A Moral Quagmire

On Tuesday the British government announced that it had reached a settlement to pay compensation to sixteen former Guantanamo detainees for the abuses they suffered in US custody. Shaker Aamer, a UK resident still held in Guantanamo, will be one of those receiving an, as yet, undisclosed financial payment.

At least six of the individuals had lodged civil claims for damages against the government in the UK. The complaints included British complicity in unlawful detention, extraordinary rendition and torture. One detainee, Binyam Mohamed, alleged that British intelligence officers had supplied questions to his Moroccan interrogators who at one point cut his penis with a knife to get him to talk.

The British government has denied any wrong doing and the Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke told the House of Commons that “no admissions of culpability have been made in settling these cases.” The stated reasons the government decided to agree to the settlement were to avoid protracted litigation, diverting resources from vital counterterrorism investigations, and estimated legal costs that could have exceeded $80m.

However, an equally pressing concern was the government’s desire to protect classified information from disclosure in court. Much of this classified information related to CIA reporting on its interrogation and treatment of the detainees in its custody.


Accountability for Torture After 'Mohamed v Jeppesen' Setback

When one door shuts, we have to look for other openings.  That’s what activists are doing in the aftermath of the Sept. 8 federal court decision blocking a lawsuit from people who suffered torture through U.S. extraordinary renditions from proceeding.

Egyptian-born Binyam Mohamed spent just under seven years in custody, four of which at Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed has always insisted that the evidence against him was obtained through torture. The US dropped all charges against him in 2008. SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images

The lawsuit was the last hope among three cases aiming to force the U.S. government to be held accountable for its acts in rendering people to black site prisons or third-party countries where the prisoners were tortured.  This last lawsuit was filed by Binyam Mohamed, Egyptian Ahmed Agiza and three other men who claim they were subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of US personnel and agents of other countries.

But, even as this last case disappears without a hearing, there is hope.

The day before the ruling was issued, I and a group of individuals looking to pry open the secrecy covering American renditions, met with U.S. Rep. David Price, an Amnesty member with a powerful seat on the House Appropriations Committee.  Price noted that despite our concerns that the Obama Administration hasn’t gone far enough to address human rights concerns in the U.S. war on terror, that opponents have thwarted even the mildest efforts in that vein. “They think they have a political winner,” Rep. Price said. “And I fear I think they are right.”

So what to do when the judges point to Congress and Congress point toward each other to act on something that both acknowledge is a problem but neither will take responsibility for? Amnesty’s statement on the ruling suggests one course of action. Our emphasis is to focus on the justices’ call for non-judicial relief.

In short, it means it is up to us to change the political culture.  I am comfortable with the justice’s efforts to ask the public to take the lead on this.  We shouldn’t rely on the courts to provoke public discussion and acknowledgment of the acts that have been done in our names.

But Rep. Price is also right.  Currently, opposing the closing of black prison sites, opposing closing Guantánamo and opposing any platform for the victims of extraordinary rendition is a political winner.  It’s up to us to change that.  It’s not enough for us to remain quiet.  We have to lead, to talk with our neighbors and in our local communities.

The plane that flew Ahmad Agiza from Sweden to Egypt where he was tortured took off from an airport not 30 miles from my house in North Carolina. The  plane that flew Binyam Mohamed to be tortured came from the same airstrip. We have documented that.  The pilots who flew the plane that carried two men, blindfolded, cuffed and beaten across Europe to Egypt live near me.  The responsibility for the torture that the justices refused to hear truly belongs on all of us. It will stop when we are willing to stand up to make it stop.

Business as Usual?

The past week has seen some alarming news stories (and bloggers trying to figure out how alarming) suggesting that the Obama administration may be backing away from commitments made on the campaign trail to end detainee abuse, promote American adherance to international human rights standards and bring greater transparency to Washington.

The Senate confirmation hearings for the new Director of the Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta, raised the most significant flag when he told Senators that he had no intention of holding CIA officers responsible for the policies they were told to carry out – effectively suggesting the historically discredited defense of “only obeying orders” would be given currency by the Obama administration.

Equally disappointing was the decision by Department of Justice lawyers to press for the dismissal of a civil case brought by five victims of the Bush administration’s rendition program against Jeppersen Dataplan Inc., the US-based flight services company that facilitated the renditions, advancing the same ‘state secrets’ argument employed by the previous administration.

The administration has also continued to block the release of 42 classified documents concerning the ill-treatment of British Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed. The Bush administration threatened to drastically reduce intelligence cooperation with the United Kingdom if the documents were made public by the British High Court.

Just how concerned should we be? Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic cautioned yesterday that the administration may simply be in a holding pattern pending a thorough review of their predecessors’ positions on a range of issues with long-term legal implications. This may well be so. However, those concerned about human rights and accountability must keep up the pressure for change.

President Obama has been consistent in his assertion that he is interested in looking forward not backwards and it is unlikely that any initiative to establish an accounting process for the widespread abuses committed under the rubric of the Global War on Terror will come from inside the administration unless political pressure builds on the President to act

The fact that the Chairmen of the Judiciary Committees of both Houses of Congress, Representative Conyers (D, Michigan) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) have called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate the abuses of the past seven years is a powerful step towards accountability. But it is only the first step in what will likely be a long journey.

Next week Amnesty International USA activists across the country will participate in a Congressional call-in week, urging their senators and representative to support an independent investigation into the Bush administration’s war-on-terror policies. Please join them in adding your voice to our campaign to end the culture of impunity that has blackened America’s reputation around the world.