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(Washington, DC) – A United States presidential pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio would effectively endorse racial discrimination by law enforcement. President Donald Trump, speaking at a political rally in Phoenix on August 22, 2017, suggested that Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt, would receive a pardon in the future.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Anthem, Arizona, in this file photo from January 9, 2013.  © 2013 Reuters

In July, a federal judge in Arizona found Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt for violating a 2011 court order in a racial-profiling class action suit against his Maricopa County sheriff’s office. A pardon would deny victims of Arpaio’s abuses the right to a remedy protected under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. Arpaio was an early Trump endorser during the 2016 Republican Party primary race and has remained a vocal supporter of the president.

“By pardoning Arpaio, Trump would allow systemic discrimination against Latinos to go unpunished,” said Clara Long, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A pardon would tell police in the US that they can mistreat minority groups without penalty by openly supporting the president.”

“So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump said at the rally. “You know what, I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine, OK? But I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy. But Sheriff Joe should feel good.”

During Arpaio’s 24-year tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County, he was known for a “tough-on-crime” approach that included dressing inmates in pink underwear and operating an open-air “tent city” jail in the searing Arizona heat. A class-action lawsuit filed a decade ago by the American Civil Liberties Union and others accused the sheriff’s office of racial profiling of Latinos during traffic stops.

A subsequent investigation by the US Department of Justice resulted in a 2011 report that found that Arpaio’s deputies routinely put Spanish-speaking detainees in solitary confinement as punishment for their inability to speak English, stopped Latinos on the roadways at four to nine times the rate of non-Latinos, and routinely violated protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” under the Fourth Amendment during immigration sweeps. The report also found that Arpaio was spending so much time harassing Latinos that his department failed to adequately investigate allegations of sexual assault, among other crimes.

During the course of the class-action lawsuit in 2011, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction banning the sheriff from detaining anyone solely on suspicion that they were an undocumented immigrant and without cause to believe a crime had been committed. But in 2015, information emerged that the sheriff’s office had continued to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally after the judge’s preliminary order. This and other allegations of court violations resulted in a civil-contempt trial that spanned several months in 2015.

By pardoning Arpaio, Trump would allow systemic discrimination against Latinos to go unpunished
Clara Long

senior US researcher

In the civil contempt trial, Arpaio acknowledged that his department had violated the injunction but claimed that he did not do so intentionally. In July, however, a US Federal District Court judge ruled that Arpaio had “willfully violated” the 2011 order and was thus guilty of criminal contempt. Arpaio’s sentencing hearing – at which he faces a penalty of up to six months in prison – is scheduled for October 2017.

Under article II, section 2 of the US Constitution, the president “shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” However, the US has obligations under international human rights law to guarantee that victims of human rights violations have the right to a remedy.

Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US has ratified, obligates governments to “ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms as herein recognized are violated shall have an effective remedy, notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the covenant, has stated that when public officials violate human rights, “the States Parties concerned may not relieve perpetrators from personal responsibility, as has occurred with certain amnesties.”

Trump has previously called Arpaio a “great American patriot” who has “done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration.” Arpaio lost a bid for reelection last year.

“Trump should say clearly that pardoning Arpaio is no longer under consideration,” Long said. “Just by keeping open the possibility of a pardon, the president is sending a message to communities across the country that they can’t rely on the federal government to enforce anti-discrimination laws.”

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