January 10 statement on torture to Hennepin County Board of Commissioners

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Mr. Chair, Commissioners. My name is Chuck Turchick and I live in Minneapolis. You have my sympathy. I have gotten a hold of your leg on the issue of accountability for U.S.-committed torture, and when that happens, I tend not to let go. I know Chair Opat feels this issue has no “place in the county dialogue.” But yesterday I heard a talk by Dr. Steven Miles of the University of Minnesota Medical School and its Center for Bioethics. He referred to a study that showed no correlation between countries that have adopted the Geneva Conventions and those that engage in torture. But that same study did show there was an inverse correlation between countries where civil society discussed the issue of torture and countries that engaged in its practice. So maybe there is some value in discussing it here.

Today is smack dab in the middle of three important anniversaries. Tomorrow, January 11, is the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, which has become a world-wide symbol of a dip in our human rights standards. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that when our standards dipped, there was a “tsunami of bad practice” around the world. She said that after 9/11 when she would talk to governments about their human rights abuses, she often heard things like, “The standards have changed.” She said she responded, “No they haven’t; the standards are the same.” And then she would hear, “The standards have changed. Look at the United States. Look at Guantanamo.”

Yesterday, January 9, was the 10th anniversary of a crucial memo written by two attorneys in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, John Yoo and Robert Delahunty, a law professor at St. Thomas Law School right here in downtown Minneapolis. They advised the President that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq at the time of the Abu Ghraib incidents, has said that President Bush’s decision based on that memo was what “unleashed the hounds of Hell.” This was the first time in our history we had an official policy that the Geneva Conventions did not apply, and it also was the first time any nation that had passed the Geneva Conventions declared they were not applicable in an armed conflict.

Yesterday was also the third anniversary of the sentencing of Chuckie Taylor, convicted of eight counts, six of them violations of the Federal Torture Statute. He was tried in Federal District Court in Miami although his crimes occurred in Liberia, his victims were virtually all in Liberia, and his crimes were done in the name of and on behalf of the government of Liberia. We used the extra-territorial jurisdiction of the Federal Torture Statute, much like the Universal Jurisdiction efforts that I told you about last month. Interestingly, Mr. Taylor’s torture was committed as head of Liberia’s Anti-Terrorist Unit. Torture committed in the name of anti-terrorism — much like U.S.-committed torture. But regrettably, no one has ever been charged under the Federal Torture Act for torture committed on behalf of the United States.

That’s where you have a role to play. Within the month, I will be submitting to you two resolutions for your consideration — one urging the federal government to enforce federal laws prohibiting torture, and the other authorizing the Hennepin County Attorney to assert Universal Jurisdiction to prosecute those individuals present in this county who have committed torture, wherever it may have taken place. Maybe that will require a state statute, but this discussion needs to begin seriously at some governmental level somewhere. 

Thank you for listening.

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