by anyone under 18 years old.

On 14 October, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the USA to ratify the CRC, the USA and Somalia being the only two countries not to have done so.

Migrants' rights

Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, expressed concern about a sweeping immigration law passed in Arizona in April. It was feared that the law, which required Arizona police to hand over to the immigration authorities individuals who could not provide immediate proof of their status, would increase "racial profiling". Key provisions of the law were later put on hold, pending a federal lawsuit.

Scores of Mexican and Central American irregular migrants crossing into the USA through the desert border regions died of exposure and exhaustion.

Death penalty

Forty-six prisoners – 45 men and one woman – were put to death in the USA during the year. Forty-four were executed by lethal injection, one by electrocution and one by firing squad. This brought to 1,234 the total number of executions carried out since the US Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976.

  • David Powell was executed in Texas on 15 June, more than three decades after his crime, despite compelling evidence of his rehabilitation. He had been on death row for more than half of his life.
  • Holly Wood was executed in Alabama on 9 September. At his trial, his inexperienced lawyer had presented no evidence to the jury of Holly Wood's significant mental impairments.
  • Brandon Rhode was executed in Georgia on 27 September, six days after he slashed his arms and neck with a razor. He was brought back from the brink of death and killed by lethal injection for a crime committed when he was 18 years old.
  • Jeffrey Landrigan was executed in Arizona on 26 October. Over the years, 13 federal judges argued for a hearing into the failings of his trial lawyer. The execution went ahead after the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 to lift a stay imposed by a lower court concerned by the state's refusal to provide adequate information about one of the lethal injection drugs – of which there was a nationwide shortage – it had obtained from a source overseas.

Four men and one woman facing imminent execution were granted executive clemency during the year.

In October, Anthony Graves was released in Texas, 16 years after he was sentenced to death. A new trial had been ordered by a federal court in 2006, but charges were dismissed in October after the prosecution found no credible evidence linking him to the 1992 crime. He became the 138th person to be released from death row in the USA since 1973 on grounds of innocence.