US Political Prisoners?
Susan Fraker with Vern E. Smith in Atlanta and Elliott D. Lee in New York
July 31, 1978, p. 23
Are there political prisoners in the US? During the trial
of Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, United Nations
Ambassador Andrew Young whipped up a controversy when he
told a French newspaper that there are "hundreds, maybe
thousands, of people I would categorize as political
prisoners" in the US Young later said he did not mean to
equate political freedom in the US and the Soviet Union.
But he did not retract his statement about the number of U.
S. political prisoners - even though he never said exactly
what he meant.
Apart from his timing, Young got into trouble precisely
because the term "political prisoner" means different things
to different people. Some argue that it should include the
civil-rights activists who were jailed in the 1950s and
1960s - including Andy Young* - or those who practiced civil
disobedience to protest the war in Vietnam. Others apply the
term to poor blacks who are denied bail or who receive
stiffer prison sentences than whites who commit similar
crimes. The Russians have singled out Johnny Harris, an
American black convicted of murdering a white prison guard.
However, Aryeh Neier, executive director of the American
Civil Liberties Union, argues that to characterize everyone
who may have received unequal treatment by the US justice
system as a political prisoner is to debase the term.
"Political prisoner," he says, should be reserved for those
truly persecuted for their views: "There are a lot of people
imprisoned unjustly but I can't think of anyone I would call
a political prisoner." *Last week, James Earl Ray - the
convicted assassin of Martin Luther King - charged that he,
too, was a political prisoner and called on Young to help
him. Young was on the balcony with King when he was shot.
The main group that attempts a broader classification is the
London-based Amnesty International, which lists eleven
American "prisoners of conscience" - all black men convicted
in the South. AI bases its definition on the U. N.'s 1948
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a bill of rights that
covers everything from free speech to fair trials. Some case
THE WILMINGTON TEN. In 1971, Ben Chavis, a field organizer
for the United Church of Chirst's Commission for Racial
Justice, went to Wilmington, N. C., to help quell violence
resulting from court-ordered school desegregation. During a
night of rioting, a white-owned grocery store was burned to
the ground. Chavis, eight other black men and one white
woman were charged with firebombing the store. In 1972, they
were convicted and sentenced to a combined total of 282
years in prison - one of the stiffest sentences ever imposed
in North Carolina for arson in which on one died.
In 1976, one of the three young witnesses against them
recanted his testimony and the others followed suit. They
claimed that they had been coerced and bribed by
prosecutors. Civil-rights leaders and politicians requested
a new trial or a gubernatorial pardon.But a superior-court
judge refused to grant a new trial, and last January, Gov.
James Hunt declined to pardon the ten, though he did approve
slight reductions in the sentences of the nine still in
jail. Since then, one more of the ten has been paroled. The
eight remaining are on AI's list.
THE CHARLOTTE THREE. Three activists were sentenced to long
prison terms in North Carolina after their 1972 conviction
for burning the Lazy B Riding Stable, which was a target of
protest because it refused its services to blacks. They were
convicted with the help of testimony from two witnesses who
had criminal records and whose testimony conflicted. Both
witnesses received immunity from prosecution for their
admitted participation in the stable fire, as well as $4,000
from the government to help them "relocate" after thier
testimony. One of the Charlotte Three has been paroled. The
other two, James Grant, a chemist, and T. J. Reddy, a poet,
remain free on bail pending a decision by the Supreme Court
to review their case. Defense attorney James Ferguson claims
the convictions were part of "a campaign to get black
activists off the streets in North Carolina." But Richard
League of the state attorney general's office says racial
politics is not an issue.
IMARI OBADELE. Obadele heads the Republic of New Africa, a
black separatist group. In 1971, police and FBI agents
raided an RNA house in Jackson, Miss., with warrants to
arrest four men. One policeman was killed and an FBI agent
was wounded in an ensuing shoot-out. Obadele was not in the
house but police arrested him nearby and charged him with
murder. After seventeen months in prison, he was released,
and the charge was dropped. But Federal authorities arrested
Obadele again, charging him with conspiracy to assault a
Federal officer. Witnesses at the trial testified that they
heard Obadele, on an earlier occasion, tell the policeman
who was slain in the shoot-out that he would "be ready" for
the police if they came to the RNA house. Obadele was
convicted and is serving a seven-year sentence.
JOHNNY HARRIS. Amnesty International does not include Harris
on its list of prisoners of conscience because he "was
arrested for crimes that are not political," says a
spokesman, Larry Cox. "His is more of a civil-liberties
case." In 1971, Alabama police picked Harris up in
connection with a service-station holdup. He was charged
with rape and two counts of robbery in that incident, and
the station manager also identified Harris as the robber in
a break-in he said had occured ten days earlier. Although
police had no record of the first holdup, Harris was jailed
and spent eight months in prison without even a bond motion
in his behalf. He eventually accepted what he says he
thought was a deal to plead guilty to the rape charge in
return for police withdrawal of the robbery charges.
Instead, his new lawyers say, Harris signed five documents
that turned out to be separate life sentences on each of the
Harris went to prison, and in 1974, he and four other
inmates were charged with murdering a guard during a prison
riot. Prosecutors admitted that there was no evidence tying
Harris to the guard's death, but they contended he was an
accessory to the death because he participated in the riot.
Harris received a death sentence, which is under appeal.
Tass, the Soviet news agency, calls him a martyr for the
civil rights of black Americans.
HANDFUL: Harris's situation is clearly different from the
cases on AI's list. He never was a civil-rights activist. At
most, he was a victim of racial prejudice and his own
poverty - not a dissident jailed for his political views.
They key question is whether the others were singled out
because of their activism, then jailed on trumped-up
charges. If so, they might fairly be termed political
prisoners. But it is doubtful that there are more than a
handful of such people in American jails.