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Seeking International Accountability for Victims of U.S. Torture

Jamil Dakwar,
Director, ACLU Human Rights Program
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June 26, 2013

Today the international community commemorates the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The U.S. government should take this time to reflect on some astounding statistics: Despite well-documented evidence of the systemic use of torture by Bush administration officials, not one of the architects of these policies that led to the torture and abuse of hundreds of men, women and children has been held accountable and not one survivor has had their day in a U.S. court. As a result, the ACLU is seeking accountability for survivors in the international legal arena.

For decades, the U.S. had claimed global leadership in the fight against torture – indeed, the Reagan administration hailed the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as a “significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment.” Yet the U.S. government has severely tarnished its credibility by promoting a culture of impunity for those who committed torture and denying victims the right to redress for their abuses.

Take the case of ACLU client Khaled El-Masri. In 2003, Khaled, a German citizen, was kidnapped by the CIA and whisked away to a secret prison in Afghanistan for interrogation. He was quietly released in Albania five months later after the agency determined that they had the wrong man. Khaled later described his abduction by men dressed in black and wearing ski masks, and being beaten, stripped, blindfolded, sodomized, and drugged before being flown half way around the world to a cold damp cell.

Khaled’s tale of rendition and torture made headline news around the world and was the subject of numerous criminal investigations and governmental inquiries in Europe. President Bush acknowledged the existence of a rendition, detention and interrogation program. In response to questions about Khaled’s mistreatment during a press conference in Germany in December 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice responded,

[W]hen and if mistakes are made, we work very hard and as quickly as possible to rectify them. Any policy will sometimes have mistakes and it is our promise to our partners that should that be the case, that we will do everything that we can to rectify those mistakes. I believe that this will be handled in the proper courts here in Germany and if necessary in American courts as well.

In 2005, the ACLU filed suit on Khaled’s behalf against George Tenet, then head of the CIA, and U.S.-based aviation corporations that aided in Khaled’s forced disappearance and torture. In response, rather than acknowledge any wrongdoing, the government sought to have the lawsuit dismissed from the outset claiming that any judicial consideration of Khaled’s allegations would cause untold harm to U.S. national security interests by revealing state secrets. U.S. courts accepted the government’s extraordinary position.

With no further avenue or redress before U.S. courts, in 2008 the ACLU filed a petition on Khaled’s behalf against the United States with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming violations of his internationally protected rights to be free from forced disappearance and torture, and, as a survivor of these egregious practices, to a remedy. More than five years later, the government has yet to respond to the petition. Thus, while Khaled’s torturers have evaded punishment for his barbaric treatment, Khaled hasn’t received so much as an explanation or an apology. The only court to hear his claims and acknowledge illegal actions committed by U.S. officials – including abusive treatment, arbitrary detention, and forced disappearance – was the European Court of Human Rights, in a case brought against Macedonia, not the United States.

Khaled’s failed efforts to secure accountability in the United States are sadly not unique. Other torture survivors’ attempts have met a similar fate, thwarted by government claims of state secrets or immunity before U.S. courts and – so far – a stony silence when they brought their cases to the Inter-American Commission. As a result, three petitions on behalf of twelve men alleging forced disappearance, torture and inhumane treatment by the United States presently languish before the Commission:

  • Binyam Mohamed, et al. – A petition on behalf of five men who were subjected to forced disappearance and torture as a consequence of their “extraordinary rendition”, filed on November 14, 2011;
  • Sabar, Thahe Mohamed et al. – A petition on behalf of six Iraqi and Afghani men who were subjected to torture while detained in U.S.-run facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, filed on March 19, 2012;
  • Jose Padilla and Estela Lebron – A petition on behalf of U.S. citizen Jose Padilla, who was arbitrarily detained as an “enemy combatant” in South Carolina and tortured, filed on December 11, 2012.

The government should fully engage with the Inter-American Commission and respond to the four petitions that have been filed. This is both a moral and legal obligation – the U.S. is obligated under the Convention Against Torture to provide legal redress to victims. Impunity for torture is abhorrent and the ACLU will continue to press for accountability, for however long it takes. This is an effort we must all continue to make: to reject impunity, return to the rule of law, and provide adequate redress to Khaled and hundreds of other survivors of U.S. torture.

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