Human rights watch

Acknowledging, and punishing, torture
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  June 24, 2009

Last week, on the heels of anti-torture panels and protests in Portland, Washington DC, and elsewhere, the Justice Department told the nation that it would have to wait a few more days before information about American torture policies and practices is made public. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and other groups calling for increased accountability (any accountability at all, really) are hoping a CIA inspector general report will offer answers and help to galvanize public opinion about the treatment of terrorism suspects in American custody following September 11, 2001.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed a bill last week banning release of photos that show alleged detainee abuse. Anti-torture advocates say that government officials — including President Barack Obama — are publicly shying away from addressing the truths of torture: how it happened here, its ramifications (both practical and social-moral), and how to prevent it in the future.

"The president's notion that we can look forward without looking back is false," says Ben Wizner, an attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project. "It's a political decision predicated on the complacency of progressives who care about rule of law," Wizner continues, referring to people who voted for Obama and are likely to care about this issue, yet haven't spoken up loud enough. "If we don't make clear that this is a top priority, then this message will not be heard."

Wizner, along with three other activists, spoke at the First Parish Church last week as part of National Torture Awareness Month.

Pushing for accountability — namely, a "commission of inquiry" charged with addressing torture practices — "really has to do with my grandkids," Reverend Richard Kilmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said in an interview before the event. "I want them to grow up in a country that does not torture. The past is very necessary to understand ... so that this does not happen again."

Kilmer, along with Wizner, author and former US interrogator Matthew Alexander, and Tom Parker of Amnesty International, all agree that the Obama administration is not looking hard enough at the torture practices signed off on and perpetrated by American officials and soldiers. They support the creation of an independent commission, not only to prosecute soldiers who violated the Geneva Conventions, but also to publicly acknowledge that those violations took place.

"Laws are meaningless unless they're enforced," Parker said, pointing out that prosecution (of those who tortured, and of those who allowed or instructed them to) is "only one piece" of accountability.

Such a commission would "set the example that torture is not tolerated within the American military," Alexander said — which he believes would lead to a sharp decrease in terrorist recruitment.

While the president isn't yet amenable to the idea of such a commission, Kilmer has not lost hope. He and other religious leaders, including Eric Smith of the Maine Council of Churches, met in early June with White House officials. By the time they left, they'd scheduled future appointments. "If they had no interest in having their minds changed, that wouldn't have happened," Kilmer said.

Voters in Maine, Parker added, are uniquely positioned to make an impact on this issue, given that one of our moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe, sits on the US Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, and the other, Susan Collins, sits on the Armed Services Committee.

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  Topics: This Just In , Barack Obama, U.S. Government, U.S. Congressional News,  More more >
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