• Sheet of paper Report

Annual Report: United States of America 2013

May 29, 2013


Head of state and government Barack H. Obama

Forty-three men were executed during the year, and concerns about cruel prison conditions continued. Scores of detainees remained in indefinite military detention at Guantánamo. Pre-trial proceedings continued in six cases in which the administration was intending to seek the death penalty following trials by military commission. Use of lethal force in the counter-terrorism context continued to raise serious concerns, as did continuing reports of the use of excessive force in domestic law enforcement.

Counter-terror and security

Detentions at Guantánamo

At the end of 2012, nearly three years after President Obama's deadline for closure of the Guantánamo detention facility, 166 men were still held at the base, the vast majority without charge or criminal trial.

Four men were transferred from the base during the year, two of whom had been convicted by military commission.Two Uighur detainees, who had been held without charge or trial at the base since 2002, were transferred to El Salvador in April for resettlement there.

Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemeni national who had repeatedly expressed his distress at his indefinite detention without charge or trial, died during the year, bringing to nine the number of detainees known to have died at Guantánamo since January 2002.

During the year, the US Supreme Court refused to review petitions from a number of Guantánamo detainees whose detentions had been upheld by the Court of Appeals. Among other things, the petitions had asked the Supreme Court to consider whether its 2008 Boumediene v. Bush ruling – that the detainees had the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in federal court – was being implemented in such a way as to deny the detainees the “meaningful” review promised.

Trials of Guantánamo detainees

In May, five Guantánamo detainees accused of leading involvement in the attacks in the USA of

11 September 2001 – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, ‘Ali ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and Mustafa al Hawsawi – were arraigned for capital trial by military commission. The trials of the five men and that of ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who had been arraigned for capital trial in 2011, had not begun by the end of 2012. Prior to their transfer to Guantánamo in 2006, the six men had been held incommunicado for up to four years in secret US custody, during which time at least two of them had been tortured.

In August, charges were sworn against Saudi Arabian national Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi. Arrested by civilian authorities in Azerbaijan in June 2002, he was transferred to US custody in August 2002 and to Guantánamo in March 2003. By the end of 2012, the charges against him had not been referred on for trial by military commission.

In February Pakistani national Majid Khan pleaded guilty to offences under the 2009 Military Commissions Act (MCA) before a military judge at Guantánamo. The terms of the pre-trial agreement would see him sentenced in or before February 2016 after having co-operated with the US authorities. Prior to being brought to Guantánamo in 2006, he had been held in secret US custody and allegedly tortured and otherwise ill-treated.

This brought to seven the number of people convicted by military commission at Guantánamo. Five had pleaded guilty in return for the possibility of early release from US custody. Two of the five were repatriated during 2012: Ibrahim al Qosi to Sudan in July, and Omar Khadr, who had been in US custody since the age of 15, to Canada in September.

In October, a US federal court overturned the 2008 conviction of Salim Hamdan for “material support for terrorism”. The US Court of Appeals ruled that “material support for terrorism” was not a war crime in US law prior to the enactment of the MCA.

US detentions in Afghanistan

In June, a US District Court judge dismissed the habeas corpus petition brought on behalf of Zia-ur-Rahman, an Afghan national who had been taken into US military custody in Afghanistan in December 2008 and held without charge or trial ever since. The judge granted the US administration's motion that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the case.

On 9 September, under an agreement signed six months earlier, the Afghan authorities assumed control of detainee operations on the US airbase at Bagram. Although the Afghan authorities were reported to have taken custody of the approximately 3,000 Afghan nationals detained at Bagram as of 9 March, more than 600 detainees reported to have been taken to the base since that date apparently remained under US military jurisdiction, as did about 50 non-Afghan nationals (see Afghanistan entry).

In October, a US District Court judge dismissed the habeas corpus petitions of three non-Afghan nationals held in US custody at Bagram. According to the petitions, Amin al-Bakri was seized in 2002 in Thailand; Redha al-Najar was arrested in Pakistan in 2002; and Fadi al-Maqaleh's petition alleges that he was detained outside Afghanistan in 2003, but the US authorities asserted that he was in Afghanistan at the time. In May 2010, the US Court of Appeals had overturned a 2009 ruling by the District Court that the three detainees could file petitions to challenge the lawfulness of their detention. Lawyers for the detainees subsequently filed amended petitions in District Court, adding new information they claimed undermined the Court of Appeals' ruling. However, the District Court disagreed.

In November, a US District Court judge dismissed the habeas corpus petition of another detainee in US custody at Bagram. Amanatullah, a Pakistani national, had been held at the base for several years. He was one of two men taken into custody by UK forces in Iraq in February 2004, handed over to US custody, and transferred to Afghanistan. Both remained held without charge or trial in US custody in Bagram at the end of 2012.


The absence of accountability for crimes under international law committed under the administration of President George W. Bush in relation to the CIA's programme of secret detention was further entrenched.

On 30 August, the US Attorney General announced the closure of criminal investigations into the death of two individuals in US custody outside the USA. He stated that no one would face criminal charges in relation to the deaths, believed to have occurred in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. This followed the announcement in June 2011 that a “preliminary review” conducted into interrogations in the CIA programme was at an end and that, apart from in relation to the two deaths, further investigation was not warranted.

Use of lethal force

The USA's “targeted killing” of terrorism suspects, including in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, particularly through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, continued during the year. Available information, limited by secrecy, indicated that US policy permitted extrajudicial executions in violation of international human rights law under the USA's theory of a “global war” against al-Qa'ida and associated groups.

Excessive use of force

At least 42 people across 20 states died after being struck by police Tasers, bringing the total number of such deaths since 2001 to 540. Tasers have been listed as a cause or contributory factor in more than 60 deaths. Most of those who died after being struck with a Taser were not armed and did not appear to pose a serious threat when the Taser was deployed.

In May the American Heart Association published a report which presented the first scientific, peer-reviewed evidence concluding that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest and death. The study analyzed information including autopsy reports, medical records and police data from eight cases in which individuals had lost consciousness after being shocked with a Taser X26 weapon.

  • On 20 June, 39-year-old Macadam Mason died outside his home in Thetford, Vermont, after being struck with a Taser deployed by a state trooper. In September the New Hampshire Medical Examiner's Office concluded that Macadam Mason had suffered “sudden cardiac arrest due to the conducted electrical weapon discharge”.

In October, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General reported that it was reviewing US Border Patrol policies on the use of lethal force. The review, which remained ongoing at the end of the year, followed a series of deadly shootings by Border Patrol agents along the US border with Mexico.

  • In October, 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez died of gunshot wounds. The US authorities said that a Border Patrol agent from Nogales, Arizona, had opened fire after two individuals suspected of drug smuggling had fled across the border and begun throwing rocks. The case was under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Mexican officials at the end of the year.
  • In April, the US Department of Justice announced that no federal criminal or civil rights charges would be pursued regarding the death of Sergio Hernández Guereca, a 15-year-old shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent in 2010.

Prison conditions

Incarceration rates remained at historically high levels.

Thousands of prisoners across the USA remained in isolation in “super-maximum security” prisons. They were confined to cells for 22-24 hours a day, without adequate access to natural light, exercise or rehabilitation programmes. Conditions in such facilities violated international standards and in some cases amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

In October, five men were extradited from the UK to the USA to stand trial on terrorism-related charges after the European Court of Human Rights rejected their claim that they would face a real risk of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment if imprisoned in the federal ADX “supermax prison” in Florence, Colorado. The US authorities denied an Amnesty International request to visit ADX prison.

Children's rights

In June, in Miller v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for offenders who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime. The ruling came two years after the Court prohibited life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide crimes by under-18s.

In July, Terry Branstad, Governor of Iowa, responded to the Miller v. Alabama decision by commuting 38 life without parole sentences being served in Iowa by inmates convicted of first degree murder committed when they were under 18, to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 60 years. Any mitigating evidence that was not considered at the time of the trial due to the automatic imposition of the life without parole sentence, was again neglected in the Governor's blanket commutation.

Migrants' rights

In June, the US Supreme Court struck down key parts of an Arizona immigration law, including a provision that made it a state crime for irregular migrants to seek or hold a job. However, the Court upheld a section requiring state law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of individuals they suspect of being in the country illegally, despite criticism from human rights groups that this would encourage “racial profiling”– that is, targeting individuals solely on account of their appearance or racial or ethnic origin. Following the ruling, federal courts upheld similar legislation in Alabama and Georgia.

The proliferation of state laws targeting migrants put them at increased risk of discrimination and impeded access to education and essential health care services.

Increased immigration enforcement along certain stretches of the US-Mexico border continued to push irregular migrants to use particularly dangerous routes through the US desert, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Increased collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration authorities put communities living along the US-Mexico border at risk of racial profiling by state and local law enforcement officials. Irregular migrants who were victims of crime, such as human trafficking and domestic violence, faced a range of barriers to justice.

Right to health

In June, the US Supreme Court upheld The Affordable Health Care Act, passed in 2010, which would expand health care coverage by 2014 to more than 30 million people in the USA who lack medical insurance. While a number of the law's provisions addressed barriers to obtaining quality maternal health care, such as preventing insurance companies from charging women more for health coverage, gaps and obstacles remained.

The Maternal Health Accountability Act remained before Congress at the end of the year.

Women's rights

Legislation outlawing the shackling of women prisoners at all stages of pregnancy was passed in California in October. This was the first such law in the USA.

In June, legislation came into effect in Virginia requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion.

Congress failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which includes provisions to address the high levels of violence against Indigenous women and to provide protection and services for survivors of domestic violence.

Reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which would protect the thousands of individuals trafficked into the USA every year, remained stalled in Congress at the end of 2012.

Death penalty

Forty-three prisoners – all of them men – were executed in the USA during the year, all by lethal injection. Fifteen of the executions were carried out in Texas. By the end of 2012, Texas accounted for 492 of the 1,320 executions in the USA since 1976, when the US Supreme Court approved new capital laws.

In April, Connecticut became the 17th abolitionist state in the USA.

In November, the California electorate, by a vote of about 53% to 47%, rejected “Proposition 34”, an initiative that would have abolished the state's death penalty and commuted over 700 death sentences to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Amnesty International visits/reports

  • Amnesty International delegates observed military commission proceedings at Guantánamo during the year.
  • USA: “Congress has made no such decision”: Three branches of government, zero remedy for counter-terrorism abuses (AMR 51/008/2012)
  • In hostile terrain: Human rights violations in immigration enforcement in the US southwest (AMR 51/018/2012)
  • USA: Cruel isolation – Amnesty International's concerns about conditions in Arizona maximum security prisons (AMR 51/023/2012)
  • USA: Another brick from the wall (AMR 51/028/2012)
  • USA: Wrong court, wrong place, wrong punishment (AMR 51/032/2012)
  • USA: Human rights betrayed – 20 years after US ratification of ICCPR, human rights principles sidelined by “global war” theory (AMR 51/041/2012)
  • USA: “Targeted killing” policies violate the right to life (AMR 51/047/2012)
  • USA: Deadly formula – An international perspective on the 40th anniversary of Furman v. Georgia (AMR 51/050/2012)
  • USA: The edge of endurance – Prison conditions in California's Security Housing Units (AMR 51/060/2012)
  • USA: One-way accountability – Guantánamo detainee pleads guilty; details of government crimes against him remain classified top secret (AMR 51/063/2012)
  • USA: Texas – Still, doing its worst; 250th execution under current Governor imminent (AMR 51/092/2012)
  • USA: Truth, justice and the American way? Details of crimes under international law still classified Top Secret (AMR 51/099/2012)