UN experts raise alert over ‘alarming’ US state bills

Peaceful protests are a fundamental American right, UN experts say. — EPA

Peaceful protests are a fundamental American right, UN experts say. — EPA

Nineteen US states have introduced bills that would curb freedom of expression and the right to protest since Donald Trump’s election as president, an “alarming and undemocratic” trend, UN human rights investigators say.

Maina Kiai and David Kaye, independent UN experts on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, said on Thursday the moves were incompatible with international human rights law.

“The trend also threatens to jeopardise one of the United States’ constitutional pillars: free speech,” they said in a statement, calling for action to reverse such legislation.

“From the Black Lives Matter movement, to the environmental and Native American movements in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline, and the Women’s Marches, individuals and organisations across [American] society have mobilised in peaceful protests,” Kiai and Kaye said.

The UN experts said it was Americans’ fundamental right to protest, but the bills in Republican-governed states such as Indiana, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Missouri sought to stop them exercising that right.

Several bills proposed in Colorado, North Dakota, and Oklahoma targeted opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and would have “a chilling effect on environmental protesters”, the experts said.

Last month, dozens of armed US law enforcement officers swept through a protest camp near the site of the pipeline, clearing the gathering that for months served as a base of opposition to the multi-billion-dollar project.

In Missouri, a bill proposed a seven-year prison term for “unlawful obstruction of traffic”, while the Minnesota bill would criminalise peaceful protesters for participating in demonstrations that subsequently turned violent.

The UN experts said there was no such thing as a violent protest, only violent protesters. “One person’s decision to resort to violence does not strip other protesters of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” Kaye and Kiai said.

Supporters of the US state legislative action say it sums up the frustration some people feel about protests that get in the way of daily lives, and reflects a wish to maintain public safety.

Free speech advocates say the bills are worrying, seeing them as opening the way to criminalising peaceful protests.

Meanwhile, Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has offered to testify before congressional committees probing potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia but wants protection against “unfair prosecution,” his lawyer has said.

Flynn was forced to resign as Trump’s national security advisor in February over contacts with Russian officials.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” said a statement on Thursday from Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner.

Testimony from Flynn could help shed light on the conversations he had with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kisylak last year when he was the national security advisor for Trump’s presidential campaign.

Kelner said discussions had taken place about Flynn’s availability to testify with officials of the intelligence committees of both the US Senate and the House of Representatives.

Both committees are investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the US election campaign last year as well as possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russians.

Flynn stepped down after revelations that he had failed to disclose talks with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office about US sanctions on Moscow and mislead Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.

Questions remain about the scope of the discussions and what other contacts took place between other Trump advisors with the Russians.

Earlier this week, the White House disclosed that Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior advisor, Jared Kushner, met executives of Russian state development bank Vnesheconombank, or VEB, in December.

During a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, Democratic Senator Mark Warner alleged that Russia attempted to undermine the 2016 US presidential election with a propaganda campaign “on steroids”, using trolls and networks of hacked or infected devices to flood social media with disinformation.

US intelligence agencies have said Russia hacked emails of senior Democrats and orchestrated the release of embarrassing information in a bid to tip the presidential election in favour of Trump, whose views were seen as more in line with the Moscow’s.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the accusations on Thursday calling them “lies”. When asked if Russia interfered in the US vote Putin said, “Read my lips: No.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer earlier this week downplayed questions about Russia ties .

“If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russia connection,” he said in an exchange with reporters.

-Al Jazeera

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