The Cancer of Democracy

Last month, representing Amnesty International in a meeting at the State Department, I listened to the new Legal Adviser Harold Koh, former Dean of the Yale Law School, describe the Obama administration as the anti-torture presidency.

That is a bold claim and the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture is the perfect moment to take a step back and review the administration’s record on this issue. Can Obama really claim to be the anti-torture president?

As far as human rights groups were concerned the Obama administration got off to a flying start with the executive orders pledging to close Guantanamo and restricting all US personnel to using interrogation techniques delineated in the 2006 Army Field Manual on Interrogations.

Unfortunately this was high point and it has been downhill all the way ever since. While the Executive Order put an apparent end to waterboarding and CIA black sites the 2006 Interrogations Field Manual is itself far from unproblematic.

There is nothing in the manual to prevent the reintroduction of the so-called “frequent flyer” technique of constantly waking and rewaking an individual after only a few minutes sleep so that no effective rest is gained at all.

In the past eight months credible reports have emerged that such techniques are still being used in US military detainee screening centers in Afghanistan. An earlier US Army field manual explicitly prohibited “abnormal sleep deprivation” as a form of “mental torture.”


Call Obama on Torture Day

Today, June 26, is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. In establishing the day in 1998, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote, “Today the United Nations appeals to all governments and members of civil society to take action to defeat torture and torturers everywhere…This is a day in which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable.”

Murat Kurnaz is one such person who “endured the unimaginable.” The 19-year-old German resident was held for five years, without charge or trial, and tortured and abused. In his book “Five Years of My Life,” Kurnaz wrote:

“They prepared me for interrogations by putting electric shocks through my feet. For hours on end they would hang me up by my hands, which were bound behind my back in different positions and then a break, and then you would be hung up again. “

Who did this to him?  Egypt? China? Iran? Myanmar? No, the United States of America. The quote describes Kurnaz’s treatment by US personnel in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Under the UN Convention Against Torture, the US government is obligated by law to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide remedy to torture victims.

Yet Murat Kurnaz’s allegations of torture and abuse have never been properly investigated; those responsible for ordering and creating the US torture program have not been prosecuted; and the US government has claimed that victims of US torture have no right to remedy, or even an apology.

President Obama has said he wants to look forward, not back. President Obama has rejected an independent commission of inquiry into the US torture program. President Obama has left open loopholes for torture.

This is not acceptable. Not for Americans, not for foot soldiers who have taken the fall, not for the world, not for the rule of law, not for Murat Kurnaz or the hundreds or thousands of others who have been tortured by the US.

“Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors…The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

– Major General Antonio Taguba, US Army (Ret.), in his Preface to “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” by Physicians for Human Rights.

There is still hope that President Obama will change course: he will do what it takes to get re-elected, so if the American public stands up for accountability for torture, then he will too.

Stand up with us: join Amnesty International members across America in marking International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by calling the White House comment line right now and urging President Obama to investigate and prosecute torture, and provide remedy to victims. Click here for the number and script.