Tag Archives: torture

Most Americans support torture of suspected terrorists

Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture can be justified to extract information from suspected terrorists, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, a level of support similar to that seen in countries like Nigeria where militant attacks are common.

The poll reflects a U.S. public on edge after the massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino in December and large-scale attacks in Europe in recent months, including a bombing claimed by the militant group Islamic State last week that killed at least 32 people in Belgium.

Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has forcefully injected the issue of whether terrorism suspects should be tortured into the election campaign.

Trump has said he would seek to roll back President Barack Obama’s ban on waterboarding – an interrogation technique that simulates drowning that human rights groups contend is illegal under the Geneva Conventions. Trump has also vowed to “bring back a hell of a lot worse” if elected.

Trump’s stance has drawn broad criticism from human rights organizations, world bodies, and political rivals. But the poll findings suggest that many Americans are aligned with Trump on the issue, although the survey did not ask respondents to define what they consider torture.

“The public right now is coping with a host of negative emotions,” said Elizabeth Zechmeister, a Vanderbilt University professor who has studied the link between terrorist threats and public opinion. “Fear, anger, general anxiety: (Trump) gives a certain credibility to these feelings,” she said.

The March 22-28 online poll asked respondents if torture can be justified “against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism.” About 25 percent said it is “often” justified while another 38 percent it is “sometimes” justified. Only 15 percent said torture should never be used.

Republicans were more accepting of torture to elicit information than Democrats: 82 percent of Republicans said torture is “often” or “sometimes” justified, compared with 53 percent of Democrats.

About two-thirds of respondents also said they expected a terrorist attack on U.S. soil within the next six months.

TERRORISM TOP CONCERN

Surveys by other polling agencies in recent years have shown U.S. support for the use of torture at around 50 percent. A 2014 survey by Amnesty International, for example, put American support for torture at about 45 percent, compared with 64 percent in Nigeria, 66 percent in Kenya and 74 percent in India.

Nigeria is battling a seven-year-old insurgency that has displaced 2 million people and killed thousands, while al Shabaab militants have launched a series of deadly attacks in Kenya. India is fighting a years-old Maoist insurgency that has killed hundreds.

In November, terrorism replaced economy as the top concern for many Americans in Reuters/Ipsos polling, shortly after militants affiliated with the Islamic State killed 130 people in Paris.

At the same time, Trump surged in popularity among Republicans, who viewed him as the strongest candidate to deal with terrorism. Besides his advocacy of waterboarding, Trump said that he would “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” using an alternative acronym for Islamic State.

“You’re dealing with people who don’t play by any rules. And I can’t see why we would tie our hands and take away options like waterboarding,” said Jo Ann Tieken, 71, a Trump supporter.

Tieken said her views had been influenced by the injuries suffered by her two step-grandsons while serving in the military four years ago in Afghanistan.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll included 1,976 people. It has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 2.5 percentage points for the entire group and about 4 percentage points for both Democrats and Republicans.

Reporting by Chris Kahn; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Ross Colvin. 

terror, torture
Marines at Camp X-Ray at the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba escort a newly arriving detainee into a processing tent after being showered in this February 7, 2002 file photo. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Marc Serota/Files

Across Europe, LGBT migrants face abuse in asylum shelters

Alaa Ammar fled Syria to escape not just civil war but also the threat of persecution as a gay man. Yet when he arrived in The Netherlands last spring, he did not find the safe haven he craved.

He and four other gay travelers had to face newly arrived asylum seekers at a migrant center in the remote northern town of Ter Apel.

“After five minutes, they started looking. After 10 minutes, they started to talk. After one hour, they came to us,” said Ammar. “After three hours, they started fighting with us.”

Across Europe, LGBT migrants say they suffer from verbal, physical and sexual abuse in refugee shelters and some have been forced to move out.

The AP found out about scores of documented cases in The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, with the abuse usually coming from fellow refugees and sometimes security staff and translators.

In Germany, the Lesbian and Gay Federation counted 106 cases of violence against LGBT refugees in the Berlin region from August through the end of January. Most of the cases came from refugee centers and 13 included sexual abuse.

Joerg Steinert, head of the federation in Berlin-Brandenburg, said refugees have been asking gay groups for help all over the country, reluctant to approach police for fear of jeopardizing their asylum applications. Last year, the federation placed 50 people in private homes because the migrant centers were too dangerous.

“These asylum shelters are law-free areas,” he said. “When I come to our office on Monday morning, there’s usually a bunch of refugees waiting outside in the hallway who need help immediately.”

Charities and private shelter operators say they’ve simply been too overwhelmed by the huge influx of migrants to attend to some refugees’ special needs. Masses of people often live in one big hall, without lockable rooms or gender-separated washrooms.

In Berlin, where four hangars at the former Tempelhof airport were turned into a reception center for 2,100 people, four cases of gay abuse were reported.

Maria Antonia Kipp, spokeswoman for private center operator Tamaja, said it’s very difficult to create safe spaces for homosexuals when hundreds of bunk beds are separated only by thin wooden boards.

“When we see a dangerous situation or people tell us about it, we’ll get the people out and transfer them to smaller shelters,” she said.

The German Red Cross said it had a code of conduct banning violence at its shelters.

And the Arbeiterwohlfahrt, or Worker’s Welfare charity group, said it is trying to create safe spaces in new centers but cannot implement the highest standards it would like.

“We’ve been somewhat overrun by reality,” said spokeswoman Mona Finder.

Some critics say it is up to the German government to protect migrants. But last month, a proposal to increase the security of asylum shelters was taken out of a government bill, despite official reprimands from the European Commission that Germany is not implementing EU safety guidelines.

Without the government, the protection of gay migrants has largely fallen to rights groups and local communities.

Earlier this week, gay rights group Schwulenberatung Berlin will open a new home with 122 beds for gay refugees in cooperation with the city of Berlin and another shelter with 10 beds was recently opened in Nuremberg. Berlin has also appointed a counselor as contact person for the registration of LGBT migrants.

Schwulenberatung Berlin’s Mahmoud Hassino said the new Berlin shelter would be a big improvement for LGBT refugees.

“Gay refugees live in constant fear in the big shelters,” said the 40-year-old Syrian refugee.

Hassino came to Germany in 2014 and had to move out of a Berlin shelter himself because of the hostility of fellow refugees. 

“Even if they don’t get abused right away, they’re always afraid their identity will be revealed and then they’ll be targeted,” he said.

The situation for gay refugees is difficult all over Europe. In Spain, for example, two migrants from Cameroon and a third from Morocco were physically abused after their sexual orientation was discovered by others at shelters, according to the Pueblos Unidos nonprofit.

In Sweden, a court sentenced an asylum seeker to five months in prison last summer for making death threats, along with spitting in the face and grabbing the throat of a fellow refugee in a center in Jonkoping. When the victim collapsed onto the floor, the attacker kicked him unconscious. Witnesses and a surveillance video backed the claims.

The motive was the victim’s homosexuality. The attacker was “outraged that Sweden protects homosexuality and all should be killed by slaughtering,” according to court documents.

In Finland, cases of gay harassment and abuse also  have been recorded at refugee centers, according to SETA, a nationwide LGBT group. As a result, some of the centers have separated a secure section for those afraid of sexual harassment.

Other migrants have contacted SETA after fleeing their designated refugee center because of abuse. Earlier this month, a Finnish court gave an asylum seeker a three-and-half-year prison sentence for raping a migrant man at a southern Finnish center.

In Denmark, there have been at least 10 cases of harassment, according to Mads Ted Drud-Jensen from the LGBT Asylum group. He stressed that those figures represent only victims who have been in contact with the group.

“Stepping out of the closet may be hard to do and not everyone is talking to us,” he said.

In the Netherlands, a Dutch human rights group reported earlier this month on regular abuse of gays and lesbians at a large camp that can house up to 3,000 asylum seekers near the city of Nijmegen. The group, The College for Human Rights, said one asylum seeker “has repeatedly found excrement and food in his bed. He is threatened and abused by fellow residents.”

The asylum seeker, whose identity was not disclosed, said he feared for his safety because some other refugees carried knives. The report said he often found notes in his bed such as “kill gay” and “we don’t want gay in the camp.”

When Ammar reported abuse in Ter Apel, he and other gay refugees were put up on the floor of a restaurant for a night. Then they were transferred to another shelter in Apeldoorn.

There too, Ammar said, three fellow refugees attacked him and another man in the communal washroom and slashed them with a knife.

“You could see from their eyes that they wanted to hurt me,” he said.

Again, Ammar was transferred, back to a caravan in Ter Apel. Employees with the COA asylum organization advised them to close the doors and windows, he said, but other asylum seekers “opened the windows and said bad things to us.”

Spokesman Jan-Willem Anholts said COA does not keep records of complaints of gay abuse, but does have “protective” measures for people at risk. Anholts also raised concerns that creating safe houses for specific groups could lead to a type of “segregation” in Dutch society.

It was only after Ammar received asylum and moved in with a private host in Amsterdam a few weeks ago that he started to feel really safe.

“Who wouldn’t like Amsterdam?’ Ammar said as he looked carefully left and right before crossing roads — already seasoned at watching out for speeding bicycles in the Dutch capital. “People don’t care if I’m gay or not. I can scream ‘I’m gay!’ and they will say, ‘Welcome.’” 

New concerns for Saudi juveniles after mass execution

Three Saudi juveniles remain at risk of execution, international human rights NGO Reprieve warned on Jan. 4, as details emerged of the cases of several young protestors executed Jan. 2.

Ali Saeed al-Rebh and Mohammad Faisal al-Shioukh, two protestors who were teenagers when they were arrested in 2012, were among 47 prisoners executed across Saudi Arabia on Jan. 2. They were killed alongside a third young man, Mohammad Suweimal, and the prominent activist Sheikh Nimr.

It’s now been revealed that Ali, who 18 at the time of his arrest, was in school when he was arrested by police officers for attending protests. He was later subjected to torture, including being burnt with cigarettes and beaten, before being sentenced to beheading in the in the country’s secretive Specialized Criminal Court.

The charges that included helping to organize demonstrations with a mobile phone and attending an address given by Sheikh Nimr. 

Mohammed, who was 19 when he was arrested, was convicted in the same court on charges including chanting against the Saudi government and painting anti-establishment graffiti on walls. A “confession” he signed after being beaten with electric cables and batons was used to secure his death sentence.

Following the mass execution on Jan. 2, three juveniles are still awaiting execution — Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher.

All three, who are held in solitary confinement, were tortured into signing statements that were used to convict and sentence them to death in the SCC.

Speaking last month, Abdullah al-Zaher’s father, Hassan al-Zaher, said that the court process had been so secretive that the family had been unable to follow the progress of their son’s trial. He appealed to the international community to “please help me save my son from the imminent threat of death.”

Speaking on Jan. 3, Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood said the British government had “expressed our disappointment” at the executions to the Saudi authorities, adding that ministers would “continue to raise” the cases of the juveniles.

Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, which is assisting the juveniles, said, “With the executions of young protestors who were tortured and convicted in secret trials, the Saudi authorities have demonstrated utter contempt for the rule of law, basic human rights and their international obligations. There are now serious concerns that juveniles Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher could be next in line for the swordsman’s blade. Saudi Arabia’s closest allies — the UK and the US included — must do all they can to bring an end to this wave of killings.”

ACLU sues architects of CIA torture program

Three former Central Intelligence Agency prisoners represented by the American Civil Liberties Union suing two psychologists who designed and implemented the CIA’s torture program.

CIA-contracted psychologists James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen helped convince the agency to adopt torture as official policy under George W. Bush administration, making millions of dollars in the process.

The two men, who had previously worked for the U.S. military, designed the torture methods and performed illegal human experimentation on CIA prisoners to test and refine the program. They personally took part in torture sessions and oversaw the program’s implementation for the CIA.

The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of three men — Gul Rahman, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud — who were tortured using methods developed by Mitchell and Jessen, as detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s landmark report on CIA torture.

The United States has never charged or accused the victims of any crime. One of them was tortured to death and the other two are now free.

“Mitchell and Jessen conspired with the CIA to torture these three men and many others,” said Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. “They claimed that their program was scientifically based, safe and proven, when in fact it was none of those things. The program was unlawful and its methods barbaric. Psychology is a healing profession, but Mitchell and Jessen violated the ethical code of ‘do no harm’ in some of the most abhorrent ways imaginable.”

Congress to consider protections for farm animals in federal research

Federal lawmakers this week introduced a bill to require protections for farm animals used for agricultural research at federal facilities.

The bill follows a report in The New York Times that revealed animal cruelty at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, a federal livestock research facility in Nebraska.

The cows, sheep, pigs and other farm animals used in experiments at the facility currently are exempt from protections under federal law because of a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act. This loophole exempts farm animals “used or intended for use for improving animal nutrition, breeding, management, or production efficiency, or for improving the quality of food or fiber” from basic welfare standards.

The bill, with bipartisan support, would remove current exceptions that exclude animals used in agricultural experiments at federally-run facilities from certain protections under the Animal Welfare Act.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, and Matthew Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA/American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, both announced support for the proposed Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors Act. The short name is the AWARE Act.

The Meat Animal Research Center is part of the Agricultural Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 2006, ARS has spent nearly $200 million on the center, according to a report prepared by the USDA for Congress as part of the budgeting process.

The New York Times exposed the center performing inhumane experiments on farm animals, including:

• Locking pigs in steam chambers until they died.

• Breeding calves born with “deformed vaginas” and tangled legs.

• Leaving lambs abandoned by their mothers in pastures to die of exposure or starvation.

The center also performed painful experimental surgeries and allowed at least 6,500 animals to starve to death.

Rights groups want special prosecutor to investigate torture

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch on Dec. 22 asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the crimes detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program.

The organizations point to information detailed in the report that they say leaves no doubt that crimes were committed as part of the government’s rendition, detention and interrogation program and that the United States is obligated by both domestic and international law to prosecute such crimes.

“Even though our organizations have dedicated tens of thousands of staff hours to researching, litigating, and advocating on concerns related to torture and other ill-treatment in the RDI program, the depravity of the tactics and immensity of the enterprise still astound us,” the letter to Holder stated. “There is no need to repeat the details in this letter to you, but we believe it is fair to say that many of these crimes would be horrific even if committed by an individual acting alone; but when done as part of a deliberate, coordinated government program, the crimes are more shocking and far more corrosive to U.S. democracy.

The letter was sent to Holder the same day that The New York Times editorial board called for a full and independent criminal investigation.

Others seeking a criminal investigation include:

• Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture.

• Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism.

• Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

• The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

Harold Koh, a former legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State said there is “more than enough to reopen investigations at the Justice Department to see whether prosecutions are warranted.”

Survey: 35.8 million enslaved around the world

An estimated 35.8 million people are trapped in modern slavery through human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage or commercial sexual exploitation.

The number is 20 percent higher than previously estimated, according to the Global Slavery Index recently published by the Walk Free Foundation, a global human rights group dedicated to ending modern slavery.

“There is an assumption that slavery is an issue from a bygone era,” said Andrew Forrest, chairman and founder of Walk Free Foundation. “Or that it only exists in countries ravaged by war and poverty. These findings show that modern slavery exists in every country.”

The index shows that Mauritania has the highest proportion of its population in modern slavery, at 4 percent, followed by Uzbekistan at 3.97 percent, Haiti at 2.3 percent, Qatar at 1.36 percent and India at 1.14 percent.

In terms of absolute numbers, India has the highest number of enslaved people — an estimated 14.29 million, followed by China (3.24 million), Pakistan (2.06 million), Uzbekistan (1.2 million) and Russia (1.05 million).

Together these nations account for 61 percent of the world’s modern slavery, or nearly 22 million people.

Forrest said, “The first step in eradicating slavery is to measure it. And with that critical information, we must all come together — governments, businesses and civil society — to finally bring an end to the most severe form of exploitation.”

Scalia joins torture debate: Hard to rule out extreme measures

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is joining the debate over the Senate’s torture report by saying it’s hard to rule out the use of extreme measures to extract information if millions of lives were threatened.

Scalia told a Swiss broadcast network that American and European liberals who say such tactics may never be used are being self-righteous.

The 78-year-old justice said he doesn’t “think it’s so clear at all,” especially if interrogators were trying to find a ticking nuclear bomb. Scalia has made similar comments in the past, but he renewed his remarks on Wednesday in an interview with Radio Television Suisse, a day after the release of the Senate report detailing the CIA’s harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists. RTS aired the interview on Friday.

“Listen, I think it’s very facile for people to say, `Oh, torture is terrible.’ You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people. You think it’s an easy question? You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?” Scalia said.

Scalia also said that while there are U.S. laws against torture, nothing in the Constitution appears to prohibit harsh treatment of suspected terrorists. “I don’t know what article of the Constitution that would contravene,” he said. Scalia spent a college semester in Switzerland at the University of Fribourg.

The 30-minute interview touched on a range of topics, including the financing of political campaigns, the death penalty and gay marriage, about which Scalia said he should not comment because it is likely the court soon will have the issue before it.

Asked about money and U.S. elections, Scalia scoffed that “women may pay more each year to buy cosmetics” than is spent on local, state and federal elections combined.

His comments about interrogation techniques echoed remarks he also has made to foreign audiences. In 2008, he used the example of the hidden bomb. “It seems to me you have to say, as unlikely as that is, it would be absurd to say you couldn’t, I don’t know, stick something under the fingernail, smack him in the face. It would be absurd to say you couldn’t do that,” he said.

A year earlier, Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper reported that Scalia invoked fictional TV counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer using torture to get terrorism suspects to reveal information that could help authorities foil an imminent attack.

“Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so,” he said. “So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.”

In January, Scalia seemed less concerned about the safety of residents of Los Angeles when the court heard arguments about whether anonymous tips could justify a traffic stop. Urging the lawyer for two suspects appealing their conviction to stand firm, Scalia suggested that not even information that a carload of terrorists heading to Los Angeles with an atomic bomb would be enough to justify police stopping the car, if the tip came from an anonymous source.

“I want you to say, `Let the car go. Bye-bye, LA,'” Scalia said.

Reaction to the Senate’s CIA torture report

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Dec. 9 released a report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities after the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

A 600-page summary from the 6,000-page report has been declassified after months of disputes between the committee and the CIA over redactions. The summary concludes that the CIA repeatedly tortured detainees, including using the simulated drowning technique called “waterboarding.” The report also concludes that the information gathered using torture produced no security benefits and accuses the CIA of repeatedly lying to Congress, the White House and the American public.

The reaction:

“These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.” — President Barack Obama.

“This nation should never again engage in these tactics … The CIA program was far more brutal than people were led to believe.” — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“This is a shocking report, and it is impossible to read it without feeling immense outrage that our government engaged in these terrible crimes. This report definitively drags into the light the horrific details of illegal torture, details that both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked hard to sweep under the rug. The government officials who authorized illegal activity need to be held accountable. The administration’s current position – doing absolutely nothing – is tantamount to issuing tacit pardons. Tacit pardons are worse than formal ones because they undermine the rule of law. The CIA’s wrongful acts violated basic human rights, served as a huge recruiting tool for our enemies, and alienated allies world-wide. Our response to the damning evidence in this report will define us as a nation.” — ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero.

“This disturbing report clearly demonstrates the need for those who approved of and carried out this campaign of torture to be held accountable for their actions. It also shows that strong legal and policy measures need to be enacted in order to prevent such illegal actions being taken during any future security crisis.” — the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.

“A great nation must be prepared to acknowledge its errors. This report details an ugly chapter in American history during which our leaders and the intelligence community dishonored our nation’s proud traditions. Of course we must aggressively pursue international terrorists who would do us harm, but we must do so in a way that is consistent with the basic respect for human rights which makes us proud to be Americans.” — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

“This is a good start, but it is far from the whole picture. …We are still a long way from acknowledging the horrors of the CIA’s torture program, and achieving real accountability.” — Clare Algar, executive director at international human rights NGO Reprieve.

“When I was 12 years old, I was bundled onto a dark plane, separated from my parents, and told to keep my two younger brothers and younger sister quiet and calm. They were 11, nine and six years old. All we could hear was our mother crying, saying that we were being taken back to Libya to be executed by Colonel Gaddafi. When we landed, I was told to go and say goodbye to my father, who was bound up and had a needle in his arm. I fainted, because I was sure we were going to be killed. We now have the actual faxes and flight plans that prove that the CIA arranged the whole thing. That is what the rendition program involved, however hard the politicians try to black out the truth from their report.” — Khadija al Saadi, a victim of a CIA-MI6 rendition to Libya in 2004 when she was 12.


How does this little piggy get to market? | What producers don’t want you to know

At any given moment at Reichardt Duck Farm in Petaluma, California, about 200,000 ducks are living in tightly cramped pens, suffering disease, injury and starvation until they join the ranks of the million ducks the farm slaughters in a year for the food industry.

That’s a fact only known to the world at large thanks to the activist group Mercy for Animals, which in late October released “Ducks in Despair,” a secretly-filmed video that quickly went viral as viewers saw workers burning ducklings’ beaks and brutally breaking injured ducks’ necks. The images were captured by an undercover Mercy investigator working as a barn-cleaner on the farm, and also show birds being denied access to food, water and veterinary care.

Reichardt is no isolated incident. Other viral videos, filmed by Mercy and other undercover investigators, show animal abuses on farms providing dairy, eggs, beef, pork and poultry to consumers nationwide.

Videos show calves, being raised for veal, crammed into feces-covered boxes so small they cannot lie down. 

Videos show pigs being stowed in crates so small they can’t turn around, and being beaten with metal rods.

Videos show live chicks getting tossed into machines to be mashed into feed.

And here at home, a Mercy investigator released hidden-camera footage in early 2014 from Wiese Brothers Farms, a dairy farm in Greenleaf, Wisconsin, where workers were shown kicking, stabbing and whipping cows, even dragging downed animals around by chains attached to their legs and necks.

More recently, on Nov. 12, Mercy released an undercover video from Andrus Dairy in Birnamwood, Wisconsin, showing workers kicking and punching cows, hacking at their tails with pruning shears and dragging animals by their necks with ropes attached to tractors. The dairy was identified as a supplier to Ohio-based Great Lakes Cheese, one of the largest cheese companies in the country and a supplier to major grocery chains. 

“The handling of the dairy cows in this video is not acceptable,” Dr. Temple Grandin, animal welfare expert, said after reviewing the footage.

More than 80 undercover investigations have been conducted at U.S. factory farms in the past decade, resulting in dozens of videos that reveal animal abuse and real threats to food safety. And even as campaigns are launched to implement policies that can prevent such cruelty, counter-campaigns are trying to prevent undercover investigations in the first place. 

Earlier this year, the state of Idaho enacted an “ag-gag” law that criminalizes undercover investigations, making unauthorized recordings punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. 

The measure is not the first of its kind, and it likely will not be the last.

Model ag-gag bills have been circulated by the right-wing, corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council as early as 2002. ALEC, the organization behind so-called “Stand Your Ground” legislation and anti-immigrant bills, published a draft that year misleadingly titled the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act that would prohibit “entering an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner.”

Seven states have thus far passed ag-gag measures aimed at blocking whistleblowers from revealing abuse or unsafe conditions at livestock facilities. Advocates say farmers and livestock producers need the laws to guard against intrusions into their homes and businesses.

progressive pushback

But a broad progressive coalition has come out against the bills, with constitutional challenges pending against ag-gag laws in Utah and Idaho. It is a cause that intertwines animal welfare, the environment, labor rights, free speech, freedom of the press, food safety and consumer protection.

Some 70 groups have publicly stated opposition to ag-gag laws. Plaintiffs in the federal challenge to the Idaho law include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Food Safety and Farm Sanctuary.

The law is “deeply distressing because it is aimed entirely at protecting an industry, especially in its worst practices that endanger people, at the expense of freedom of speech,” says professor Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “It would even criminalize a whistleblower who took a picture or video of wrongdoing in the workplace.”

In fact, an undercover investigator punished in Idaho faces far more severe penalties than a farmworker who abuses animals. Animal cruelty in the state can result in a mere six months in jail; people caught filming abuse face up to a year and a $5,000 fine.

Those who shoot, circulate and defend the hidden-camera videos say the films do much more than shock viewers. The videos obviously can have an immediate impact on how people shop, and what they put on the dinner table. But the videos also impact how workers, farms, factories, corporations and government regulators operate.

Seven years ago, a Humane Society of the United States investigation at a slaughterhouse in Chino, California, revealed workers using forklifts and chains to push and drag cows too sick to stand to the killing floor. Much of the meat from the slaughterhouse was for the National School Lunch Program. The undercover video pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to order the nation’s largest meat recall.

More recently, a Mercy for Animals investigation of an egg farm where dead chickens were rotting in cages with egg-laying hens prompted major retailers and restaurant chains to drop the supplier.

The full impact of the video from the Andrus Dairy in Wisconsin isn’t known. But quickly Great Lakes Cheese issued a statement of outrage and said it would no longer accept milk from the farm.

And Mercy’s investigation at the Wiese farm resulted in arrests and convictions of the animal abusers, as well as a corporate pledge of change. The Brown County Sheriff’s Department arrested four men for animal cruelty in connection with the Wiese video, and all four were convicted on multiple counts of animal cruelty and ordered to pay fines.

Mercy, in statements, praised the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office for “taking swift and decisive action in pursuing justice for these abused and exploited animals.”

The organization’s efforts in that case extended far beyond Wisconsin. At the time the footage was taken, Wiese Brothers supplied cheese to DiGiorno Pizza, owned by Nestlé. And Mercy called out the company for its association, with Mercy’s executive director Nathan Runkle saying in a news release, “No socially responsible corporation should support dairy operations that beat, kick, mutilate and neglect animals. Due to its complete lack of meaningful animal welfare standards, DiGiorno has allowed a culture of cruelty to flourish in its cheese supply chain.”

Nestlé publicly deplored the abuse and, last January, announced changes in how it scrutinizes suppliers. “We will not do business with companies that do not adhere to our strict standards, and we are always looking for ways to do better,” a company statement read.

By August, Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, had announced what Mercy called “the most comprehensive and far-reaching animal welfare policy of its kind.”

Nestlé vowed to eliminate many of the cruelest forms of institutionalized animal abuse from its supply chain, including an end to:

• Tail docking and dehorning of dairy cattle.

• Castrating piglets without painkillers.

• Confining calves in veal crates, pregnant pigs in gestation crates and egg-laying hens in battery cages.

Nestlé also vowed to phase out pharmaceutical growth promoters for poultry.

Runkle, in a statement, said, “We are heartened that Nestlé not only took notice, but also took action after egregious cruelty was exposed at one of its dairy suppliers. Nestlé’s new industry-leading policy will reduce the suffering of millions of animals each year and hopefully inspire other food providers to implement and enforce similar animal welfare requirements.”

Opponents of the ag-gag laws say Nestlé’s response to the documented abuse at a dairy farm and to the U.S. government’s response to abuse and health and safety issues at the California slaughterhouse prove the value of whistleblowers and undercover investigations.

Still, animal welfare activists expect a dozen ag-gag bills to be introduced in state legislatures in the next two years.

On the web…

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