But we must not be bystanders.
Six years have passed since the release of the gruesome photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, and it is well past the deadline President Obama set for closing the prison camps at Guantanamo. Yet this Administration has steadfastly refused to seek accountability for U.S.-sponsored torture--the murderous extent of which is still being revealed--and invokes the "state secrets" privilege to obstruct prosecution when torture victims, some released without charge, seek legal redress.
These issues are never easy to confront. They require us to break through our denial, take in the horror, and hold it in awareness while we organize for action.
In a 2006 report, The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) accused the United States of operating a "clandestine "spiderweb' of disappearances, secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers, often encompassing countries notorious for their use of torture. Hundreds of persons have become entrapped in this web--some merely suspected of sympathizing with a presumed terrorist organization."
In North Carolina, a tenacious grassroots coalition of peace and human rights activists, religious groups, and courageous locals has organized as NC Stop Torture Now (NC-STN). According to the group, "Officials of the Bush Administration used North Carolina as a key part of their secret off-shore torture program." The "torture taxi" planes were based in Johnston and Lenoir counties. Their pilots and crews work for Aero Contractors, a CIA linked company headquartered at the Johnston County airport in Smithfield, a town of less than 12,000 persons situated in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina about 30 miles east of Raleigh.
NC Stop Torture Now has been campaigning since 2005 at local, state, and federal levels for an end to the practice of extraordinary rendition to torture and for an investigation of Aero Contractors. They act boldly and deftly to educate the public and state officials. They seek acknowledgment and accountability for the crimes, apology and restitution for torture survivors, and assurance that state and national resources will never again be used to secretly disappear people and torture them, whether they are guilty of crimes or not.
The U.N. Convention against Torture, ratified by the U.S.in 1994, requires in Article III: "No state shall expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture." Failure to prosecute violations is considered a breach of international law. North Carolina law requires anyone in charge of a state agency, such as the Global TransPark where Aero maintained a hangar in Kinston, to report possible criminal violations to the State Bureau of Investigation.
NC-STN was pivotal in organizing a public conference, "Weaving a Net of Accountability: Taking on Extraordinary Rendition at the State and Regional Level," held April 8-9 at Duke University. Speakers came from Ireland, London, New York, Washington, Boston, and from throughout North Carolina.
"It is clear that our public taxpayer-funded airports are systematically being used by the CIA for purposes that may in fact still include extraordinary rendition," said Christina Cowger, a conference organizer and facilitator with NC-STN. Aero Contractors was founded in 1979 in the wake of the dismantling of Air America, the CIA airline that participated heavily in the Indo-China wars, she said.
"It was actually the St. Louis folks who woke us up to the fact that we had this CIA operation in our backyard," Cowger acknowledged. A delegation from St. Louis including longtime human rights activist and war-tax resister Bill Ramsey and his friend, Andrew Wimmer, traveled to North Carolina in November 2005.
The group joined with local members of NC-STN and served a peoples' indictment to Aero Contractors, charging them with multiple counts of violation of U.S. and international laws and treaties banning torture by providing pilots and planes for the CIA's program of extraordinary rendition. The citizen action resulted in 14 arrests--not of the officials who are complicit in rendition to torture, but of the activists who came to seek accountability.
Wimmer was working then with the St. Louis-based Center for Theology and Social Analysis. His research on extraordinary rendition led to Global TransPark, a public-private consortium built by the state of North Carolina with economic development funds.
According to Cowger, UK journalist Stephen Grey used flight logs from the FAA and Eurocontrol (the FAA's counterpart in Europe) to piece together the itineraries of the two main rendition planes, the Kinston-based N313P and the smaller Gulfstream, N379P, which was based at the Johnston County airport. Tail numbers have since been changed. A Montana-registered Gulfstream IV aircraft, with tail number N478GS, operated by Centurian Aviation, was based at the Fayetteville Airport, and is suspected of facilitating the extraordinary rendition program, according to Cowger, as an arm of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), based at Fort Bragg.
"The point is really a simple one," said Robin Kirk, director of the Human Rights Center at Duke University, in introducing Gavin Simpson, lead investigator with the Council of Europe and conference presenter. "We are trying to do something about human rights abuse, extraordinary rendition, and the torture that came along with it that has its feet in our state"to get around the impunity that seems to be reigning right now with regard to human rights issues."
The Council of Europe serves its 46 member states as "the guardian for human rights, democracy, and respect for the rule of law in Europe," using as its reference point the European Convention on Human Rights.
Aero Contractors was the aviation "hub" of the CIA's rendition program, which "flew dozens of people to horrific jails around the globe, using "civilian' aircraft," according to NC Stop Torture Now. The group has compiled a partial list of twenty-four detainees secretly transported by Aero Contractors for torture by or for the CIA, citing as a primary source the book Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey.