"We are the most technologically advanced nation on the planet and we're blaming our children for having to struggle with guns and drugs on the street. We have a sad, dismal hope in humankind, and I think they are saying, 'We're not going to let you sink that low.'"
So said Pontiac City Councilmember Everett Seay when he learned that London-based Amnesty International has criticized the United States for its treatment of juvenile delinquents. According to the human-rights watchdog organization, the United States deserves to be lumped in with more notorious human rights violators when it comes to the treatment of delinquents.
"Sentencing people to death for crimes committed when they were under 18 is prohibited by international law," reads a summary called, "The Best Interests of the Child," issued recently by Amnesty. "Yet in the 1990's juvenile offenders are known to have been executed in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Yemen. In the USA, more than 65 people are on death row for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. Many have suffered from mental impairment, social and economic deprivation and mental and physical abuse during childhood."
The summary is part of the "Rights for All" campaign, a look at human rights violations in the United States. The campaign specifically criticizes the United States for trying youth offenders as adults and for housing youths in adult facilities. It also condemns the prevalent use of mandatory sentences, which "cannot take into account the specific circumstances of the child and adapt the punishment to facilitate the child's development."
The campaign has chosen Nathaniel Abraham, a Pontiac 12-year-old who currently is awaiting trial for first-degree murder, for its poster child. Oakland County prosecutors say Abraham premeditated the murder of 18-year-old Ronnie Green a year ago as Green left a nearby party store. Abraham's attorneys argue that he is an emotionally disturbed child who accidentally shot Green as he practiced shooting at streetlights with a stolen gun. Under Michigan law, if Abraham is found guilty of first-degree murder, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Gloria Abraham, Nathaniel's mother, was not aware that Amnesty was using her son's case to make the case that the rights of children are being trampled by juvenile justice systems worldwide.
"You can look at it two ways," says the mother of four. "If it's going to make people wake up to what's going on with our children, that's great. But my family is bitter. We see that children are not all treated the same by the system. We see adults getting away with crimes at least as serious as Nathaniel's. We're not excusing him, but where is the justice in that?"
Seay, who publicly criticized the prosecutor's decision to charge Nathaniel with first-degree murder, also finds Amnesty's interest in Nathaniel's case to be bittersweet.
"They chose him and he doesn't even know what's going on. Yet this might make people aware of the atrocities that are happening. Isn't it ironic that we've talked about China's human rights violations and the sins of the evil empire, but we are the ones eating our young? Sometimes you need an outside eye to evaluate you and call the question. Now what are we going to do about it?"
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