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Accountability for torture is about the soul of our country, yet we hear only silence from our leaders

June has been designated Torture Awareness Month by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and several other human rights organizations. But you won’t hear anything about that from our government. Just as it hides our detention facilities, it hides from the truth and denies our history. No one wants torture on the front pages.

Take Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for example. Within days of a 6-year-old girl being tragically injured by a swimming pool drain (who subsequently died from her injuries), the senator was suggesting legislation for better swimming-pool safety standards. For years now, people concerned about human rights have been seeking accountability for torture. Yet although Klobuchar is a former prosecutor and sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the word “torture” appears nowhere on her website. Meanwhile, there are 15 separate entries for “swimming pools.” Out of sight, out of mind.

Until we deal with this issue, torture will remain a cancer that eats away at our country. Since January, accountability advocates have met with staff members in the offices of Sens. Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum. So far, the response has been uniform: silence.

In this Torture Awareness Month, we must increase awareness of what has been done in our names and break through this bipartisan conspiracy of silence. We should ask our leaders whether they’re aware that:

• The statute of limitations applicable to the Federal Torture Statute is eight years. What Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba called our “systematic regime of torture” began eight years ago.

• Since 9/11, up to 100 detainees have died in our custody from other than battlefield wounds, suicides or natural causes. The precise number is not known because our government has ceased releasing the data.

• Secret places of detention are being discovered to this day. One at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, and another at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have just recently been revealed.

• The United States renditions people to countries that it describes in our own State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices as having systematically violated the human rights of people held in its prisons. We say we’re getting “diplomatic assurances” that torture will not occur. The Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States Senate in 1994, includes nothing about “diplomatic assurances” in its prohibition against rendition.

• The Convention Against Torture, in Article 2, says: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Yet in the years after 9/11 we heard from several Bush administration officials, including Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and John Yoo, that we have to understand the times. After all, we had just been attacked.

• George W. Bush, when president, advocated greater accountability than President Barack Obama advocates with respect to torture. On June 26, 2004, the U.N.’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, President Bush issued a statement that included the following: “America stands against and will not tolerate torture. We will investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and undertake to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment in all territory under our jurisdiction.” In looking forward, Obama has taken a step backward.

• Article 14 of the Convention Against Torture says: “Each State Party shall ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation.” Yet our Justice Department continually argues in court against such redress, invoking state sovereignty and state secrets doctrines.

• Judges, inspectors general, general counsel of the military branches, Pentagon investigators, and FBI interrogators have all said that we have tortured human beings in our custody.

• The Convention Against Torture, in Article 12, says: “Each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.” Yet President Obama wants to investigate only those who exceeded the standards prescribed by the faulty Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel memos.

• Since the Federal Torture Statute was passed in 1994, only one person has ever been charged and convicted under it. And that was for torture committed for the government of Liberia. His name was Chuckie Taylor, he was the son of the President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, and he tortured people as part of that country’s Anti-Terrorism Unit. Torture justified as anti-terrorist. Does that sound familiar?

Some government officials say they support those who push for accountability, but there is a lack of political will in Washington to deal with the issue. We respond that Minnesota’s most courageous leaders have created, not followed, the political will. Hubert Humphrey on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Eugene McCarthy on the war in Southeast Asia, and Paul Wellstone on the invasion of Iraq were at their best when they opposed the political will in Washington, not succumbed to it.

It may not be politically wise for a Minnesota senator or representative to take a leadership role on torture. But this isn’t about politics. We must demand that they act as statesmen and stateswomen. Accountability for torture is literally about the soul of our country; nothing could be more important.

Only recently did we apologize to and compensate those Japanese-Americans we had shamefully incarcerated a half century earlier. Fifty years from now, people will surely ask: “In the time when America tortured people, where was Klobuchar? Where was Franken? Where was Ellison? Where was McCollum? Were they not aware of what was happening?”


Help break the silence. Join in the various Torture Awareness Month events sponsored by a coalition of anti-torture and human-rights groups in the Twin Cities, including Amnesty International and the Women Against Military Madness’ “Tackling Torture at the Top” Committee. Come to the daily vigils held each weekday at noon in front of the federal courthouse in Minneapolis, programs every Tuesday (7 p.m.) at the Mad Hatter’s Tea House in St. Paul, a June 23 United Council of Churches program at Richfield United Methodist Church (7-9 p.m.), a June 26 Center for Victims of Torture outdoor event honoring torture survivors (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), a June 26 showing of the film “Torturing Democracy” at Walker Church (7 p.m.), and a June 27 forum (3 to 5 p.m.) on torture at Plymouth Congregational Church. (For more information, go here.)

Chuck Turchick is a retired Minneapolis resident who is concerned about torture and torture accountability issues.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that June was designated Torture Awareness Month by the United Nations. Instead, it was so designated by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and several other human rights organizations. The United Nations has designated June 26 International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. That was the date in 1987 when the Convention Against Torture took effect.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Sonja Johnson on 06/03/2010 - 08:13 am.

    Thank you, Chuck. Eight years of torture and eight years of pretending that we don’t torture. How many more years will it take? How many more victims will we create? It is time we make the law do what was promised – to do justice. It is time that we, the people, demand that justice is done in our nation. Torture is not a partisan issue, it is an evil that we have allowed to be in the hands of the powerful – it has been time to lock up torture forever – it has been time for eight long years.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 06/03/2010 - 08:32 am.

    As recently as THIS WEEK, former president Bush stated he does not and did not regret waterboarding prisoners. The resurgence of torture in American prisons remains right below the surface in our political system, just waiting for the right (wrong?) leader to be elected. With so many other issues front and center, a candidate’s position on torture is rarely brought up in campaigns, and now we must push the media to clarify every candidate’s position on this critical issue.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Dickinson on 06/03/2010 - 08:37 am.

    Great commentary! Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t mean it’s not there. This will never go away until it is addressed. The greatness of the U.S. has never come from avoiding problems or responsibilities, it has been the exact opposite: facing mistakes, owning up, becoming strong by being strong. My parents never taught me to run from or ignore responsibility. I’ll bet my elected officials had similar upbringing. Now is the time on this fundamental issue. If something like this can’t be faced, then nothing else we do has weight or meaning. There is nothing bigger than how we treat our fellow humans.

  4. Submitted by Jim Roth on 06/03/2010 - 01:01 pm.

    Excellent article. In a 1980 decision written by Judge Irving R. Kaufman, which is still good law, the Court stated: “From the ashes of the Second world War… humanitarian and practical considerations have combined to lead the nations of the world to recognize that respect for fundamental human rights is in their individual and collective interests… Indeed, for purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become– like the pirate and slave trader before him– ‘hostis humani generis’, an enemy of all mankind… Our holding today…is a small but important step in the fulfillment of the ageless dream to free all people from brutal violence.”

    The acts committed by our government since 2000 and expressly condoned by our President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense and others violate the clear language of our own Torture Statute of 1994 as well as the widely accepted norms of international law as described in the above

    But as stated by Mr. Turchick, where is the political will to enforce these laws? Our leaders (including those in both major political parties) are quick to condemn in no unspoken terms the violations of international human rights law by others where it is politically popular, but where is the courage to address the same transgressions by our leaders?

    As I recall it has been stated that “We are a nation of laws not of men”. But where is the rule of law on this issue?

  5. Submitted by Ron Chapman on 06/03/2010 - 05:35 pm.

    Oh for gosh sakes already! The people that engineered the shameful Torture Regime of the United States were/are a bunch of thugs and criminals. Round them up, clean house, prosecute them, one and all. This issue will never go away unless the bad/evil torture people from the previous administration are not given a few years in prison. Epic economic failure, deregulation that messed up everything, katrina, castrophies, wars and torture. This is what they left the our country when they escaped with all their billions/trillions $$$ of loot!

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/04/2010 - 12:01 am.

    Torture is not about THEM, it is about US !

    We cannot successfully sustain a society which is reviled around the world for its brutality.

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