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Background Information for the "Jena Six"

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The so-called "Jena Six" are six black students from Jena High School, Louisiana, charged with felony offenses following a fight on December 4, 2006, during which Justin Barker, a white student, was assaulted and knocked unconscious. Barker received treatment at a hospital for his injuries after which he was discharged and attended a school function later that evening.

The district attorney prosecuting the case raised initial assault charges against five of the six defendants to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder, charges carrying a combined sentence of up to 80 years' imprisonment. Those five were charged as adults; the sixth was charged in juvenile court. The charges were reduced on the first day of the trial of Mychal Bell, the only defendant thus far to be tried. In July 2007, Bell, age 16 at the time of the offense, was tried in adult court and convicted of aggravated battery and conspiracy to aggravated battery. Both convictions have recently been overturned on appeal. The remaining five students still await trial.

Amnesty International recognizes the seriousness of the alleged incident for which the students were charged. However, Amnesty International is concerned by claims that the charges sought in the case were disproportionate and reflect a pattern of unequal treatment of black and white youths in the area based on race. These allegations merit thorough, impartial investigation.

The altercation with Justin Barker occurred during a period of acute racial tension following an incident in August 2006 in which three nooses were hung from a tree in the school grounds by three white students the day after several black students sat under the tree, which is traditionally a "whites only" area of the school grounds. Although the school principal recommended that the white students be expelled, a school committee overruled the decision, deciding that the noose-hanging had been a minor prank and changing their punishment to a few days' suspension. Following this incident there were a number of fights and other incidents involving black and white students. Allegedly, there have been incidents in which assaults on black students by white assailants resulted in either minor charges or no charges at all.

The allegation of a pattern of disparate treatment of black and white youths in Jena, if confirmed, would constitute a breach of international human rights standards. The United States has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Article Five of which requires states parties to undertake to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone to equality before the law and the right to equal treatment before tribunals and all other organs administering justice. The convention also requires each state party to review governmental, national and local policies, and to ensure that all public authorities and institutions, national and local, shall prohibit policies or practices which are discriminatory in purpose or effect. Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights likewise guarantees to all persons equal protection of the law and effective protection against discrimination.

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