Senate Hearing on Accountability

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Senator Pat Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) told today’s Judiciary Committee hearing on “Getting to the Truth through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry” that he had received 65,000 emails and letters from members of the public supporting his call for a Commission to investigate human rights abuses in the War on Terror.

Senator Leahy added:

“Nothing has done more to damage America’s place in the world than the revelation that this nation stretched the law and bounds of executive power to authorize torture.”

Senator Leahy’s call for a Commission of Inquiry received strong support from Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) and Russ Feingold (Democrat, Wisconsin). Senator Feingold went further also calling for prosecutions were crimes had occurred and expressing the hope that a Commission of Inquiry would not consider offering immunity in return for testimony. Senators Arlen Specter (Republican, Pennsylvania), Ted Kaufman (Democrat, Delaware) and John Cornyn (Republican, Texas) were also in attendance.

One of those invited to testify at the hearing was former United Nations Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who last month had worked with the coalition of human rights organizations calling for the establishment of a non-partisan commission of eminent persons to investigate the conduct of the Bush administration in this area. AIUSA has played a leading role in the coalition. Ambassador Pickering provided powerful testimony concerning the damage the Bush administration’s policies had done to America’s standing around the world.

Other news comes from the Senate Armed Services Committee where Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) is calling for the Department of Justice to open an independent investigation into the use of torture and other coercive techniques by military personnel and other government agents.

The Armed Services Committee is close to releasing a substantially updated version of its December 2008 bipartisan report on the “Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody”, expanded to include newly declassified material. The first version of this report identified a chain of culpability leading up to the highest levels of the Bush administration. With hard facts still in short supply we are confident that the release of this updated report will further drive calls for accountability.

Momentum on accountability issues continues to build

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It has been a busy week with developments on multiple fronts concerning the abuse of detainees held in the War on Terror. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) has announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings next Wednesday to explore ideas on how best to establish a commission to examine past national security policies.

In an interview broadcast on MSNBC House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California 8th District) expressed support for the Commission of Inquiry proposed by Senator Leahy but only if it were to conduct its business without offering immunity to those who appear before it:

“Some of the issues involved here, like the services part, politicizing of the Justice Department, and the rest, they have criminal ramifications, and I don’t think we should be giving them immunity… No one is above the law.”  

News also emerged that  the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California), is considering launching an inquiry into the “extreme” interrogation practices used by the CIA under the Bush administration.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Finnish diplomat Martin Scheinin, delivered a report concluding that foreign agents committed “an internationally wrongful act” by participating in interrogations at Guantanamo even if they acted solely as observers. Intelligence Officers from 18 different countries have been granted access to their nationals detained at facility.

Scheinin also called on the Obama administration and Congress to press charges against anyone suspected of breaking US laws against torture and other crimes:

“We have had a witch hunt for alleged terrorists for the past 7 1/2 years. Now I think the witch hunt is over and it is time for the law to step in.”

Finally, one chilling reminder of just how important these issues remain comes from the legal charity Reprieve which represents 31 of the Guantanamo detainees, including British detainee Binyam Mohamed released earlier this week. 

Defense attorney Ahmed Ghappour reported that his clients are telling him that abuses at the facility have escalated sharply since the inauguration of President Obama as guards seek “to get their kicks in” before the camp is closed. Ghappour stressed that he believed that this abuse was not directed from above but reflected the frustrations and prejudices of individual guards, some of whom had served in Iraq and were scarred by their experience. In one of the six main camps at Guantanamo all of the detainees Ghappour knew of were on hunger strike and subject of forced feeding.

The Pentagon review of the Guantanamo facility led by Admiral Patrick Walsh also concluded this week. While the Admiral reported that the inmates were being treated in line with the standards laid down in the Geneva Conventions, he also acknowledged documenting 14 substantiated incidences of abuse including the “preemptive use of pepper spray” on detainees.  

The objectives of the Counter Terror with Justice campaign remain as vital and urgent as ever. We need AI sections across the country to keep up their good work pressing for accountability. With your help real reform may just be in reach.