Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Paved With Bad Intentions

In one of his least honest moments (and there are many to select from), President Bush said in an interview with the New York Times last year that:

...torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.

On the contrary President Bush, through the practice of extraordinary rendition, the US government has been handing people over to regimes notorious for torturing detainees in places like Egypt, Jordan and even our putative "enemy" Syria.

While some government officials reach for the cover of a fig leaf by claiming that we require the these torture-friendly regimes to give us perfunctory assurances that such rendered detainees will not be tortured, it is precisely because these regimes employ such brutal interrogation methods that makes the practice of extraordinary rendition attractive: we can pass off a suspect for rough treatment during interrogation that, at least thus far, has been considered illegal and improper when occurring in US facilities. This tactic was first employed under the Clinton administration and was ramped up considerably during the Bush years - neither deserves a pass.

One of the most famous cases of extraordinary rendition is that of Maher Arar, whose ordeal I wrote about in a two-part series early last year. This is a part of Arar's story that I recounted in those posts, relying heavily on the revelations in Jane Mayer's superb New Yorker article:

Which brings us to the case of Maher Arar, a 34 year old Canadian citizen whose family had emigrated to Canada from Syria when he was a teenager. Arar's story began in late 2003 when he was returning from a vacation in Tunisia with his family. While changing planes in New York, he was apprehended by American officials, and although he was never charged with a crime, he "was placed in handcuffs and leg irons by plainclothes officials and transferred to an executive jet. The plane flew to Washington, continued to Portland, Maine, stopped in Rome, Italy, then landed in Amman, Jordan" and later he was driven to Syria.

What was his crime? "Arar was detained because his name had been placed on the United States Watch List of terrorist suspects." And what had Arar done to land on the Watch List? The brother of one of his co-workers was a suspected terrorist. Far from the previous standard of a foreign arrest warrant and a CIA dossier, this case appears to set a dangerous precedent for what type of tenuous connection can land a foreign citizen in a torturers den via US escort. I repeat: his co-worker's brother was a suspect.

Ten hours after landing in Jordan, Arar said, he was driven to Syria, where interrogators, after a day of threats, "just began beating on me." They whipped his hands repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and kept him in a windowless underground cell that he likened to a grave. "Not even animals could withstand it," he said. Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say. "You just give up," he said. "You become like an animal"....When Arar described his experience in a phone interview recently, he invoked an Arabic expression. The pain was so unbearable, he said, that "you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother."

Today, Maher Arar is back in the news, and the timing is oddly synergistic considering the fact that the US is on the verge of creating a legal regime that would condone the use of torture for a whole subset of detainees, while stripping those same detainees of the right to protest their detention and demand some form of adjudication of their guilt or innocence.

Canadian intelligence officials passed false warnings and bad information to American agents about a Muslim Canadian citizen, [Maher Arar], after which U.S. authorities secretly whisked him to Syria, where he was tortured, a judicial report found Monday.

The report, released in Ottawa, was the result of a 2 1/2-year inquiry that represented one of the first public investigations into mistakes made as part of the United States' "extraordinary rendition" program, which has secretly spirited suspects to foreign countries for interrogation by often brutal methods. [...]

[The head of the inquiry commission, Ontario Justice Dennis] O'Connor concluded that "categorically there is no evidence" that Arar did anything wrong or was a security threat.

Although the report centered on Canadian actions, the counsel for the commission, Paul Cavalluzzo, said the results show that the U.S. practice of renditions "ought to be reviewed."

"This is really the first report in the Western world that has had access to all of the government documents we wanted and saw the practice of extraordinary rendition in full color," he said in an interview from Ottawa. "The ramifications were that an innocent Canadian was tortured, his life was put upside down, and it set him back years and years."

There is a very good reason why our criminal justice system is set up so that there is an impartial trier of facts tasked with determining the guilt or innocence of a given suspect prior to the dispensation of punishment. When you rely only on the word of the prosecuting body, or law enforcement agency, you establish a system that invites error, corruption and grave injustice.

The objectivity of the accusers, and the professionals tasked with prosecution and law enforcement, is often clouded by their worthy mission. I don't say this to denigrate those on the prosecutorial/law enforcement side of the equation, it is the same for the defense bar and those tasked with protecting the rights of the accused. But I would be equally, if not more uncomfortable, with a system of justice that allowed defense attorneys and rights activists to play judge, jury and exonerator.

And when the stakes are as high as prolonged depravation of freedom, torture, lifetime imprisonment and even the death penalty, the safeguards provided by an impartial judicial body that weighs the evidence presented by both sides, are absolutely necessary.

Even with a well-functioning legal system allowing for adversarial contests and impartial judges, a certain number of innocents inevitably get wrongly convicted and subsequently punished. But reducing the legal system to the whim of the executive is the type of kangaroo regime that we, quite rightly, condemn with vigor when put into use in despotic and dictatorial states, be they fascist, communist, theocratic or other. Such a perverse process defines injustice.

The fact that I am forced to write these words to my fellow American citizens in order to remind them of such basic truths - the principles that form the very bedrock of our society - is both confounding and deeply troublesome. The fact that such admonitions are falling on deaf, disinterested and cynical ears is infinitely worse. That our political representatives are the perpetrators of this ignominy is, in my opinion, a near-criminal violation of the oaths they took to defend the Constitution.

This is not the America that I know. This is not the America that I studied about in law school, and in history classes, with enormous pride. But it is the twisted image of America that President Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and the rest of the Republican Party - together with whatever Lieberman Democrats they enlist as accomplices - would like to create.

Please reconsider the path they are blazing. It does not end well.

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