Wednesday, April 29, 2009


By William Fisher

A coalition of 19 human rights, faith-based, and justice organizations is calling on President Barack Obama to investigate torture they charge was sanctioned by the administration of former President George W. Bush.

The group, led by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), is proposing both a special prosecutor and an “independent, non-partisan commission to examine and report publicly on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in the period since September 11, 2001.”

The campaign’s call for accountability comes just days after the release of the Senate Armed Services Committee report on interrogation and torture and the Justice Department legal memos sanctioning torture and inhumane treatment.

Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, told us, “NRCAT supports both the establishment of an independent, non-partisan Commission of Inquiry to investigate the use of torture and a Department of Justice investigation for criminal culpability of those who authorized or carried out acts of torture. Each process is important and can be pursued independently.”

He added, “A Commission will help us understand how the illegal interrogation policies came into effect and how they were implemented so that we can ensure that safeguards are in place to prevent future administrations from following the same path. A criminal investigation will send the clear message that government officials cannot violate laws against torture without facing serious criminal sanctions. If we hope to end the practice of torture by agents of the United States once and for all, we must pursue both avenues.”

The coalition proposes a commission, “comparable in stature to the 9/11 Commission,” to “look into the facts and circumstances of such abuses, report on lessons learned and recommend measures that would prevent any future abuses.”

The group’s online petition says that a commission is “necessary to reaffirm America’s commitment to the Constitution, international treaty obligations and human rights. The report issued by the commission will strengthen U.S. national security and help to re-establish America’s standing in the world.”

Organizations endorsing the effort include Amnesty International USA, the Constitution Project, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Institute, and Physicians for Human Rights.

NRCAT and its partner organizations say they have “worked together to end U.S.-sponsored torture. During 2008, the religious community advocated for a Presidential Executive Order ending torture. It happened. On January 22, President Obama issued an Executive Order halting torture.”

The coalition says the task now is “to make sure that U.S.-sponsored torture never happens again. To accomplish this goal, our nation needs to put safeguards in place to prevent its recurrence. We will better understand what safeguards are needed if we have a comprehensive understanding of what happened – who was tortured, why they were tortured, and who ordered the torture. As a nation we need the answers to those questions.”

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder the coalition also urges the
appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate criminal acts relating to the confinement and interrogation of detainees since Sept. 11, 2001.

The letter notes that excerpts of a recently released report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concluded that detainees “had been subjected to torture – a crime under both domestic and international law.”

It says, “The ICRC report, which describes conduct of shocking brutality, shows that a limited investigation is simply insufficient in this case. Government officials, from the lowest CIA officer, to the highest levels of the Executive Branch may be criminally culpable for the use of torture. Because such an investigation will include a review of the conduct of very top officials of the previous administration, and because the appearance of absolute impartiality in determining whether and whom to prosecute is critical to the public's support and understanding of such prosecutions and the laws at issue, we believe it is both wise and necessary for you to refer this investigation to a Special Counsel.”

NRCAT twice asked former Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint a Special Counsel to investigate both the destruction of the CIA videotapes that documented the use of “harsh” interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists and whether such techniques violated U.S. and international law.

“While an investigation was initiated into the destruction of the tapes, the investigator, John Durham, was not given the independent status of Special Counsel. Further, Attorney Durham’s investigation was limited to the destruction of the tapes; he apparently does not have the authority to investigate the lawfulness of the interrogation conduct depicted on said tapes,” the group said.

“A full, independent and public investigation into possible violations of U.S. law by high-ranking government officials in the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ is necessary.”

“The American people need to know how detainees have been treated in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and elsewhere around the world. And they need to know that every measure has been taken to ensure that no violations of U.S. law with respect to torture and ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’ will be permitted in the future. An independent investigation is a necessary part of achieving this goal,” the group said.