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CIA Continues to Deny Use of Torture, Shrugging Off Prosecutions Outside the US

CIA officials’ rebuttal to the Senate’s report on torture marks the latest development in the effort to deny US accountability for crimes against humanity.

London Guantánamo Campaign protesters mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, June 26, 2015, in London. (Photo courtesy of Aisha Maniar)

Eight former CIA officials have issued a rebuttal to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture. The publication, Rebuttal: The CIA Responds to the Senate Intelligence Committees Study of Its Detention and Interrogation Program, which was released on September 9, marks the latest development in the ongoing effort to deny US involvement in international crimes against humanity.

While almost complete secrecy continues to shroud the CIA’s use of torture since 2001, there are many people, from privately contracted psychologists to state agents, who are fully aware of the past and possibly ongoing use of torture by the CIA. And in early August 2015, a former senior CIA official admitted to the BBC that the CIA’s techniques, such as waterboarding, were indeed torture.

The December 2014 publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, which examined the CIA’s use of torture in interrogation techniques since 2001, led to calls for the prosecution of the individuals involved. In the CIA’s long history of using torture, however, prosecutions have been few.

Nevertheless, activists worldwide are continuing to press for the US to be held accountable. On June 24, 2015, an international coalition of more than 100 groups sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability, prosecution and reparations for CIA torture. The demands in the letter, which called the continued impunity a “dark chapter in the history of the United States,” were supported by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez.

The fact that the US now chooses to put rendition victims on trial in federal courts does not make the method of their arrest and interrogation lawful.

The letter also called for “other governments implicated in the CIA torture program” to be held responsible. The day before, on June 23, the European Court of Human Rights heard a case brought against Italy by Egyptian national Abu Omar, who was kidnapped in the streets of Milan in 2003 and “rendered” to Egypt, where he was detained illegally and tortured for several months. The case concerns Italy’s collusion with the CIA in his abduction and rendition to torture, as well as a failure to investigate. Italy denied the claims and judgment is pending.

It is the third such case to be heard before the European Court. A historic 2012 case found Macedonia guilty of facilitating the 2003 rendition of German national Khaled El-Masri, who was subsequently held and tortured at the “Salt Pit” in Afghanistan; it was the first time any state was found complicit in CIA torture. In 2014, Poland was also found complicit, in a case relating to two current Guantánamo prisoners. Both states were ordered to pay compensation. The compensation Poland was ordered to pay is a fraction of what the CIA paid Polish officials to run a secret torture prison. Further cases are pending against Romania and Lithuania.

Torture never produces good intelligence; it only produces broken individuals and communities.

The Abu Omar case in Italy is unique in its own right: It is the first and only successful prosecution against the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program anywhere. In 2012, in domestic proceedings, the Italian Supreme Courts final judgment in the criminal case saw 23 US citizens, mainly CIA operatives, convicted in absentia, with prison sentences and fines imposed.

Acting outside the law does not put one above the law. In 2013, convicted former CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady was arrested as he transited through Panama, pending extradition to Italy to serve his eight-year sentence. He was released the next day, but with extradition a possibility each time he leaves the United States, he asked Italy to pardon him. He admitted his role in the operation and that it was illegal; he is reported to have told an Italian newspaper that he was only following orders.

Domestic prosecution efforts in some European countries crumbled under political pressure from the United States. In others, prosecution and investigation efforts never started in spite of pressure from regional and international bodies. Denial is a popular response. Nonetheless, a few European actions are ongoing: Police in Scotland are seeking access to a full, non-redacted copy of the “torture report” as part of its criminal investigation into at least six alleged torture flights.

In Spain, a criminal investigation brought by a number of former Guantánamo prisoners under universal jurisdiction laws was recently closed following restrictive changes to the law that were applied retrospectively. A number of nongovernment organizations have appealed this decision, calling for the investigation to be reopened. A 2009 WikiLeaks cable revealed that the United States put pressure on Spain to end the investigation.

Outside of Europe, the only other case to be heard in court was recently reopened before the African Commission for Human and Peoples Rights, following new revelations against Djibouti. Neither international court has jurisdiction over the United States. Another case brought by former victims is pending before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Aside from the Abu Omar ruling in Italy, these international efforts have no effect on anyone in the United States, but are encouraging nonetheless. Without the complicity of so many states, the extraordinary rendition program would have been impossible. The “torture report” does not name the countries involved, but a comprehensive 2013 report by the Open Society Foundations lists 54 countries that actively colluded in the program, almost half of them in Europe.

Although the Senate’s torture report focused on past events, without investigation, we cannot be certain that state-sanctioned torture is not continuing. A pending European Court case involving British torture in Northern Ireland, reopened after almost 40 years, illustrates this perfectly: Those same torture techniques, banned in the UK, were used by the US and British armies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

There is sufficient evidence that extraordinary rendition is ongoing. Cases such as that of Abu Anas Al-Libi highlight this; he was kidnapped in broad daylight in Tripoli by US soldiers in 2013. He consequently “disappeared,” only to resurface in the United States, and he died before trial. The fact that the US now chooses to put rendition victims on trial in federal courts does not make the method of their arrest and interrogation lawful. A number of cases have shown that US allies are also still complicit, even in the rendition of their own citizens.

The prohibition on the use of torture, to which the United States and many of its allies are signatories, is absolute. Torture is secret by its very nature. The worst scars do not show on the victim’s skin. The ramifications of failing to deal with the use of torture are not elsewhere, as demonstrated by the Chicago police. Torture never produces good intelligence; it only produces broken individuals and communities.

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