Justice Department Redefines Terrorism by Putting Assata Shakur on FBI List
Michael Ratner: Upping the reward and renewing interest in Assata Shakur, is aimed at labeling any use of violence with a political character as terrorism – even if the target is not a civilian
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who now joins us from New York City.
Michael is president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He’s chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. And he’s a member of the Real News Network board.
Thanks very much for joining us again, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Paul.
JAY: So what’s on your mind?
RATNER: What’s on my mind is something that happened on May 2, when the United States government, the FBI, put on its Ten Most Wanted list the first woman that’s been put on that list. It’s the ten most wanted terrorists list. Her name is Assata Shakur. This is a list of ten people who the U.S. wants as terrorists.
Assata Shakur, who many of your people may not have heard of, is a woman living in Cuba who has been living in Cuba since 1979. She initially was living in the United States. She was convicted of being part of a killing that took place on the New Jersey turnpike of a policeman. She was put into jail for life, as I recall. Eventually there was a jail escape, and she moved to Cuba, where she got political asylum.
Now, the reason I’m focusing on this case–a couple of reasons. One, it’s very old. I mean, this conviction took place or the murder took place 40 years ago. She’s been in Cuba since ’79. And all of a sudden, on roughly the 40th anniversary, the FBI places her on a terrorist list and puts up billboards over New Jersey saying wanted terrorist Assata Shakur.
Now, the first thing that strikes me, incredibly, apart from the timing and why, is the use of the word terrorist to describe Assata Shakur. And it’s a dangerous tendency. And when I say it’s a dangerous tendency, the way the U.S. defines it by statute, the way it’s misused, of course, often, but it’s defined as someone who uses violence or threatens violence against civilians or civilian population for carrying out political goals. It’s the classic sort of definition, UN, etc., with all kinds of bells and whistles, but that’s roughly it.
Assata Shakur, as far as anyone knows, has never used violence against a civilian–never used violence, perhaps, at all, but certainly never against a civilian. And what she was convicted of was being part of a crime in which a policeman was killed. So it’s stretching the definition of terrorism into domestic straight criminality.
And when I hear that, I think about my earliest conversations after 9/11 with people at the Justice Department who were beginning to classify people overseas, you know, engaged, from an argument point of view, with terrorism, from their point of view, and getting special military trials if you’re labeled a terrorist, getting taken to Guantanamo. You’re labeled a terrorist. And what they said to me, what Ashcroft’s Department of Justice said to me at the time–he was attorney general–was we don’t just want to do this for overseas terrorists; we want to do this for domestic terrorism; we want to be able to have special trials for domestic terrorists; we don’t want to use regular justice system; these people don’t deserve constitutional rights.
So now you see them taking someone like Assata, who they–who I think is wrongfully convicted, was innocent of the crime she was convicted of. But what she was convicted of had nothing to do with terrorism.
And so it’s a terrible tendency. And you see that tendency coming out of the Boston case, where–the Boston Marathon case, where there was all kinds of discussion of let’s call this an act of terrorism, let’s make them enemy combatants. And so it comes off the back of that.
But to go back to Assata’s case, so here you have Assata Shakur, a member of–.
JAY: Just before you do, Michael, just before you do, it seems like what the American government is saying is that any act against a soldier, even, or a policeman, any–even an armed member of the state, if it has a political character, then it’s terrorism, even though it’s not against civilians. It just has to have a political character to it to meet their definition.
RATNER: I think you can read what they’re saying as that kind of statement, Paul, and I think that’s very astute, because that’s the only thing that makes any sense here. It doesn’t even make sense, because their own definition and statute is against civilians. But that does fit with the way they’ve been looking at acts of war around the world as terrorism. Going after U.S. soldiers, etc., increase–really broadening the definition so that definition has very little meaning.
So I think that’s an incredibly worrisome tendency, because what follows from there is treating domestic criminality as terrorism. And then what’s going to follow from there is giving people special trials as they–treating them as enemy combatants, the way they called for such treatment after the Boston Marathon.
Looking at other aspects of Assata’s case, of course she was also given political asylum by the Cuban government. And once you’ve been given political asylum, the Cuban government has the absolute right to deny any request for Assata or extradition. But, of course, the U.S. is choosing to ignore that.
A third important part of the case concerns what happened to Assata. The way she was convicted was complete political and legal outrage. She’s driving in a car along the New Jersey Turnpike with two–or three other, I think, African Americans. She’s stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike, and a policeman is killed as a result. How that happened we don’t know, although there’s no proof that she had a gun. In fact, it appears that she was–not appears; there’s forensic evidence saying she was shot in the back. And yet she’s convicted of this aiding and abetting a murder of a policeman.
Now, the first thing that strikes you is there’s a thing within the United States that we call driving while black, which is to say that blacks are pulled over all the time for just being in a car. And the New Jersey Turnpike in this period, and still today, is famous for state troopers and others pulling over cars of blacks. So that’s what probably–that’s what almost surely happened here.
The other thing we shouldn’t forget here is Assata was a real political leader. She was a member of the Black Panther Party, major leader of that, important. And you can look at starting to label people like Assata as terrorists is really going back on the attack of what was really an incredible period of the ’60s and ’70s when African Americans were very, very active on trying to change their circumstances in the United States. So her case has caused a tremendous outrage, really, within the United States and within the community.
And the idea that they’re trying to get her at this point–. [crosstalk]
JAY: Why is that? I mean, why on earth would they start doing billboards and making noise about this now?
RATNER: I’m glad you asked that. I wanted to say, they labeled her a terrorist, but they also doubled the reward for her from $1 million to $2 million. And I’ll end with why I think.
But what that also leads to is she’s sitting in Cuba. Six hundred thousand visitors from Miami go to Cuba every year. My old Cuban–you know my old relations to Cubans. And her safety is put in great jeopardy. I mean, she’s wanted. It doesn’t say dead or alive, but she’s wanted as a fugitive from justice. Someone’s going to go for the reward, $2 million, go seek her out. Maybe it’ll be a gun battle. Maybe they’ll kill her. Maybe they’ll just try and kidnap her. All kinds of things could happen to Assata because of this being put on the terrorist list and this $2 million bounty for her.
So the question is why. And, you know, we’re all struggling with that. Is the why to label immunity that has resurgent–you know, some resurgence in terms of militancy is to label it as terrorist? Is it to label black activists as terrorists? It’s conceivable. Is it really in part of the U.S.-Cuba politics that Cuba is now–you know, a man in prison there is a guy named Alan Gross, who is someone who was alleged to have–alleged to–the Cubans convicted, I think, of bringing in certain kinds of spy equipment to subvert the government. The U.S. wants him back. The Cubans are saying, he’s here, he was convicted. There’s five or now four people in the United States who were convicted of various crimes, the Cuban Five, now the Cuban Four, convicted of espionage and other crimes in the U.S. Is it part of that? Is it part of–which happened–what’s happened right at this moment?
You know, Cuba is a country that has been put on the terrorist list year after year. That has tremendous implications. There’s only six or seven countries in the world on the terrorist list. It cuts off all kinds of financial transactions. It embargoes the country. It allows all kinds of special lawsuits. And every year it comes up: why is Cuba on a terrorist list? There’s no terrorism coming out of Cuba.
And so perhaps in the statement that was issued by the State Department–or by the FBI, actually, that said, we’re putting Assata on the Most Wanted Terrosts list because she has made statements that, you know, threaten U.S. people or threaten civilians–there’s no evidence of that, not one bit of evidence. Nothing ever happened like that. And, of course, you can make statements. That’s not against the law. But she’s never said anything that we know of like that at all. So it may be part of the politics of Cuba saying, here’s why we’re putting them on the terrorist list, ’cause theyr’e housing terrorists. That gives them their argument.
But, of course, if we’re really talking about housing terrorists, you know, this country houses plenty of terrorists from Latin America, Central America, other places in the world, Cuba as well. So if there’s a country that ought to be on the terrorist list, apart from, you know, naming the people like Bush and others who bombed the heck out of various countries during their tenure and are droning people to death, we have our own terrorists here who we have housed from around the world.
But in the end we don’t really understand the politics of it, other than–maybe it’s domestic politics in some way, but I think it’s more related to Cuban politics and American politics. But the effects are dramatic, because Assata, now a person who could at one time walk the streets of Cuba with some freedom, I just don’t think can emerge at all. And so it’s scary. It’s also a labeling of domestic criminality that she was not guilty of, in my belief, labeling it as terrorism. So I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to overturn it, but it’s a serious moment.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Michael.
RATNER: Thanks for having me, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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