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Lamenting the U.S. Role in Torture

June 15, 2011

By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team

After hearing all about how the U.S. justice system has failed torture victims, I passed the Supreme Court building on my walk back to the Metro station. An inscription along the top of the building read: “Justice the guardian of liberty.” 

The saying sounded more mocking than sincere following the observations of a couple of legal experts on human rights abuses and of Juan E. Mendez, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture. They were kicking off Torture Awareness Month with their expressed hope of holding officials in the U.S. accountable for past torture and preventing torture in the future.

I was most moved by the reading of one man’s testimony before a Congressional hearing, in which he described being detained and questioned for hours at JFK Airport on his way home to Canada from a trip overseas. The man reported being sent to Syria, where he was kept for months in a cell that he described as a “grave,” because it was so small, and subjected to beatings and worse. Eventually he was able to report the abusive treatment to the Canadian consulate and was released and returned home, traumatized both physically and emotionally.

Cases of secret rendition, in which people such as this man were taken by force by agents of our government to overseas locations to be tortured, have been dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court. So lawyers such as Amrit Singh, of the Open Society Justice Initiative in New York City, are trying to bring these cases to the European Court of Human Rights to make other governments accountable for being complicit in such operations. At the presentation she talked about challenging the torture and detention of a Guantanamo prisoner at a CIA site in Poland.

Katherine Gallagher, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is involved in bringing cases of alleged U.S. torture through the courts of individual European countries, such as Spain, which has been open to trying human rights violators such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile. She explained how she was involved in preparations earlier this year to bring former President George W. Bush up on torture charges during his planned trip to Switzerland, following an admission in his 2010 memoirs that he had authorized waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques;” he cancelled the trip.

(The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Switzerland and the US are parties, obligates countries to bring cases of alleged torture before their courts for prosecution whenever a suspected offender is in their territory, or extradite the accused to another jurisdiction where he will be prosecuted.)

What a shame, as Ms. Singh said, that the United States, which for most of its history was held up as the protector of human rights around the world, is now co-opting other countries into human rights violations.

Mendez, a survivor of torture himself in his native Argentina, expressed a deeper concern: that once a country allows torture, its people begin fearing and losing confidence in its institutions. Re-establishing truly democratic and respected institutions becomes very difficult, he said.

Mendez reported that he is reviewing complaints about the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. as at least a form of inhuman and degrading treatment, if not outright torture. One case focuses on Bradley Manning, who is accused of passing restricted documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. Another involves the wider use of solitary confinement throughout federal and state prisons.

The injustice of it all welled up in me and came out as occasional whispered exchanges with the woman sitting beside me. I also felt some sadness that “my country” could be involved in such blatant instances of torture and, almost as bad, such clear attempts at blocking any attempts at accountability and restitution.

Please consider joining the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition in marking Survivor Week, June 19-26. The Sisters of Mercy Institute Justice Team is a sponsor. You may send messages of support to Jean Stokan to bring to the events next week in Washington, DC. Pax Christi has a prayer for survivors. You also may contact TASSC to arrange for a speaker for your church or other group.

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