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Groups Bring Tortuguita’s Killing to International Human Rights Commission

Activists hope the petition will debunk police narratives and join the international record of human rights violations.

Environmental activists reoccupy the Atlanta Forest, a preserved forest Atlanta that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center, March 4, 2023, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Several nonprofit organizations filed a petition this month asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to rule on the police-perpetrated killing of Manuel Terán, an activist known to Stop Cop City activists as “Tortuguita.”

More than a year after the killing, the circumstances remain hazy. The Georgia State Patrol claims that Tortuguita shot first; an independent autopsy shows that Tortuguita likely died with their hands up. Contemporaneous accounts on the ground diverge significantly from police accounts issued a month later, and even those later accounts show further discrepancies, particularly over police claims that protesters detonated an improvised explosive device. District Attorney George R. Christian concluded that the shooting was “objectively reasonable,” but the Georgia Bureau of Investigation refused to release the underlying investigative files. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has thus far declined to investigate despite calls from Atlanta City Council member Liliana Bakhtiari and six Georgia state legislators representing districts in the greater Atlanta area. Avenues for investigation and accountability domestically have been exhausted. (Asked for comment on the IACHR petition, the Georgia Department of Public Safety declined to comment, citing pending litigation.)

Now, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and the University of Dayton Human Rights Center have turned to the international community. The petition filed April 5 makes a compelling case that Tortuguita’s killing violates international human rights standards, and beyond that, that the DOJ’s decision to let Georgia police have the last word on Tortuguita’s death intensifies the ongoing violation of rights to free speech and association.

On the international stage, the U.S. frequently invokes human rights standards, often disregarding violations at home. Delia Addo-Yobo, staff attorney at RFK Human Rights, argues that “if the United States wants to claim that they are the leader of the free world and free speech, they have to answer for what’s going on in Atlanta.”

The petition filed April 5 makes a compelling case that Tortuguita’s killing violates international human rights standards, and that the DOJ’s decision to let Georgia police have the last word on Tortuguita’s death intensifies the ongoing violation of rights to free speech and association.

The petition draws attention to the myriad human rights violations committed by Georgia authorities: deprivation of life and security of a person, deprivation of right to protection as a human rights defender, deprivation of Belkis Terán’s right to mental and moral integrity (through denial of information about her child Tortuguita’s death), and violation of the right to truth and impartiality in investigations. The petition seeks redress in the form of a public apology, release of withheld records, comprehensive investigation and reparations to Tortuguita’s family. On a wider scale, the petition, citing the wider ramifications of police repression for civic spaces, asks the IACHR to recommend that Georgia authorities dismiss charges against protesters.

The IACHR receives thousands of petitions each year seeking redress for human rights violations. The body is an instrument of the Organization of American States (OAS), which, like the UN, formed as part of the global response to the Holocaust. Each year, the IACHR receives petitions from families of victims, civil society organizations, and other individuals and groups across the 35 member states of the OAS. If the IACHR accepts a petition, the body will hold hearings and issue recommendations. If the IACHR issues condemnations and recommendations, the time scale will be long. But in the meantime, the petition recognizes the deep scars Tortuguita’s death left on their family, and crystallizes the issues at stake for the broader movement.

The petition calls for examination of Tortuguita’s police-perpetrated killing within the international human rights framework, and also contextualizes it within Georgia’s constriction of civic space. Police killed Tortuguita during raids on camps of activists known as “Forest Defenders”; on the same day, other activists were arrested on domestic terrorism charges. Over the course of the next several months in 2023, Georgia arrested direct action activists, concert-goers and a legal observer on domestic terrorism charges, with a subsequent indictment of 61 activists under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Activists face sustained police harassment and surveillance. The state legislature is considering bills effectively outlawing bail funds, adding RICO offenses and expanding material support for terrorism statutes into the domestic context. The petition asks the IACHR to consider Tortuguita’s killing within broader trends of political repression and police brutality:

Tortuguita’s brutal killing by state actors and the subsequent lack of accountability is emblematic of an alarming pattern in the United States of suppression of civic space and unchecked police terror carried out against civilians.

Embedded in the ask for thorough investigation of the circumstances of Tortuguita’s death is a battle for the activist’s memory, with ramifications for prosecutions and ongoing repression of protesters in the present. At its heart, it’s a refusal to cede the narrative to police and a refusal to let the United States commit human rights violations in the dark.

“You Will Never Outlive the Pain”

The narrative war over Tortuguita’s memory is already reverberating into the courtroom. Sixty-one people associated with the Stop Cop City movement currently face RICO charges. In the indictment, state prosecutors cited shared anarchist ideology as a driver of a conspiracy to commit, among other offenses, property damage and domestic terrorism. In the aftermath of the fatal raid, police seized Tortuguita’s diary, which prosecutors introduced into evidence for the first RICO trial.

The diary contains Tortuguita’s most private and intimate thoughts, including rage over police terror and the neglect of society’s most vulnerable. The journal reflects their radical political leanings — which, were Tortuguita still alive, would enjoy unequivocal protection under the First Amendment. Even before Judge Kimberly Adams ruled on the motion to introduce Tortuguita’s diary into evidence, prosecutors took the highly unusual step of releasing the diary publicly.

What Tortuguita presented to the world was a message of strategic nonviolent resistance, even in the face of police violence.

Prosecutors and protesters recognize the same thing: that the narrative war over Cop City continues outside the courtroom. Prosecutors released the diary as a public relations gambit to alter public perception of both Tortuguita and the movement generally. By publishing Tortuguita’s private musings, they hoped to sway public opinion toward perception of the Stop Cop City movement as a deadly conspiracy to threaten law enforcement and erode public order. Whatever private venting they wrote in their diary, what Tortuguita presented to the world was a message of strategic nonviolent resistance, even in the face of police violence. Friends and family universally describe Tortuguita as an organizer committed to building peace through direct action: in their past through participation in Food Not Bombs and urban farming, and in Atlanta as a defiant yet nonviolent Forest Defender.

Activists fight fiercely to remember the version of Tortuguita that their friends and family knew: someone selfless, thoughtful, joyful and courageous despite an acute understanding of the risk of police violence. Following Tortuguita’s murder, the movement to Stop Cop City launched onto the national scene, with activists rallying around Tortuguita’s vision of a world free from police violence and environmental destruction.

By selectively withholding some records and maliciously releasing others, police and investigative agencies are fighting to retain control of the narrative. In the trials of the living — the RICO defendants facing up to 20 years in prison — police can cite the determination that Tortuguita’s murder was justified as evidence that the movement violently seeks to upend the political order. Whether police can claim a justified killing, and whether Tortuguita’s writings can be weaponized against other members of the movement, are facts that will reverberate through the criminal trials and public discourse around Cop City.

But the narrative also matters on a deeply personal scale. In a pain familiar to many families of Black and Brown victims killed by police, Belkis Terán has been forced to mourn her child while confronting character assassination in the public sphere.

In her personal testimony, Belkis writes: “I did not realize that Manuel’s death, and the police’s actions afterwards, would result in the loss of family, friends, and community.” But when she could have retreated, Belkis instead became what Rev. Keyanna Jones says activists call “the mother of the movement.” She ordered an independent autopsy, called on district attorneys to release full body cam footage, and argued for release of records. The independent autopsy found that Tortuguita suffered at least 14 gunshot wounds and had hand wounds strongly suggesting they had their hands raised at the time they were shot. After months of sustained pressure, Georgia authorities released only partial body cam footage recording officers’ comments in the aftermath. One officer said, “Man, you fucked your own officer up,” raising the possibility that the officer shot was hit by friendly fire. The records already released sorely undercut the police narrative. Release of further records could cast more doubt on the police account of the story. The IACHR petition demands an honest accounting of the circumstances surrounding Tortuguita’s death, in part to ameliorate injury to Belkis. Even as she’s found solidarity and strength from the Stop Cop City movement, the missing records haunt her. In written testimony to the IACHR, Belkis wrote, “the lack of information … has doubled our grief.”

Among the allegations laid out in the IACHR petition is the deprivation of Belkis’s right to mental and moral integrity. The right, laid out by Article I of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, guarantees “physical, mental, and moral” integrity to the loved ones of victims of human rights abuses. As the petition notes, the Inter-American Court has long held that realization of this right requires full investigation, and for governments violating human rights to take steps to halt ongoing abuses and prevent future violations.

The Southern Center for Human Rights, one of the IACHR petition filers, has submitted similar calls for accountability and investigation in other police-perpetrated killings. Likewise, among other cases, the RFK center filed an IACHR petition calling for investigation into the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Addo-Yobo pointed to bleak commonality in the narrative fallout of police-perpetrated killings. After a police officer shot and killed unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown, Addo-Yobo remembers, “They would always use terminology like, ‘He was no angel.’ That’s something you often hear with victims of police brutality: they were no angel; what did they do wrong? It’s never: How do we hold the police accountable?”

Tiffany Roberts, director of public policy at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told Truthout aboutthe long shadow police-perpetrated killings cast, a harm made worse by denial of basic information:

It never ends. For Michael Brown’s family, for George Floyd’s family, for Ahmaud Arbery’s family, or Tamir Rice’s family, now for Manuel Terán’s family. No matter how long you outlive them, you will never outlive the pain of knowing that every time you talk about how you lost your loved one, you are also going to have to defend their humanity just so that people believe they deserve to live.

The Battle Over Memory Matters

The IACHR petition cuts through the legal milieu around Stop Cop City to the fundamental questions at stake: determining whether violations of human rights occurred, and whether the U.S. should allow the police to be the final arbiters of truth.

International law recognizes human rights defenders as particularly vulnerable, and asserts an affirmative obligation for states to take special measures for their protection. Environmental defenders in particular risk retribution for their courage. Between 2012 and 2022, nearly 2,000 environmental activists were killed around the world; Tortuguita’s killing marks a grim first in the United States. Defense of the voiceless — of natural spaces — incurs particular risk, particularly when environmental issues intersect with environmental racism. The petition widens the scope past Georgia authorities to the obligations of the U.S. at large, alleging not only a grave violation of Tortuguita’s human rights, but malicious denial of information about the circumstances of that failure.

In death, Tortuguita’s memory has taken on a life of its own. In speeches at protests and in comments to Truthout, Stop Cop City activist Sam Beard has characterized the struggle against Cop City as a duel over competing visions: one of police terror, and one of collective liberation. The tussle over whether Tortuguita was a peaceful activist or deadly terrorist falls into those competing visions. The IACHR petition carries the hope of exposing the police narrative and lodging a mark on the international record of human rights violations. The process is slow, and even if the IACHR issues recommendations, they are nonbinding. But as with the legacies of other victims of police-perpetrated killings, the battle over memory matters. The IACHR petition demands that the circumstances of Tortuguita’s killing see the light of day, and that Tortuguita’s death be considered within international human rights obligations. What might emerge from that examination is unknown, but killer police shouldn’t be allowed the last word.