National Lawyers Guild Urges FBI to Respect Political Asylum Status of Assata Shakur

Assata Shakur

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) urges the Federal Bureau of Investigation to respect the political asylum status of Assata Shakur (a.k.a. Joanne Chesimard). The FBI has designated the 65-year old former Black Panther Party member a “terrorist” and increased the bounty for her capture from $1 million to $2 million.

“Clearly, the federal government is continuing the unrestrained abuse of power by which it attempted to destroy Assata Shakur and other Black individuals and groups by surveillance, rumor, innuendo, eavesdropping, arrest and prosecution, incarceration, and murder throughout the sixties and seventies,” said Lennox Hinds, Shakur’s lawyer and a longtime NLG member.

Assata Shakur was arrested in 1973 after a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike led to a shootout that left a state trooper dead along with the car’s driver, Zayd Shakur, and Ms. Shakur severely injured with multiple gunshot wounds. Prior to the shootout, Ms. Shakur was the subject of a nationwide hunt as part of an FBI campaign to tie her to every suspected Black Liberation Army action involving a woman. After her capture, Ms. Shakur was not charged with any of the crimes that prompted the dragnet, but she was indicted on several charges and faced a total of six trials prior to an all-white jury’s verdict of guilty for her supposed role in the turnpike shootout. The murder conviction came despite medical evidence showing that Ms. Shakur was shot with her hands in the air and physically unable to fire a weapon and despite the sole witness recanting the testimony that fingered Ms. Shakur as a shooter.

Documentary evidence later showed that Shakur was targeted for frame-ups by the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiative as part of a larger effort to disrupt and neutralize social justice movements.

Ms. Shakur escaped from prison in 1979 and has lived as a political refugee in Cuba since 1984. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees guide national legislation concerning political asylum. Under these agreements, a refugee is a person who is outside her own country's territory owing to fear of persecution on protected grounds. Protected grounds include race, nationality, religion, political opinions, membership and/or participation in any particular social group or social activities. Rendering victims of persecution to their persecutor is considered violation of non-refoulement. 

In addition to murder, Ms. Shakur was charged with two bank robberies, the kidnapping of a Brooklyn heroin dealer, attempted murder of two police officers in Queens, and eight other felonies related to the turnpike shootout. Three trials resulted in acquittals, one in a hung jury, one in a mistrial, and one in a conviction. Three indictments were dismissed without trial. At her final trial, Ms. Shakur was represented by NLG lawyers William Kunstler and Lennox Hinds. The proceedings were fraught with constitutional violations:

  • All of the 15 jurors were white, in a clear Batson v. Kentucky violation;
  • Five jurors had personal connections to state troopers (one girlfriend, two nephews and two friends), posing a clear conflict of interest;
  • One juror violated the jury’s sequestration order and, according to William Kunstler, a New Jersey State Assembly member spoke to jury members at the hotel where they were sequestered, urging them to convict Shakur;
  • The judge cut funding for additional expert defense testimony after medical testimony demonstrated that Ms. Shakur—who had no gunpowder residues on her fingers, and whose fingerprints were not found on any weapon at the crime scene—was shot with her hands up and suffered injury to a critical nerve in her right arm, making it anatomically impossible for her to fire a weapon;
  • Forensic and ballistic specialists declined to testify, citing conflicts of interest because they routinely testified for law enforcement officials. 

After her escape, the Cuban government concluded that Ms. Shakur faced political persecution in the United States, and in accordance with international law, granted her full asylum. In the time since, Ms. Shakur has written several books and has worked as an English-language editor for Radio Havana Cuba.

“Through her writing, Assasta Shakur has educated generations about how the FBI operated with impunity to neutralize the Black Panther Party. Labeling Assata a terrorist and putting a bounty on her head is a clear attempt by U.S. authorities to hide this chapter in history,” said NLG Executive Director Heidi Boghosian.

The National Lawyers Guild is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar organization in the United States. Its headquarters are in New York and it has members in every state.