New hope for Mumia retrial

Amnesty International breaks with tradition to back last-ditch bid

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Mumia Abu-Jamal can now add Amnesty International to his impressive list of supporters. NDescribing the case against Abu-Jamal as “deeply flawed,” and raising the possibility that judicial bias affected the rejection of his appeals, Amnesty’s secretariat in London has called for a retrial of Abu-Jamal’s case.

It’s a highly unusual move for Amnesty, which is in the middle of a fundraising drive and, in Canada, has just completed a survey to gauge the public’s perception of its work.

Its stand on Abu-Jamal’s case marks the first time the human rights watchdog, better known for its efforts to win the release of prisoners of conscience worldwide, has called for a retrial in a U.S. death-penalty case.

All the more controversial is the fact that Amnesty, which bills itself as apolitical, has decided to take a stand on one of the most politicized cases in the U.S. in recent memory.

Abu-Jamal, a once-promising radio reporter, was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

Nasty war

Amnesty’s call for a retrial has already sent reverberations through law enforcement circles south of the border.

Opposition to Amnesty, by Faulkner’s wife Maureen among many others, has been quick and furious, pumping up the nasty war of words between supporters who say Abu-Jamal was framed and detractors who’re selling T-shirts – complete with dripping syringe – calling for his execution.

For Free Mumia activists, the report couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

A federal appeals court judge is currently reviewing Abu-Jamal’s most recent appeal application for a retrial. A decision is expected in mid-April.

Symbolically, Amnesty chose Black History Month and the eve of a gathering of Free Mumia activists in New York to make its announcement and release its report, A Life In The Balance: The Case Of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The 35-page document, which took 10 weeks to complete and is based on what Amnesty describes as an “exhaustive” reading of the original transcripts in the case, concludes that Abu-Jamal did not have adequate legal representation at his trial and that it failed to meet the “minimum international standards” for fair trials.

The report raises specific concerns about the testimony of eyewitnesses who say they saw Abu-Jamal shoot officer Faulkner, the ballistics evidence related to the gun registered to Abu-Jamal found at the scene, and Abu-Jamal’s own “alleged” confession.

FBI target

The document also hints at a frame-up, supporting a claim made by Abu-Jamal’s supporters that the one-time Black Panther was targeted by the FBI because of his political views.

It’s Amnesty’s most stinging indictment yet of the U.S. justice system.

Leonard Weinglass, the New York-based defence lawyer who heads up Abu-Jamal’s appeal, says it’s “gratifying” that the world’s pre-eminent human rights organization selected the case for special study and has asked for a retrial.

But he’s cautious about the influence Amnesty’s stand will have on the appeal application.

“Whether or not this has a direct impact on the proceedings is very difficult for anyone to say,” he says. “But certainly, having Amnesty International issue this call is very substantial.”

Pam Africa, a spokesperson for International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal who helped organize the weekend conference, sounds buoyant on the phone from the group’s offices in Philly.

She’s just back from visiting Abu-Jamal at SCI Greene, and says he’s in good spirits and working on another book, his third from death row, and a CD to help pay his legal costs.

Africa says momentum is building and that organizing efforts are underway for a rally in Washington DC on February 28.

“Everybody has looked at this case and said, ‘This man has not had a fair trial,'” says Africa. “It’s not a question of innocence and guilt. But why is the government going to the extent it’s going to when everybody knows he hasn’t had a fair trial?”

Of course, there are many prisoners in America who don’t receive justice. Why, then, did Amnesty choose Abu-Jamal over the more than 3,000 others on death row? By its own count, Amnesty points out that eight inmates were released last year after they were found to have been wrongly convicted.

Piers Bannister, the researcher who reviewed the court transcripts and wrote Amnesty’s report on Abu-Jamal, explains that one motivating factor was a law passed in 96 – “a nasty piece of legislation,” Bannister calls it – that says federal courts can only overturn a state court’s findings in extraordinary circumstances.

And the number of appeal avenues left to Abu-Jamal is shrinking.

Bannister says he hopes Amnesty’s international reputation will add legitimacy to what he calls a propensity among detractors to characterize Abu-Jamal’s supporters as “a bunch of goateed, punk-rocker anarchists.”

Prison visits

Listening to Bannister, it’s clear he’s been moved, as others have been, by his own visits with Abu-Jamal in prison.

“He’s an incredibly articulate and impressive individual, as his writings illustrate,” says Bannister. “Some people are into Mumia as an individual, and that’s absolutely fine, but in the paper I wanted to stay away from that. I really tried to stay with the legal findings.”

Amnesty stops short of making its own finding of guilt or innocence. Bannister says it was never a consideration. The report also says it doesn’t consider Abu-Jamal a political prisoner, or the charges against him politically motivated.

So why has he been singled out? Bannister says it has a lot to do with Mumia Abu-Jamal’s international notoriety and with trying to bolster Amnesty’s anti-death-penalty efforts in the U.S.

“Some have said, ‘With all the political prisoners in the world, why is Amnesty wasting its time with this man?'” says Bannister. “But we didn’t get that in the past from politicians who cited our work when it came to cutting down their ideological opponents in Libya, Iran, etc…. The knife has to cut both ways.”

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