Friday, August 28, 2009

Speaking out against torture

(photographs: The one with the man in the orange jumpsuit and the black hood is a depiction of a Guantanamo inmate. The people in the photograph (with the exception of the child) are all torture survivors. They include Sister Dianna Ortiz, a Ursuline who was brutally tortured while serving as a missionary teacher in Guatemala, and Mirna Anaya, a torture survivor who is now a member of the Supreme Court of El Salvador)

At the end of June, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) held its annual Survivors week in Washington, D.C. Events that occurred during the week included a conference, held at Catholic University, titled "Torture Never Again," and a 24-hour vigil, held in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.
I attended a morning session of the conference at Catholic University and heard from several speakers, including Jennifer Harbury (the widow of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a Mayan resistance leader, who was captured by Guatemalan military, tortured, and then killed extra-judicially in the early 1990s), Father Roy Bourgeois, and Catherine Grosso, assistant professor of law at Michigan State University College of Law. Also we had one speaker named Colleen. (I don't know her last name or anything more about her.)
Here is some information that was offered at the conference:
According to Colleen, on the issues of torture and extraordinary rendition, Human Rights USA, TASSC, and other organizations have been working on putting together a criminal complaint to hold former officials, chiefly in the Bush administration, accountable for their actions. There is a Spanish court that may try to charge U.S. officials. This can only occur if the United States does not object. The alleged culprits must travel to Spain on their own. They will not be extradited to Spain to face justice.
Catherine defined torture as ill treatment. Examples of torture include holding a person in isolation or solitary confinement for long periods of time. She talked about Supreme Court cases concerning torture. She described a 1936 case involving a man named Ed Brown and a few others. These individuals were stripped and beaten by police. They were forced to confess to crimes. The state of Mississippi said that the federal constitution had no place in a state court. The Supreme Court said otherwise. It said that the interrogation of Mr. Brown and the other men violated basic basic principles and that evidence obtained by torture cannot be used in court. "It (torture) violates who we are as a nation." In an earlier case (1897), a man named Mr. Ram was forced to strip. He was never touched. He was told that he committed a crime. Mr. Ram ended up by confessing to the crimes because he was humiliated. The Supreme Court ruled that the confession was not voluntary, that the man was the victim of coercion.
These days, Catherine said, we have the issue of different standards being applied to Americans and people whom are termed to be "terrorists" and "enemy combatants." During the Bush administration, we had policy and practice that "chipped away at the ban on torture." This ban includes federal law against torture and an international convention against torture that was signed by President Ronald Reagan.
Although the Bush administration is now history, the current Obama administration has done little to investigate alleged abuses. Catherine said that President Obama "articulated that the Bush policy violated standards. He has not investigated. His silence speaks volumes." Catherine does not exempt Congress from criticism. She said "Congress has done nothing."
Jennifer said that we will not be "cured" of the scourge of torture with a few trials of former administration officials. "It is naive to think that it started with 9/11 and George W. Bush." She said that Americans have been involved in torture for years, either in the role of advisors or even supervisors. "We can't fix this problem unless we deal with the crimes."
The crimes of torture, Jennifer charges, include crimes against civilian populations. These civilian populations include people who have been termed "insurgents." This is a very loose term. In Latin America, for example, during the "dirty wars" and the various civil wars, the term "insurgents" frequently included priests, nuns, labor union organizers, teachers, journalists, and anyone who criticized their governments.
Jennifer talked about a common excuse that torturers use for abusing their victims, the "ticking bomb." She explained that torture doesn't work in that situation. "When people are tortured, they say anything. There was one guy who claimed to be Osama bin Laden's driver." (Apparently, Osama bin Laden never rode in this guy's car and, who knows... maybe the guy didn't even have a car...) According to Jennifer, in basic training, military types are taught to compartmentalize information. "You don't have the information unless you need to know it." So the information about where the ticking bomb would be located would not be shared with hordes of people. If the wrong person is grabbed and then tortured, well guess what happens? That person will say anything to get the pain to stop. He'll say where the ticking bomb is. Then, the bomb disposal squad will go to the wrong place because, of course, that person doesn't actually know where the bomb is. While the bomb disposal squad is looking for the nonexistent incendiary, the real bomb will go Ka-boom!
Jennifer said that the U.S. government resorted to torture because it was afraid. "Fear is deeply ingrained in the United States," she said, adding "Torture does not gain us security."
Father Roy talked about his experiences of having been in Vietnam as a Naval officer and in Bolivia as a Maryknoll missionary priest. He said that in Vietnam, "it was common knowledge that torture was policy." He said that pilots bragged about how easy it was to get information.
In Bolivia, under the dictator Hugo Banzar, torture was common. Father Roy said that he visited prisoners and documented the torture. He brought the information to Washington to try to get the U.S. government to put an end to it. Shortly afterwards, he was forced out of Bolivia. He then went to El Salvador. In November 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were massacred by military. Those Jesuit priests had been friends of Father Roy's. Father Roy discovered that the United States trained the assassins at a school called the School of the Americas.
Shortly after the massacre, Father Roy formed an organization called "School of the Americas Watch." In November 1990, nine persons fasted at the gates of Fort Benning. By November 2008, more than 20,000 persons gathered at the gates of Fort Benning.
"We want the school of torture closed down," Father Roy stated.
Father Roy said that training manuals were discovered in 1996. These training manuals give detailed instruction to the military on how to torture people. These manuals got the attention of Congress.
Currently, the School of the Americas Watch continues to work for accountability. Father Roy said that SOA Watch uses several approaches to achieving this goal. One is the Latin American initiative. Representatives of SOA Watch have gone to 15 Latin American countries and have spoken to leaders, including six presidents, to ask them to withdraw troops from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the new name for the School of the Americas). Father Roy stated that there is a "sea change taking place in Latin America and that there is great hope."
Unfortunately, a few days after this conference, there was a coup d'etat in Honduras and the democratically elected president was forced out of the country in his pajamas.
The School of the Americas Watch is also working to get legislation passed. The current legislation, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) is HR 2567, the Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2009.
"There will never be healing and reconciliation unless there is acknowledgement of crimes and torture."
During the question and answer session that followed, torture survivors from all over the world talked about change that they wanted to see and their feelings about the current realities throughout the world.
Grace from Uganda talked about her cry. She said that many opposition leaders are rotting in cells. Government leaders in the UN Security Council do not talk about that, she said. "I am going through hell," she said. "No one is on the ground watching. This is my cry!"
A man from West Africa said that the United States is trying to found an SOA-type school in Africa.
An Iranian woman said that young people are tortured in the streets in Iran. "They want democracy. They are not terrorists."
And one person said, "Bush encouraged torture. Thousands were in prison. Many died. No one talks about them. They just want freedom. (President Barack) Obama is our last chance."

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