Monday, March 26, 2012

Is This the Accountability We Were Promised?

By William Fisher

It would be a slam dunk.

If there were a Nobel Prize for Tenacity, I would nominate half a dozen organizations that, in the face of years of lost court cases and rapidly graying hair, continue to seek justice for some of the most egregious victims of the Bush/Obama “war on terror.”

These legal bulldogs keep getting their lawsuits bounced out of one federal court after another – and keep coming back for more. They have names like the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty USA, and literally hundreds of others.

Consider this: The despicable practice of “extraordinary rendition” began in the Clinton Administration, expanded during the eight years of George W. Bush, and remains alive and well under President Obama.

At its most fundamental level, extraordinary rendition means the CIA kidnaps people it believes are terrorism suspects and ships them off, drugged and blindfolded, to the CIA’S own secret prisons or those operated by allied countries who have long and well-documented histories of systematically torturing prisoners.

For years, small groups of people who have survived the waterboarding and the electric shocks and the sleep deprivation have, with the help of human rights organizations, filed lawsuits against the US government, seeking to hold top American policy-makers accountable for their years of pain.

And each time the survivors bring such an action, the courthouse doors are slammed in their faces. Typically, the government invokes what is known as the “State Secrets Privilege.” This once-little-used legal quirk holds that disclosure of any of the secret evidence would compromise national security.

Some lawmakers have been discussing in committees revisions to this statute since the beginning of the Obama Administration, but no one has taken any action despositive whatever.

Consequently, not a single victim of the “war on terror” has had the opportunity to tell his story in a court of law and not a single senior US official has been held accountable.

Who are these victims who keep banging on the courthouse doors?

Here are three of the most prominent:

Jeppesen DataPlan is a subsidiary of The Boeing Company, and specializes in flight planning and logistical support services for aircraft and crews, including those used by the CIA to transport victims to U.S.-run prisons or foreign intelligence agencies overseas, where they were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques and torture.

In the Jeppesen case, five British residents – all of whom were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay – sued Jeppesen for assisting the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with logistics for the flights to Afghanistan and CIA secrets prisons where they were held incommunicado and tortured. The men claim they were victims of the U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program – and that Jeppesen was complicit in the process.

The judge rejected the ACLU’s claim that “abundant evidence” was already in the public domain, including a sworn affidavit by a former Jeppesen employee and flight records confirming Jeppesen’s involvement.

The ACLU appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.

He says he was then put in a diaper, a belt with chains to his wrists and ankles, earmuffs, eye pads, a blindfold and a hood. He was put into a plane, his legs and arms spread-eagled and secured to the floor. He was drugged and flown to Afghanistan, where he was held in solitary confinement for five months before being dropped off in a remote rural section of Albania.

He claims it was a CIA-leased aircraft that flew him to Afghanistan, and CIA agents who were responsible for his rendition to Afghanistan, where he. was beaten, drugged, and subjected to various other inhumane activity while in captivity.

After several months of confinement in squalid conditions, he was abandoned on a hill in Albania with no explanation. He was never charged with a crime.

El-Masri, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sought an apology from then-Director of the CIA, George Tenet, and an apology and money damages from the CIA.

The lawsuit charges former CIA director George Tenet, other CIA officials and four U.S.-based aviation corporations with violations of US and universal human rights laws. It claims El-Masri was "victimized by the CIA's policy of 'extraordinary rendition'."

Maher Arar: A Canadian citizen born in Syria, Arar was passing through Kennedy International Airport in New York on his way home in 2002 when he was detained by Customs officials. He was suspected of being a terrorist.

Subsequently he was flown against his will, first, to Jordan, then to Syria, where he was jailed by Syrian intelligence. In the year following, he was tortured, forced to falsely confess to attending an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and then released after a year without ever being charged with anything.

With the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights and renowned Constitutional lawyer David Cole, Arar sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and then Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, as well as numerous US immigration officials, challenging the rendition of a Canadian citizen to Syria, by the US government.

The suit charged the plaintiffs with violating Mr. Arar’s constitutional right to due process, his right to choose a country of removal other than one in which he would be tortured, as guaranteed under the Torture Victims Protection Act, and his rights under international law.

The suit charged that Mr. Arar’s Fifth Amendment due process rights were violated when he was confined without access to an attorney or the court system, both domestically before being rendered, and while detained by the Syrian government, whose actions were complicit with the U.S.

Additionally, the Attorney General and INS officials who carried out his deportation also likely violated his right to due process by recklessly subjecting him to torture at the hands of a foreign government that they had every reason to believe would carry out abusive interrogation.

Further, Mr. Arar filed a claim under the Torture Victims Protection Act, adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1992, which allows a victim of torture by an individual of a foreign government to bring suit against that actor in U.S. Court.

Mr. Arar’s claim under the Act against Ashcroft and the INS directors is based upon their complicity in bringing about the torture he suffered.

The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. From there, it embarked on what is now a familiar journey – to nowhere. The Trial and Appeals Court dismissed the suit. Ultimately the Supreme Court denied Mr. Arar’s petition for certiorari to review the Second Circuit Court of Appeals' en banc decision dismissing his case, ending his case in U.S. courts.

But the Canadian Government took a very different approach. It convened a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the Arar incident. After a two-year probe, the Canadian government admitted it had made a serious mistake in the information it had supplied to the US on Arar. The head of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police was forced to resign, and Canada issues a formal apology to Arar and awarded him $10 million.

The US Government has steadfastly refused to even discuss the case, much less apologize. At a Congressional hearing soon after 9/11, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that the Arar case “wasn’t handled very well,” but came nowhere close to apologizing to anyone for anything.

Well, the human rights lawyers who bring these cases to court are, as one told me, “frustrated but ever-hopeful.”

It is that ever-hopeful quality that is now pressing ACLU lawyers to try yet another legal step. Denied their day in court by US Federal Judges, three Afghans and three Iraqis who say they were tortured while held by the American military at detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan have filed a petition against the US with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR).

The men were part of a group who in 2005 sued then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and three senior military officials in federal court for torture and abuse. That case was summarily dismissed on immunity grounds before reaching the merits.

The current petition is equivalent to an international legal complaint. It asks the commission, which is an independent human rights body of the Organization of American States, to conduct a full investigation into the human rights violations and seeks an apology on behalf of the six men from the US government.

The ACLU claims that between 2003 and 2004, the men were detained in U.S.-run detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment including severe and repeated beatings, cutting with knives, sexual humiliation and assault, mock executions and prolonged restraint in excruciating positions the petition charges. None of the men were ever charged with a crime.

“I think that I and the many others who suffered unfairly at the hands of the American government deserve justice,” said petitioner Ali Hussein, an Iraqi who was a 17-year-old high school student when he was detained and abused by American soldiers. “We want America to admit that what happened to us was wrong and should never be allowed to happen again to anyone anywhere.”

Hussein, who is now a law student, was shot in the neck and back before being arrested. He said that military personnel refused to provide him medical care for several hours, and when the bullets were eventually removed the procedure was done without anesthetic. He was then denied food, water and pain medication for almost two days after he was shot.

The petition states, “The US government’s own reports document that the torture and inhumane treatment that Petitioners were subjected to was not aberrational; on the contrary, it was widespread and systemic throughout the US-run detention facilities in the two countries. These same reports also document that the torture and inhumane treatment of detainees were the direct result of policies and practices promulgated and implemented at the highest levels of the US government.

The ACLU charged that “despite these reports and Petitioners’ and other detainees’ credible allegations of torture and inhumane treatment, the US government has failed to conduct any comprehensive criminal investigation, has not held accountable those responsible, and has not provided any form of redress to Petitioners and the many other victims and survivors of US torture and abuse.”

It added: “Since a remedy for these men has been denied in American courts, these six courageous men are seeking to hold the US government accountable on the world stage,” said Steven Watt, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program.

“No high-ranking government officials have yet been held to account for their actions, and this petition seeks to do just that and to ensure that the government respects basic human rights, including the right of everyone to be free from torture and inhumane treatment.”



The GOP’s Death Wish

By William Fisher

The Republican Party must have a death wish.

It cannot win a national election without the support of (a) Latinos (b) Women (c) African-Americans, and (d) Independents.

Yet The Grand Old Party appears to be doing everything in its power to alienate these voters forever.

A couple of weeks ago, when California Representative Darrell Issa convened an all-male panel on birth control, he contended that the issue was not women's health, but "religious freedom." So he refused to invite Sandra Fluke, a young law student to speak. .

Later, furious Democrats held their own hearing. As Diane Roberts recounts it in The Guardian, Fluke testified there that while Georgetown, the Roman Catholic-run university she attends, provides some health insurance, it does not include contraception – and the pill can cost $1,000 per year. Women take contraception for a variety of medical reasons, not only to prevent pregnancy, she said, recounting the story of a friend, a fellow student, who needed the pill to treat cysts. She couldn't afford it, got sick and had to have an ovary removed.

Fluke's reward for being candid? A profane and uninformed trashing by potty-mouth Rush Limbaugh, who called her a prostitute and a slut because she wanted to get paid (presumably insurance premiums) for having sex. He also demanded that she post videos of her sexual encounters on the Internet "so we could all see them.” Limbaugh lost a ton of sponsors, but conservative bloggers, radio interviewers and Fox News continued their attack on Fluke.

And the response of Republic Presidential candidates and their funders? Well, frontrunner Mitt Romney said meekly of Limbaugh's insults, "it's not the language I would have used." Newt Gingrich blamed "the media" for exploiting the story and said there were far more important issues – Barack Obama's "war on religion", for example. Santorem’s Daddy Warbucks reminisced on television that “back in the day” women used aspirin to keep from getting pregnant: "The gals put it between their knees. Santorem himself described contraception as "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said about a bill that would require ultrasounds for women seeking to have abortions, that those who didn't want to see the fetal images could "just ... close your eyes."

And in another big GOP idea that will further endear the front-runner to women and independents, Romney's is cheering up his Republican caucus in Congress by proposing to "get rid of" Planned Parenthood, which provides vital health services to women all over the country. Its abortion practice represents less than three per cent of its total care, and no federal tax dollars are involved in that part of the practice. For many women, Planned Parenthood is their sole health care provider. So its destruction would be exactly what you’d propose if your mission was to completely lose your last vestige of credibility with women voters.

And Newt Gingrich’s view that African American kids have no model of the value of work because of the physical and familial environments they grow up in. His solution: Hire the kids to work as janitors in the public schools. Predictably, this from the GOP’s self-appointed “man of big ideas,” will not win him any awards from the NAACP.

There is also ample evidence that the vibes emanating from the three Presidential wannabees is having negative consequences for many of those who are on the so-called “down ticket” – Republicans who are running for lesser offices ranging from US Senator to town manager.

Case in point: The Republican candidate running for former Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s (D-AZ) seat on Friday responded to Santorum’s opposition to women serving in combat by saying she wanted to “kick him in the jimmy.”

Now, as for the Latino vote, the Republican Party has done zilch, zero, nada, to even acknowledge their existence. Gingrich has called Spanish “the language of the ghettos.”

Santorem, campaigning in Puerto Rico, said there could be no Statehood without “fluent command of English.”

However, Gingrich apparently favors some version of the Dream Act, while Santorem and Romney have both taken a hard line on immigration reform, as if to seal their death pact with this constituency.

It would seem that the wingnuts of the GOP have gotten snookered, first, by believing their own far-right propaganda about Obama’s birthplace, birth certificate, and suchlike, and second, by the demographic changes that have been taking place over the last decade.

Despite their presence in 2008, it doesn’t seem that Republicans understand or accept the reality that they will soon be presenting their ideas to a nation in which their traditional majority has become a minority.

More important, as pointed out by Tom Curry, national affairs writer with MSNBC, “The potential clout of Latino voters has become as familiar a story line as the gender gap. But what might make 2012 different is the edge Latinos could give President Barack Obama and the Democrats in battleground states which aren’t thought of as immigration portals or left-leaning strongholds.”

Curry notes that the 2010 Census revealed that in the past decade the adult Latino population has nearly doubled in Nevada, Virginia, and North Carolina. “Also, it's increased by 60 percent or more in two Midwestern battleground states, Indiana and Ohio,” he says, adding:

“Obama won all five of those states in 2008 — two of them by very narrow margins — and they are likely to be decisive in next year’s balloting.”

“What the Census figures suggest is that the road to White House in 2012 may well go through the Hispanic community” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group that favors allowing illegal immigrants to work toward U.S. citizenship,” Curry says..

In Nevada, for example, Latinos were about 11 percent of registered voters in 2008, according to the Census’s Current Population Survey. About 90 percent of those registered actually voted, and according to exit polls, 76 percent of them cast ballots for Obama.

Likewise in Colorado, where Latinos comprised 9 percent of registered voters, with 87 percent of those individuals voting on Election Day. Obama won about three out of five Colorado Latino voters. .Nevada and Colorado were among the nine states that went for George W. Bush in 2004 but for Obama in 2008.

Based on 2008 exit poll data, Curry concludes, “if Latino voters were subtracted from the total, Obama would have lost two of the states that he won: New Mexico and Indiana. Even without those two states, he would still have won far more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, but those voters helped create a larger margin.”

No election is ever a slam-dunk. Voting day is months away, and – overnight – something could happen that could change the entire electoral calculus for November.

But even with that huge caveat, it’s difficult to see how the Republican Party – at least the one we used to know – which has so many really smart and well-informed members, could have ended up with three substandard candidates and a seemingly blissful ignorance of the societal factors that are likely to seal their fate.

Saudi Arabia Needs a Dose of Andy Borowitz

By William Fisher

Truth to tell, I thought I was reading another piece of wonderful political satire by Andy Borowitz, who is one of the few literate political comics capable of making me laugh these days.

But no, it wasn’t Andy. It was a gent named Bandar Al-Iban who was telling me that Saudi Arabia is “among the first countries to preserve and protect human rights derived from the provisions of Islamic teachings.” That seemed pretty funny too!

Because we know from multiple credible sources that Saudi Arabia is arguably the most conservative and repressive country in the Middle East.. The guys who run its jails are known to engage in prisoner torture systematically. Saudi has one of the region’s most sophisticated system for blocking Internet and social networking communications.

It’s illegal for more than a few people to meet together without a permit. There are no guarantees of freedom of religion. Women have virtually no rights at all. When they claim they’ve been raped and take their case to court, they are more often than not the party found guilty. In the villages of the country, if they are caught having an affair, they and their partner can be stoned to death. Women can’t be seen in public without a male relative present. They’re not even allowed to drive their own cars, having to use drivers instead.

Only recently, in a huge symbolic victory, women got authority to sell lingerie to other women, without men working in the shop. And when pro-democracy demonstrations began in neighboring Bahrain, Saudi troops trundled over the causeway connecting the two countries and took up positions with the government military. Saudi jails are full of bloggers and others who tried to express themselves publicly.

Case in point: Sa’ud Mukhtar Al-Hashimi, 47, was arrested in Saudi Arabia by Saudi secret forces and has been detained since 2 February 2007. He has been a prominent figure of the “reformers” movement, which has called for constitutional reform and democratic rights in the country. Over the past five years, he has been physically and psychologically tortured and was not brought before a judge until 2011. His detention has been deemed arbitrary and illegal by those advocating for his rights in Saudi as well as the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. He remains imprisoned until today.

Now Bandar Al-Iban knows all this, of course. And he must be a pretty smart operator because he graduated from no less a pillar of American higher education than Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Furthermore, he is Chairman of the government’s Human Rights Commission.

Still, what he is trying to sell us about Saudi human rights is unclear to me. He writes, “Human rights is a necessary need and strategic choice for all countries and people.” But we know that The Arab Spring was simply not allowed to happen in Saudi, where the government used a carrot-and-stick approach to making sure it didn’t happen. First, the government offered substantial sums of cash to ordinary citizens, to placate any discontent they might harbor. Then the government launched a large investment initiative in job-training for those citizens.

While this cotton-candy bribery is going on, the government is making it crystal clear that it takes a dim view of any Saudis of who have the temerity to organize pro-democracy demonstrations. At one point, a Day of Action was scheduled, similar to those that have taken place in venues like Tahrir square. But the government’s message was apparently intimidating enough that only one person showed up. Meanwhile, Saudis who are speaking out, or writing articles and blogs, are being jailed.

Still, Mr. Al-Iban insists: “The Kingdom used to reinforce the principles of justice, equality and inculcate them in all members of society to ensure all rights and legitimate freedoms. It has paid attention to achieving comprehensive and sustainable development in order to raise the standard of living and ensure the prosperity and stability for citizens and residents and promote and preserve their rights. The Kingdom has boosted its protection capabilities by enacting legislation and issuing regulations to protect human rights and exercise justice and monitor any abuse and violations.”

He adds: “The establishment of the Human Rights Commission confirms the leadership intention to safeguard the citizen’s welfare and rights” by, for example, continuing to support the judiciary with additional funding, enacting new legislation and amending the existing laws to strengthen the concept of human rights.

Mr. Al-Iban points to Article 26 of the Basic System of Government, which says: “The country shall protect human rights according to Islamic law.” The problem here is that in countries governed by Islamic (Sharia) law, this law becomes the country’s highest form of jurisprudence, thus relegating to a back seat all the United Nations and other treaties and agreements in human rights, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.

It should also be noted that the pace of completion and implementation of is has glacial. The Arab League began discussing an “Arab Charter of Human Rights” in 1960. A first version was approved in 1994 and a final version was not adopted until 2004.

Dr. Ibrahim Shiddi, a Member of the Human Rights Commission and president of the Permanent Arab Commission for Human Rights, said discussions on human rights have increased in the present and there has been a radical shift from a focus on domestic legislation to international agreements regulating human rights.

“Do not be surprised by the attention given to human rights in the Arab world. It seems this interest is evident by the increase by Arab countries participating in human rights discussions in the international arena as well as the ratification of agreements and treaties on human rights issued by the United Nations or issued by the regional organizations, such as the Islamic Conference Organization which issued the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and the Arab League which issued the Arab Charter of Human Rights.”

Well, we in fact have heard precious little free discussion of human rights by governments anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa. We have seen symposia and round-tables to discuss the subject. And we have heard a few high-flying declarations of reforms that rarely seem to materialize, followed by more people being arrested and jailed.

The grim truth is that countries like Saudi Arabia are terrified of what they believe will follow any loosening of the chains of silence every Saudi citizen carries around his neck – an Arab Spring for Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have been telling the world for decades that the country is instituting many reforms, but that they need to go slowly because of internal political pressures. But it’s not clear whether these pressures are actually nurtured by the government to maintain the status quo.

Whatever, this turns out to be a very un-funny story. Apologies to Andy Borowitz!