How to Get Away With Torture: 6 All Too Easy Steps


More than 100 people were “disappeared” by the U.S. government and shuttled to secret detention sites between 2002 and 2008. Many were tortured.

Thanks to a new U.S. Senate report, we know more about how this happened than ever before. We’re calling it “The American Torture Story.” It’s a story that had to be written: and now it’s a story that must be read.

Shockingly, the US Justice Department, charged with investigating violations of the law, is apparently refusing to read to this Senate study—let alone act upon it. And as a new Amnesty International report shows: No one has been brought to justice. The United States is providing de facto amnesty to torturers.

Here’s 6 ways that those responsible have gotten away with torture – and 6 reasons we must act. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Five ‘Crimes’ That Can Get You Killed

death penalty singapore

In some countries having consensual sexual relations outside marriage, offending religion and even drinking alcohol is punishable by death © Michael Matuzak

Even though most of the world has turned its back on the death penalty, some countries continue to impose capital punishment for acts like having consensual sexual relations outside marriage, opposing the government, offending religion and even drinking alcohol.

This is despite international law barring states from handing out death sentences for any of these crimes.

Here’s a list of some “crimes” that, in some parts of the world, can get you killed.

Iran's Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery (Photo Credit: Etienne Laurent/AFP/Getty Images).

Iran’s Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery (Photo Credit: Etienne Laurent/AFP/Getty Images).

1.        Consensual Sexual Relations Outside Marriage
In Sudan, two women, Intisar Sharif Abdallah and Layla Ibrahim Issa Jumul, were sentenced to death by stoning on charges of “adultery while married” in separate cases in May and July 2012. In both cases, the women were sentenced after unfair trials involving forced “confessions.” The sentences were subsequently overturned on appeal, and both women were released.

In Iran at least 10 individuals, mainly women, remain on death row having been sentenced to stoning for the crime of “adultery while married.”


Drones, Filibusters, Kill Lists and More

Anti-war protesters disrupt the start of a nomination hearing for U.S. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan before the Senate Intelligence Committee February 7, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Anti-war protesters disrupt the start of a nomination hearing for U.S. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan before the Senate Intelligence Committee February 7, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Yesterday,the Senate Intelligence Committee endorsed a new director of the CIA — John Brennan. He is a controversial figure, and as you read this Senator Rand Paul and a bi-partisan group of Senators may still be attempting to filibuster the final Senate vote on his nomination. (You can check here.)

What’s the controversy? John Brennan is one of the chief architects of the administration’s drone killing policy, which has reportedly resulted in 4,700 people killed so far, according to Senator Lindsey Graham.

Read that number again. 4,700 human beings killed. Call us crazy, but don’t you think the world — including the thousands of people and families directly affected by drone attacks worldwide – deserves to know on what basis the Obama administration claims the right to kill people?


War Criminals Are Running Out Of Time – And Space

A statement in an AP story, relating to the start of the trial of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic, recently caught my attention:

… the fact that he [Mladic] is jailed and on trial is seen as another victory for international justice and hailed by observers as evidence that — more often than not — war crimes tribunals get their indicted suspects, even if years later.

This is a very optimistic and strong statement regarding the current state of international justice. Is the reason for optimism justified? I absolutely think so.

Let’s recap some of the recent historic events to bolster my argument that time’s up for war criminals:

  1. The first conviction of a former head of state for international crimes since the Nuremberg trials: Charles Taylor, Mr. Blood Diamond, was convicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in late April.
  2. Milestone verdict on child soldiers and the ICC’s first verdict: Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord, was found guilty in March of the war crime of using children in armed conflict.
  3. The Mladic trial: 17 years after Srebrenica―infamously known as “Europe’s worst massacre since World War II”―Ratko Mladic had his first day in court on May 16. He faces genocide charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Mladic allegedly orchestrated the killing of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995. The completion of his trial could mark a milestone for the survivors, who did not see a verdict against Slobodan Milošević (who passed away while on trial in 2006).
  4. The unanimous referral by the UN Security Council of the situation in Libya to the ICC. The vote in February 2011 showed a surprising shift in positions when all 15 members―including non-state parties to the ICC such as the United States and Russia―voted in favor of a referral.


Locked Away: Sri Lanka's "Security" Detainees

Sri Lanka

Prisoners have been held for extended periods without charge at Welikada Prison © Private

I want to tell you a story about a man arrested in Sri Lanka.  It’s shocking.

In June 2008, “Roshan” (not his real name) was arrested in Colombo by unknown assailants who he later learned were plainclothes police.  The police suspected him of links to the opposition Tamil Tigers.  He was held for two years without ever being charged or tried and was repeatedly tortured, before eventually being released.  No one has been held accountable for his treatment.


Remembering The Disappeared

Amnesty International condemns all enforced disappearances as crimes under international law.  And on August 30, we’ll be doing something about them.

Sandya Eknaligoda

Sandya Eknaligoda wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, Sri Lanka, 10 January 2011

An enforced disappearance occurs when a person is arrested or abducted by the state or agents of the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.

Enforced disappearances take place around in the world, including in countries such as China, Nepal, Chad, Sri Lanka and North Korea.  In Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of enforced disappearances occurred during decades of civil conflict on the island.  One recent example is the journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who went missing after work on Jan. 24, 2010.


March 21st KEY Date in Human Rights Council for Gaza Conflict Victims

UPDATE Friday, 3/18/11, 7:35pm: The UN appointed Committee of Independent Experts released their updated assessment of the Israeli and Palestinian domestic investigations into violations of international law committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict.  It is this assessment which is going to be reviewed and debated by members of the Human Rights Council Monday, March 21st.  (See below).

UPDATE Friday, 3/18/11, 7:25pm: Amnesty Int’l just released their updated assessment of the Israeli and Palestinian domestic investigations.

Original Post: Next Monday, March 21st, the Human Rights Council (HRC) will consider a critical report.  The report assesses the Israeli and Palestinian investigations into serious violations of international law committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict.

This report is expected to match a similar assessment submitted to the HRC last September that concluded that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian side have failed to carry out investigations that are credible, independent and in conformity with international law.They have also failed to demonstrate a commitment to prosecuting perpetrators.  AI’s assessment concurs with these findings.

Despite clear documentation last September that both Israel and Hamas, the de facto administration in Gaza, were falling short of their obligations, Amnesty was shocked and dismayed to see the Human Rights Council fail to outline a clear plan for accountability and instead opt for delay.

AI wants HRC members to know that AI members worldwide are expecting real results this time.


North Korea's Dire Lack of Food and Health Care

Amnesty International released a disturbing new report today detailing the crumbling state of health care in North Korea.  The  report paints a bleak picture of barely-functioning hospitals void of medicines and epidemics brought on by malnutrition.

In addition, our researchers found that the North Korean government has been unable to feed its people and, in violation of international law, has refused to cooperate fully with the international community to receive food aid.

Thousands are estimated to have starved to death in North Korea as recently as February © Korea Press

Even though North Korea claims to provide healthcare for all, the latest estimate from the World Health Organization shows that North Korea spent less on healthcare than any other country in the world – under US$1 per person per year in total. In fact, many witnesses have stated that they have had to pay for all services since the 1990s, with doctors usually paid in cigarettes, alcohol or food for the most basic consults, and taking cash for tests or surgery. Because North Korea has failed to provide for the most basic health and survival needs of its people, many North Koreans bypass doctors altogether, going straight to the markets to buy medicine, self-medicating according to their own guesswork or the advice of market vendors.

Thousands are estimated to have starved to death in North Korea as recently as February this year after a botched currency revaluation. Crippling food shortages, exacerbated by government policies in North Korea, have caused widespread illness as well as people are forced to survive on “wild foods” such as grass and tree bark. Hwang, a 24-year-old man from Hwasung, North Hamgyong province, was homeless and lived alone from the age of nine. Foraging for wild foods was his only option to avoid starvation.

“I ate several different kinds of wild foods, such as neung-jae, which is a wild grass found in the fields. It’s poisonous – your face swells up the next day. Other kinds of grass and some mushrooms are also poisonous so you could die if you picked the wrong one,”


SADC Tribunal Struggles for Legitimacy

UPDATE, September 24, 2009
“SADC Executive Secretary Tomaz Salamao told VOA that Harare’s move to repudiate the tribunal has been referred to the ministers of justice of the regional bloc’s member nations who have been asked to provide legal guidance to SADC heads of state.”

I know, I know. “Not another rant about international courts and why they are so fantastic,” you say.  Well, fooled you. I am not going to defend international tribunals as a concept or theory. It’s been done to death. However, I am asserting that if you are going to go through all the bother and effort of establishing an adjudicating body, setting up rules and procedures, selecting judges, hiring staff and building a brand spanking new courthouse, maybe you should first make sure the tribunal has the proper legal authority to try cases at all.

The Tribunal was established in 1992 as an institution of the Southern Africa Development Community’s (SADC) originating Treaty and was sworn in November 2005. It has jurisdiction over disputes between SADC States or disputes between persons and member States; but in order for a person to bring a case before the court, they have to have exhausted all legal options first in that State. Since the Tribunal received its first case in 2007, five suits have been filed; two contract claims against SADC, a contract claim against Zanzibar and two cases against the government of Zimbabwe.

And now we come to the crux of the issue. One case against Zimbabwe deals with demands for compensation for injuries suffered as a result of political violence and is still pending. The other case, Campbell v Republic of Zimbabwe, is a land seizure case decided in May 2008. The Tribunal determined that the plaintiff’s farms were illegally seized by the government and the plaintiffs were owed compensation. In the course of litigation, the plaintiffs were granted orders demanding that the government cease expulsions from the farms under litigation. Not only did the government of Zimbabwe not comply with the cease and desist order, it failed to comply with the final decision in Campbell. Now, Zimbabwe is saying that the tribunal has no force and refuses to recognize it as a legitimate body of legal authority. Thus, it can ignore decisions on any pending or decided cases.

SADC itself was established by an overarching treaty that contains language stating a tribunal will exist. The structure, rules etc of the Tribunal were then laid out by a Protocol to that Treaty. Zimbabwe’s argument hinges upon ratification of that Protocol; to enter into force, it required ratification by two-thirds of the SADC member States. Not only has Zimbabwe itself not ratified the Protocol, only five SADC members have ratified thus far.

The problem is contradictory language. Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum argues the SADC Treaty states the tribunal is exempt from the requirement that all protocols be ratified by two-thirds of member States. Therefore, the Tribunal became a binding legal authority when the SADC Treaty was ratified. However, the Protocol itself states that it requires two-thirds ratification to take effect. Under international law, the Treaty should trump an underlying Protocol; getting that in writing is a different story.

So what are the options? SADC’s annual summit convenes this week. SADC can expel Zimbabwe for non-compliance, but if it wasn’t expelled following the election violence of last year it is unlikely to expel it for a breach of the SADC Treaty that is arguably not a breach at all. SADC can push for ratification at the Summit to close this loophole, however Zimbabwe can still say the Tribunal had no binding force until such time as the ratification process is complete and still claim cases decided prior to that time are nullified. If SADC does not ratify the Protocol, there is nowhere Mike Campbell or future potential plaintiffs seeking to sue any party at the Tribunal can turn to for redress as there is no higher applicable legal authority. The court for the African Union, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights is not functioning.

So what does all this mean? It means Campbell was awarded a hollow victory. It means one more instance where Zimbabwe eludes the rule of law, although this time its due to sloppy language creating a loophole large enough to drive a legal train wreck through. It means future litigants have no recourse. It means SADC needs to step up and get its act together. It means the SADC Tribunal is in the same league as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the ECOWAS Community Court, the International Criminal Court etc in struggling for legitimacy and compliance with its jurisprudence. On the other hand, the US Supreme Court had the same problem once upon a time and seems to do okay now. I always try to end on a glass half full note.

On a side note, the Campbell farm was burnt to the ground yesterday including crops and a linen factory, destroying the livelihoods and housing for over 60 people. An independent documentary, Mugabe and the White African, detailing the Campbell’s legal battle in the SADC tribunal is also showing in limited locations.

The Wanton Destruction of Gaza

A new Amnesty International report about the recent conflict in Gaza concludes that Israel wantonly destroyed civilian infrastructure in Gaza, which could not be justified on grounds of “military necessity”. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed and some 20,000 damaged in Israeli attacks which reduced entire neighbourhoods of Gaza to rubble and left an already dire economic situation in ruins.

Israeli forces killed hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians and destroyed thousands of homes in Gaza in attacks which violate international law.

Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel, killing three Israeli civilians, injuring scores and driving thousands from their homes. These kind of attacks are indiscriminate and are thus clearly in violation of international law.

Another key finding of the report is that there is no evidence that Palestinian armed groups used civilians as “human shields”.