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On Christmas Day millions of Americans celebrate at home, by trees and, in the frigid north, by a roaring fireside. It is a day of festivities and merry-making. But the greatest of the Victorian Christmas raconteurs, Charles Dickens, reminds us that it is also a day for pausing from the tedium of a business vocation, asking ourselves whether we remember instead the business of humankind. And it is a day to contemplate those less fortunate, those who suffer under adversity of many kinds, and those who suffer persecution. This exercise is best pursued by thinking about real people, about individuals, not about faceless masses. And perhaps it’s something to do more often than one day a year.
It used to be that on this day, I would remember someone rotting in a Soviet GULAG or a Chinese prison camp: for both nations, it was the oppressed who brought hope for the future, and for a different vision of society and social justice. I remembered Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner, suffering isolation, deprivation and a parade of threats in their internal exile in Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod; Wang Dan, one of the student leaders of the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, twice imprisoned for his advocacy of democracy. Those who suffer persecution and injustice come to value it in a way that few others do. And often enough, they are fit to be leaders among their peoples, just as those who persecuted them are fit to be deposed and to live in ignominy. But thanks to George W. Bush and his new kind of justice, Americans no longer have to look to lands far away to find cases of persecution. There’s plenty of that going on right underneath our noses.
So today, I think of two families suffering in adversity and persecution, both deep in the American South.
One is the former governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman. He will only be allowed to visit his family in a Butler building on the grounds of the Federal Prison at Oakdale, Louisiana. They will not be allowed to exchange gifts, in fact you cannot pass even a Christmas card between a prisoner and visitor. Governor Siegelman’s family will have to drive approximately 462 miles to get there; they will have to stay in a small local hotel on Christmas Day or drive half the night to get back to see him. Christmas dinner for the Siegelmans will be either a microwave hamburger or chicken wings out of the prison’s vending machine. All of this while Siegelman has been deprived of the basic right to appeal his case, a right that is guaranteed for every murderer, rapist, and child molesterer.
It has now been 50 days since the Court of Appeals issued an urgent direction to Judge Mark Everett Fuller—for the second time—to furnish an explanation as to why he sent Siegelman immediately to prison, manacling him in front of waiting reporters and newsmen, and not ruling on the bond pending appeal that is conventionally granted in a case like this. Judge Fuller has taken in quite a few rounds of golf since that time; he’s been to any number of holiday parties; he’s been to church a time or two and he’s spent any number of afternoons and evenings lounging in what is by most accounts one of the most elegant and lavishly appointed homes in Montgomery. But Judge Fuller can’t seem to find even a minute to do what the Court of Appeals directed him to do. Judge Fuller has a very curious attitude towards his duties as a judge. But then, anyone who observed the Siegelman trial already knows that.
Don Siegelman committed an unpardonable offense. He challenged the Republican Party’s control on the Alabama statehouse. And that was plenty of cause to lock him up and throw away the key. A political prosecution occurred, with wires running straight out of the White House. And with time, the real story of this case is seeping out. It is the sort of story that is familiar in a banana republic, or in the former Soviet Union. And now it’s come home to America.
The second is a former chancery court judge from Mississippi named Wes Teel. I’m still working on a couple of pieces talking about Teel and his case, which will be coming in the next couple of weeks. Teel was convicted for accepting campaign support from a trial lawyer, and then sitting in a case in which the trial lawyer appeared. He didn’t actually decide the case—it settled. But that was enough, in the mind of the Bush Justice Department. Teel’s main offense was simple. He was a Democrat, and the G.O.P. wanted his judgeship. They also wanted to fabricate a case against the Democrats’ leading campaign donor in Mississippi, and Teel was useful to that end. I was moved by Teel’s story and outraged by the way he’s been treated as well. Teel’s wife suffers from epilepsy, is given to seizures, and relies on her husband to take care of her. But Teel is spending his Christmas preparing to report to prison in Atlanta (it seems a rule in politically motivated cases that the Bush Justice Department sends its victims to prisons beyond driving range for families and the lawyers). Teel also has filed the conventional motion for freedom pending appeal. Teel also finds that his Judge, Reagan-appointee Henry T. Wingate, can’t seem to find the time to look at his motion and rule on it. The pattern is consistent, and it stretches across the country.
So on this Christmas Day, my thoughts are with the Siegelmans and the Teels. But they stand as symbols of a new phenomenon: political prisoners on American soil. My hope is that in the coming year, Americans will wake up to the injustices practiced in their name. Maybe we will again have a Department of Justice that places a value on justice ahead of doing the political dirty work of its partisan masters. Maybe we will again have judges who place their duty to the Constitution and law ahead of their support of a political party. Christmas is a day for peace and contemplation. But the New Year will be a time for accountability for those who betray the public trust–the message promised by the trumpet is simple. The truth shall be known, and justice shall be done. Fiat justitia, ruat coelum.
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Winner of the 2012 Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad in magazines or books