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The US Must Prosecute Torturers PDF Print E-mail

by Hasan Arif  April 27, 2009

From Telegraph Journal | Original Article

Thirty-five years ago, Watergate was the ultimate political scandal in the United States. Democrats and progressives railed against what they saw as a blatant abuse of power by a Republican president. Under threat of impeachment, that Republican president, Richard Nixon, resigned from office.

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Mike Morice of the group World Can't Wait is seen gasping after a live waterboarding demonstration outside the Spanish Consulate in Manhattan. Protesters urged Spanish prosecutors to investigate the alleged involvement of U.S. officials in the torture of terror suspects.

The events leading up to Watergate seem minor when compared to the abuses of the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney administration over the last eight years. Bush-Cheney set a new bar for abuse of power which included going to war in Iraq under false pretences, spying on American citizens, torturing detainees at American prison camps, and blatant disregard for both the American Constitution and international law.

While efforts to impeach Bush and Cheney went nowhere during their administration, the post-presidency has brought renewed calls for justice. These have intensified with the Obama administration's release of Bush-era memos approving torture.

These memos reveal that use of torture at detainment facilities, such as Guantanamo Bay, was extensive and widespread. Torture methods approved by the Bush administration included sleep deprivation, cramped confinement, pushing the subject into a wall, and waterboarding, which is the practice of simulating drowning.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Japanese officials were condemned (and executed) for waterboarding, this act being deemed a war crime. However, this precedent was ignored by the Bush-Cheney administration. One memo outlines that waterboarding was used 266 times on just two prisoners.

This is a staggering number. Even if one were to accept that waterboarding was an effective means to extract information from prisoners - which is a dubious claim in itself - would 266 times be necessary?

The confessions extracted from torture are often false, and it damages the international reputation of the United States. Furthermore, there are more effective and more humane methods of getting information from prisoners, including gaining their trust and winning them over with respect and rapport - something outlined in a book by a U.S. air force officer who goes by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander to protect his identity.

In Congress, there are growing calls from Democrats for prosecutions and criminal investigations over the torture memos. Michigan Senator Carl Levin wants a Justice Department investigation and the Senate Judiciary Chair, Patrick Leahy from Vermont, is finding renewed energy for his long-standing calls for investigations into abuses of the Bush-Cheney administration.

The pressure is building on President Barack Obama. Understandably, he seems apprehensive of such investigations and judicial inquiries, likely worried that it would take attention and energy away from his number-one priority, the troubled economy. While Obama has opened the possibility of prosecution of lawyers who legally justified torture, there is also a desire on his part to "move on."

However, we cannot truly "move on" if we ignore past injustices. Not bringing those responsible at all levels (including Bush and Cheney) to justice would be setting a dangerous precedent.

First, it would be saying that the United States, as a superpower, is above the law and can violate international law and get away with it. Might should not make right.

Second, a future president who was inclined to abuse their powers and break international and domestic law would feel they could get away with it due to a past precedent of not prosecuting such abuses. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann has repeatedly warned how such a precedent could open the door to future abuses.

It is not about retribution or partisanship, it is about justice. Not until these past injustices are properly addressed can we move on. As Senator Leahy stated, "We can't turn the page unless we first read the page."

We cannot ignore the past, and we cannot afford to set the dangerous precedent of not punishing such abuses, of stating that some people - because they are more powerful - are above the law.

Hassan Arif is a graduate of UNB Law School and received his MA in Political Science at Carleton University. He resides in Fredericton.

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