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Location: United States

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Torture Thy Neighbor

"And Jesus said, "If a man strikes you once, you should turn the other cheek and let him strike that one also - unless there is reason to believe he is part of a conspiracy, and then you should drag him to your basement and hammer splinters under his fingernails until he gives up his pals."

Yeah, I couldn't find that in my version of the Bible, either. The first part: yes. The basement and splinter thing: no.

Yet the same voices that cry most stridently that America is a Christian nation also turns a blind eye to the abuse of force and authority that yields torture at its lower levels.

When the International Red Cross examined the pens used to hold prisoners at Gitmo, they found "conditions tantamount to torture". The Bush Administration merely defends itself by deflecting such criticism as being from people that aren't sympathetic to our goals or who don't understand what we are trying to do. In their hubris and arrogance, they mistake concern and principle for naivity.

When the photos taken at Abu Ghraid became known to the public, the Bush Administration reacted by promoting the person responsible for the authorization and defense of such acts.

But we don't have to cross the ocean to find evidence of abuse and torture.

The Coalition Against Torture and Racial Discrimination found plenty of evidence of the complicity of the United States in torture right here in our own country.


Physical and Sexual Abuse of Women in Prisons

Gender based physical and sexual abuse is too common an occurrence in prisons in the U.S. Recent on-site evaluations of conditions in women's prisons have found extensive gender-based mistreatment, physical abuse and outright sexual assault. A pattern and practice has been found to exist, throughout the prison system, but especially at state institutions, of male prison personnel engaging in rape, sexual assault, sexual taunting, and unwarranted visual surveillance of female prisoners in showers and bathrooms. Similar types of abuses against women have been attributed to law enforcement personnel policing the border between the U.S. and Mexico to prevent unlawful immigration. To make matters worse, most states are failing to address custodial sexual misconduct because they do not have adequate policies and criminal sanctions in place (or refuse to apply them), and do not provide proper training for custodial personnel. The strong tendency is to punish the prisoners who have been abused, rather than their abusers. In the report they submitted in 1995 to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the U.S. Government, in the judgment of Human Rights Watch, "vastly underestimated the problem of sexual abuse in women's prisons in the U.S., and greatly overstated the degree to which it is being remedied."


It isn't just a case of a "few bad apples" but rather a culture (or sub-culture) that views the abusive use of power as an inherent right. Typically, the blame is placed on the victims - "If they don't like it, they shouldn't be there." That is simply an attitude of an abuser looking for a safe victim and a good opportunity.

I'm not a person that has a weepy view of the poor oppressed criminal. I believe that incarceration is, in most cases, deserved. However, the incarceration itself is the price paid for the crime - not the excessive degradation of individual worth. Such actions only increase the likelihood of negative behaviors when the person is released. You simply cannot make someone behave better by making them feel worse about their self.

Beyond that, it is simply wrong to do so. We all understand that it is wrong to assault, taunt, or leer at women outside of prison walls, so why do we tolerate it inside?

Honestly, the only answer (other than blaming the victim) is that it happens outside of our range of awareness. We build prisons, in part, so that we don't have to see what goes on inside. We are uncomfortable with the reality that we find when we do. However, it is too easy to forget that uncomfortableness and simply go about our business. Even for those of us who don't blame the victim, we are too easily convinced to become silent accomplices of acquiescence.

Even at our borders, we turn a blind eye to the reality faced by many people seeking our succor. The report continues to list other problems:


Return of Refugees to Situations of Torture and Persecution, and Their Long-Term Detention Under Abusive Conditions

Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture establishes an unconditional right of an emigree who has experienced or faces torture to not be expelled (refouled) back to their country of origin where they are likely to face additional torture. Although the U.S. government makes frequent assurances that it recognizes and observes the right of victims of torture and persecution not to be refouled, in fact it has adopted many practices and policies that help to produce this unfortunate (and prohibited) result. This includes the practice of "interdicting" boat people at sea, and automatically returning them without analysis of potential refugee status. This approach recently was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court under the dubious principle of "extra-territoriality," which considers actions taken by the U.S. government outside the nation's territorial limits as not subject to the jurisdiction of U.S. law and international human rights treaty obligations.

Increasing instances of refoulement of refugees and torture victims also are taking place as a result of the newly enacted Illegal Immigration Reform Act of 1996, which calls for "expedited return" of those seeking entry without proper papers, and significantly reduces opportunities for legitimate refugees to make effective asylum claims. Unless individuals are quickly identified as likely victims of torture or persecution during a very brief interview with an immigration officer immediately after their arrival, they are automatically returned to their countries of origin. Victims of persecution, especially torture and rape, often need time and medical or psychological treatment before they can tell their stories. These are not provided in expedited processing, nor is the opportunity to obtain legal or other representation that would help victims deal with the asylum process.


There is also a desire to hide the US complicity in foreign torture:


Failure to Extradite or Prosecute Torturers

Under international treaties all governments are equally responsible for the effective criminal prosecution of violators of the most significant international standards of conduct, such as war crimes, terrorism or torture. This principle of "universal enforcement" means that a government finding this type of offender within its borders must either extradite them for prosecution by the country where the offense occurred, or initiate prosecution themselves. The U.S. government has strongly supported this approach, as is the case, for example, with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, the truck bombing of the U.S. barracks in Dharhran, Saudi Arabia, and other similar terrorist and war crime activities. However, the U.S. government recently declined to extradite or prosecute Emmanuel Constant, an alleged Haitian torturer, purportedly to keep from focusing public attention on the fact that Mr. Constant may have been receiving payments from the Central Intelligence Agency during the time when he was engaged in torture related activity. Instead, the government entered into an agreement with Mr. Constant to find him a safe haven in neutral territory, over the strenuous objections of the Haitian government.


Sadly, profits of international arms companies are also a component:


Arms Sales and Other Assistance by the U.S. Government that Support Torture in Foreign Countries

While CAT does not specifically address the problem of governments providing arms or other assistance that is used to promote torture in other countries, it is reasonable to interpret the prohibition against torture as preventing these forms of "indirect" support for acts of torture committed abroad. Two forms of assistance along these lines by the U.S. government have recently begun to receive public attention and condemnation. First, the government transferred or authorized the sale of military equipment to several governments that have used these armaments in acts of torture. Human Rights Watch has documented that U.S. weaponry sent to Turkey, notably small arms and helicopters, has played a major role in a wide range of abusive practices committed against the Kurdish minority civilian population. Along similar lines, Amnesty International in its April, 1998 review of human rights violations by the U.S., has reported several cases involving the transfer of electronic stun equipment to governments likely to use them to engage in human rights violations, such as the shipment of 10,000 shock batons to Turkey. Similar problems have been raised in connection with proposed arms shipments to Peru and Indonesia.


There is simply no way a practicing Christian can embrace torture as having any Biblical blessing. In a country where the majority profess to be Christians, it is shameful and sinful that our government participates in torture in our collective name.

This is one issue that should reach beyond partisan and denominational divides. We should truly have a rainbow coalition dedicated to the abolition of such atrocities. We should not tolerate the defense of such practices in the least.

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