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U.S. Laws Too Restrictive Against Protesters: U.N. Expert

The process of issuing permits for demonstrations should be changed because it could easily lead to discrimination against certain groups, according to a United Nations human rights expert who’s extensively examined protests and how they’re handled in America and elsewhere.

“The United States has these time, place and manner restrictions that have been authorized by courts and authorities and these will not necessarily conform with international law,” said Maina Kiai, a United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Speaking Wednesday at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Kiai said his findings were preliminary after visiting the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this month.

His full report should be completed and published next year, he said.

In addition to the political conventions, Kiai also visited Baltimore; Ferguson, Missouri; Jackson, Mississippi; New Orleans and Phoenix.

He also gathered with Baton Rouge, Louisiana, residents and members of several advocacy groups who protested the fatal shooting by police of Alton Sterling.

Kiai, who heard complaints from as many as 50 individuals, briefly told reporters that he had not scheduled a visit to Baton Rouge but was spurred by protests over Sterling’s death.

At the U.N., Kai talked of permits and other requirements that are needed in order to stage a protest.

He said international law recommends a system in which citizens notify the authorities when they will assemble, rather than the government having to grant permission.

“When you require permits, when you require permission, then you turn the right into a privilege,” Kiai said. “Rights do not need permission from anyone to be exercised.”

During his U.N. address, Kiai said he was concerned about the interaction between law enforcement officers and protesters. The U.S. was in danger of militarizing its police forces and law enforcement should restrict arrests and punishment only to those who break the law, he said.

Kiai thanked U.S. officials for their corporation in organizing his mission, which he said was extremely fruitful, illuminating and timely.

He enjoyed productive exchanges with numerous officials at the federal, state and local levels, he said.

“I was struck by the vast and largely unchecked discretion that government authorities enjoy to arrest, to formulate often petty charges, to prosecute, to invite or deflect external scrutiny and support from the Department of Justice, and to organize internal complaints-handling,” Kiai said. “This leads to an inconsistent picture of policing throughout the nation. Different authorities within a jurisdiction or in neighboring jurisdictions do not share a common view or policy about policing — a lot ends up depending upon personalities.”

The Jackson police chief was widely lauded by the city’s African-American community for his community-centered approach, but city authorities allegedly require protest organizers to pay considerable fees for permits and insurance, a practice that discourages marginalized communities assembling, Kiai said.

And in the neighboring county, arrests and harassment of African-Americans are a daily occurrence, he said.

The introduction of vaguely-defined crimes allows for even more discretion, he said. Legislation defining battery of a law enforcement officer as a hate crime was recently passed in Louisiana, raising particular concerns. Philadelphia has drafted similar legislation, with potential for disastrous effects, Kiai said.

“For example, unintentional or accidental touching which may easily occur in a context of an assembly could be elevated to a hate crime,” he said. “Again, such crime conceptions have chilling effects on the exercise of assemblies.”

Kiai noted that the Justice Department’s civil rights division has provided oversight and recommendations for improvement of police services in a number of cities with consent decrees.

This, he said, is one of the most effective ways to reduce discrimination in law enforcement and it needs to be beefed up and increased to cover as many of the 18,000-plus local law enforcement jurisdictions.

“The outcry for accountability for police shootings is deafening,” Kiai said. “Given the attention to this issue and its importance, it is incomprehensible that a modern society such as the United States lacks official records that accurately document the number of victims of such shootings, the precise circumstances and the followup actions taken.

“Such information would enable a deeper understanding of the situations in which lethal force is used and support adequate adjustments if proven necessary,” he said.

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