Thursday, June 21, 2007

Volunteers Needed to Interrogate Presidential Candidates about Torture

Volunteers Needed to Interrogate Presidential Candidates about Torture

An anti-torture coalition is urging activists and elected officials to help in its effort to put torture and extraordinary rendition on the presidential caucus agenda.

Randi Aho, a fellow with the Center for Victims of Torture and also with the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, met with a dozen Johnson County elected officials and community leaders Wednesday. Aho is seeking volunteers to question presidential candidates at events about their stances on torture. “We want it to be something people are concerned about.”

The Midwest Coalition for Human Rights was founded in 1995 and has about 40 member centers in eight states. The Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture, founded in 1985, is the first such center in the United States and only the third in the world. The group has healing facilities for victims in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire), and Jordan. The center is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization. “The aim of this project requires us to be nonpartisan," said Aho, adding that most of their contact thus far has been with Democrats, but they are still hoping to work with Republicans.

Aho will be based out of Iowa City for the next two months. Torture does not work, she said, because “victims will say whatever they have to, to make the pain stop. Additionally, it opens up our own soldiers for torture.”

One of the roadblocks to getting candidates to take strong stands against torture is that “this issue always gets framed in the context of the war," she said. "We want to address it as a broader issue.”

Aho noted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's citation this week of the TV show "24. Arguing that interrogators "require latitude in times of great crisis," Scalia said of the show's lead character, "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives." But in real life, Aho said, “The ticking bomb scenario has never happened -- and yet torture continues.”

While the group has yet to talk to many candidates, Aho said John Edwards had a good answer recently, pledging to close Guantanamo Bay and "end torture." However, she said "end torture" was ambiguous. "We have quotes of people saying, `I’m against torture,’ but we want to nail them down very specifically. One of our biggest challenges is spin.” Aho said the sometimes evasive definitions were why the center asks about “torture and other abusive treatment.”

Aho cited several key laws permitting and restricting torture. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 denies detainees their right to habeas corpus, while preventing them from invoking their rights under the Geneva Conventions. Candidate John McCain's amendment to the 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill prohibits torture and other abusive treatment by the Defense Department. The Detainee Treatment Act prevents State Department entities from performing interrogation techniques that are not listed in the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation. However, these restrictions do not apply to the Central Intelligence Agency.

That issue is one of the first questions the center wants to pose to candidates -- do they support extending the Geneva Conventions to the CIA? “In theory there’s nothing the Geneva Convention doesn’t cover,” said Aho, except it does not address habeas corpus. “What we’re really looking for is one standard that outlaws torture and other abusive treatment.”

Aho cited the Restore the Constitution Act, proposed by candidate Chris Dodd,as a positive bill that makes important changes to the Military Commissions Act. It restores habeas corpus, makes coerced confessions inadmissible and extends the Geneva Conventions to the CIA. However, it does not support one standard on torture. Another bill, proposed by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., aims to end the practice of extraordinary renditions, the extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another country known to use torture.

"There used to be a time where torture was never an option. We want to bring us back to a place where that’s the case," said Aho. "That allows us to be a moral authority. Our practices have allowed other countries to justify torture. Regardless of whether candidates will abide by what they say, we need them to say it.”

Johnson County Recorder Kim Painter agreed. "Window dressing has some importance, and we’ve lost the ability to even say we’re against torture." Citing Bush administration policies terming injuries like organ failure "acceptable," Painter asked, “What are these candidates going to be telling their attorneys general?"

“The danger is we’ll get a Democrat in who’ll just continue it, and we need to get them on record that they won’t," said University of Iowa history professor Jeff Cox. "We need to stop being so deferential to the rock stars.”

Aho said training sessions for volunteers are tentatively planned for Iowa City, Ames and Des Moines in early August. For more information visit or contact Aho at (651) 301-1688.

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