No Statute of Limitations on Torture

UN Official: Prosecute “Systematic Crimes and Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law”

By Jim White, emptywheel

Published December 10, 2014

Ben Emmerson is the UN’s Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights. His statement released yesterday in response to the SSCI torture report points out the clear responsibilities that the US has under the Convention Against Torture and other international human rights laws to prosecute not only those who carried out torture, but those who designed the torture program and gave orders for its implementation.

So we know that crimes have been committed. Further, the committee also knows who is responsible for those crimes. What to do about it?

Emmerson doesn’t say that those responsible for the crimes should be brought to justice. He says outright that they MUST be brought to justice. Emmerson further points out that being authorized at a high level in the government gives no protection. Further, he notes a “conspiracy” to carry out the crimes.

Obama, Holder and Durham simply cannot grant immunity for these crimes. International law forbids it. More specifically, the Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, prohibits it. Similarly, the Convention on Enforced Disappearances also comes into play in the crimes committed by the US and also prevents the granting of immunity that Obama has tried to orchestrate.

Emmerson specifically calls out those who planned and authorized the torture as deserving the “heaviest penalties”.

And they need to be careful. Even though they are facing no punishment in the US for their crimes, these criminals can face prosecution should they travel abroad because torture is a crime subject to universal jurisdiction. Under universal jurisdiction, other countries would normally defer to the US for prosecution of crimes carried out by citizens of the US. However, once it is clear that no such prosecutions will take place, other countries are free to act.

Although I’d like to see them inside cells of much smaller dimensions, it appears that for now those who designed the CIA torture program and ordered its implementation are now imprisoned within the borders of the US because they are at risk of real prosecution while traveling outside the borders.

Overseas, Torture Report Prompts Calls for Prosecution


DEC. 9, 2014

“The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes,” Mr. Emmerson said in a statement posted on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the U.S. government provides no excuse whatsoever,” he said. “Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.”

Other international law experts and rights advocates who have long supported an accounting for the C.I.A.’s behavior concurred with that assessment.

Jordan J. Paust, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said the report “adds another layer of proof of serial international criminality that was manifestly authorized” during President George W. Bush’s two terms in office.

In a commentary on, Professor Paust said both the Convention Against Torture and the 1949 Geneva Conventions require the United States to prosecute or extradite any person “reasonably accused of having criminal responsibility” for the documented instances of torture.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on the organization’s website that the Senate report “should forever put to rest C.I.A. denials that it engaged in torture, which is criminal and can never be justified.”

He added, “Unless this important truth-telling process leads to prosecution of officials, torture will remain a ‘policy option’ for future presidents.”

“The Gestapo called it ‘Verscharfte Vernehmung,'” wrote one blogger, Ian Geldard. “Exactly the same term ‘enhanced interrogation’ used by the C.I.A.”

Did CIA interrogation methods break the law?

by Amel Ahmed, Al Jazeera

December 9, 2014 11:56AM ET

Despite Obama’s repeated assurances that CIA officials who applied harsh interrogation methods under the Bush administration will not be prosecuted, experts say U.S. law does not necessarily foreclose such claims.  

“We don’t have to go through international courts to obtain justice. Federal courts have U.S. jurisdiction over its own citizens, even if the conduct in question occurred abroad,” said Elizabeth Holtzman, a former congresswoman and a co-author of “Cheating Justice: How Bush and Cheney Attacked the Rule of Law, Plotted to Avoid Prosecution – and What We Can Do about It.”

The same criminal laws used to prosecute individuals on U.S. soil for committing offenses such as murder, assault, and battery can be applied to torture cases that occurred overseas, say experts.

Such criminal offenses are outlined in Title 18 of the U.S. Code, the criminal code for federal crimes.

Defenders of the program and the memos that authorized them argue that U.S. criminal laws do not apply outside of U.S. territory – and the CIA interrogations in question occurred at secret black sites overseas. But the 4th Circuit Court in 2006 rejected the extraterritoriality argument in United States v. Pessaro, the first and only case in which a person connected with the CIA was convicted in connection to the “war on terrorism” that began after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his defense, Pessaro relied on some of the authorizations in the torture memos, which included the argument that U.S. nationals can’t be tried for conduct committed on foreign soil. But the court found that two laws expanded the territorial jurisdiction of U.S. federal courts, thus allowing for criminal prosecution of torture acts committed abroad.

The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 (MEJA) asserts federal district court jurisdiction over civilians accompanying the armed forces overseas, including military contractors. MEJA’S broad territorial definition was made possible through a 2001 amendment to the Patriot Act.

Title 18 of the Patriot Act expanded the court’s territorial jurisdiction to cover certain U.S. government installations located abroad. It also removed the statute of limitations on prosecution for any terrorist offense that led to the death or serious bodily injury of any person.

“Despite what Obama and Bush have said, the fact is that anyone who created a risk of death or serious bodily injury can face potential prosecution for the rest of their lives,” Holtzman said.

This jurisdictional amendment was tested for the first time in Passaro. The 4th Circuit Court held that the premises of Asadabad, Afghanistan, where the offense occurred, constituted a U.S. military mission, rendering it within the criminal jurisdiction of a district court.

The 2009 Federal anti-torture statute offers further pathways for legal action in response to harsh interrogation methods used by the CIA, in part because it permits claims for mental suffering inflicted on detainees.

The law was enacted as part of U.S. efforts to comply with the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The CAT, ratified by the U.S. in 1994, mandates all parties to the treaty to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial, or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.”

The statute can be applied to anyone, U.S. citizen or otherwise, who commits an act of torture outside the U.S, said Holtzman. And its definition of torture includes any act committed by a person acting under the color of law that is intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain upon another person within his custody.

This includes threats of imminent death and the intentional or threatened infliction of severe physical pain, according to Holtzman.

Violation of the anti-torture statute is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, or execution, if the torture resulted in a victim’s death. And as a result of Title 18 of the Patriot Act, there is no statute of limitations for any act that resulted in the death or serious bodily injury of any person.

The War Crimes Act (WCA) is a federal statute that makes it a felony for any U.S. national to violate the Geneva Convention by engaging in murder, torture, or inhuman treatment, according to Holtzman.

The statute applies to those who carried out, authorized or who were aware of but failed to stop such acts, Holtzman said.

Under a theory of law known as universal jurisdication, if a country is unwilling or unable to prosecute certain egregious offenses such as torture, war crimes, or genocide, then foreign jurisdictions may step in and prosecute those cases, according to Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The principle of universal jurisdiction has been used to pursue war crimes allegations against senior Bush administration officials in a number of European countries, Dixon said.

In one of the more prominent cases invoking universal jurisdiction, Italy in 2009 convicted 26 CIA agents in absentia for their role in the 2003 abduction in Milan of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar. The case marked the first court decision ever to challenge the U.S. practice of “extraordinary rendition,” under which suspects were abducted and sent to countries whose security services were less restrained in their use of techniques amounting to torture.

The Italian court’s ruling means those 26 CIA operatives remain subject to arrest should they travel to Europe, Dixon said.

The principle of universal jurisdiction forms the basis of two international legal frameworks that provide for the prosecution of individuals accused of authorizing or committing acts of torture.

The Geneva Conventions, enacted shortly after World War II and ratified by nearly every country in the world, are a set of legal protections that safeguard civilians, soldiers, and prisoners during wartime.

The provision known as Common Article 3 prohibits torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners of war (POWS). In addition, article 17 bars physical or mental torture that is inflicted to secure information or a confession from prisoners. Countries that violate the Geneva Conventions can be prosecuted for war crimes, according to Pitter.

The U.N. Convention Against Torture is an international human rights treaty meant to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman degrading treatment. The treaty, which the U.S. helped to draft, requires countries to pass legislation to prevent torture within their borders, said Pitter. It also prohibits countries from transporting people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured.

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