He is an American dissident calling for increased civil rights for African-Americans, a one time Black Panther activist, a revolutionary radio reporter and referred to as the “voice of the voiceless”. He has been given an honorary citizenship in the city of Paris and is acclaimed by many around the world. Nevertheless, Abu Jamal has been on death row since 1982, and has been claiming his innocence ever since.
Born in 1954 as Wesley Cook, the name of Mumia Abu Jamal was adopted after converting to Islam. Already as a young teenager Mumia Abu Jamal was active politically and was, in his own words, “beaten into the Black Panther party” at the age of 16, by a gang of white racists. There he was given the position of Lieutenant of Information, consisting of writing articles and press releases for the Black Panther Party.
He continued a journalistic career from 1975, starting as a radio reporter for several stations up until his conviction in 1982, for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in late 1981. As a journalist he continued to be critical towards the American police force and demanded increased rights and protection of the African-American community. During this period Abu Jamal was often referred to as the “voice of the voiceless”.
During his time in prison he has continued his journalistic career; featuring for instance, from death row, the public radio show All Things Considered. He has also continued to be critical of the American systems of justice and politics, claiming it to be racist, classist and evil, writing several critically acclaimed books such as Live From Deathrow.
Where does all this buzz come from?
Ever since his conviction in 1982, Abu Jamal has recurrently made appeals and maintained his innocence in the murdering of police officer Daniel J Faulkner, on December 9, 1981. The polemic is fruit of the questionable fairness of the trial that ended up convicting Jamal to death. Among the revendications are that Jamal was faced with a predominately white and partial court jury, ambivalent and weak testimonies, and lack of proof, especially in terms of ballistics. At the time of the trial Jamal was attributed a public lawyer, because he was unable to pay one on his own.
Moreover, the dismissal of considering new evidence, cleaning Jamal from the murder, such as Arnold Beverly’s 1999 confession to the murder and 2010 independent ballistics analyses, are further arguments in favor of a retrial. In addition, and according to Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International, the fact that Jamal was a militant journalist further influenced the jury members by the time of the conviction.
After many setbacks, in 2001 the federal judge ruled that Abu Jamal should get a new hearing because of problems with the jury instructions at the time of the trial. This was followed by another ruling, in 2008, when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a new hearing in Abu Jamal’s trial, arguing that the 1982 trial was flawed. However, the hearing will not change the conviction of Mumia Abu Jamal, but it may change the sentence. The new hearing by the Court of Appeals has been planned to November 9 2010.
International support: Free Mumia
Despite the many setbacks, the case has become internationally known although the media coverage has been meager. In fact an international movement pushing for the retrial or even freedom of Abu Jamal has been in place for over a decade. Mumia Abu Jamal has, since his conviction, become one of the best known personalities on death row and has been supported by several human rights organizations and personalities such as Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Immortal Technique, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, among others.
In the year 2000, Amnesty International released a report where they strongly questioned the reliability of the evidence used in the murder trial. In 2006 he was given an honorary citizenship in the city of Paris, a title which he shares with Marie Curie and Pablo Picasso. This was highly criticized by the US Congress and Senate, deeming the act to be provocative and, who adopted a resolution against the Parisian nomination. Despite the international efforts in favor of Jamal re-trial or freedom, the media coverage has remained meager.
As Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders argue, the death penalty is incompatible with the rule of law and that it violates the most fundamental of human rights. AI further argues that the conviction of Mumia Abu Jamal was in “violation of minimum international standards” for fair trial procedures. Still, this is a case in one of the world’s leading democracies.
The nomination of 2010 year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaboo was, according to some, a politicized nomination in order to put pressure on the People’s Republic of China to improve its political rights for instance. The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Liu for his long struggle for human rights, which is a prerequisite for the “fraternity between nations”.
What if we played with the idea that someday the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee wanted to put further pressure on the American government to abolish its death penalty and improve the rights of African-Americans in the US? Maybe Mumia Abu Jamal could be added to the list of formerly imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureates, such as Liu Xiaboo and Nelson Mandela. Undoubtedly, he too has been a staunch human rights activist, calling for democratic reforms in one of the leading democracies, who still apply the death sentence.