I've participated in countless nonviolent protests of torture, including congressional lobbying, panels and seminars, online petition writing, bird-dogging of politicians and judges and professors. I've met victims and told their stories and reviewed their books. But I had never spent a day with a crowd of lawyers and doctors who deal with the medical and court struggles arising out of torture cases, not until I attended a conference in February at American University in Washington, DC, entitled "Forensic Evidence in the Fight Against Torture."
The doctors, lawyers, and others attending and speaking at the conference were from the United States and many other countries. It was not lost on them that they were addressing something different from a "natural" disaster. In their public comments and private discussions I found universal agreement that torture has gained dramatically greater, world-wide public acceptance during the past decade, and that the United States has been the leader in promoting that greater acceptance. While Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, pointed his finger at Hollywood movies and TV shows in which harsh interrogation techniques succeed in aiding crime solvers, several experts independently told me that by granting legal immunity to torturers, the United States has led by example.
It may be hard to recall that a mere decade ago torture was almost universally condemned here, and had been almost universally condemned in the Western world for centuries (racist exceptions for slavery excluded). By 2004, 43 percent of U.S. respondents to a Pew Research Center survey were saying that torture was often or sometimes justified to gain key information. By 2009, 49 percent said so. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that public support for torture increased in the United States from 27 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2010. AP-GfK polling found U.S. public support for torture at 38 percent in 2005, increasing to 52 percent by 2009.
That was the society I left behind as I entered the conference rooms of AU's Washington College of Law to join an international gathering of professionals who still viewed torture as the evil it had been considered by the authors of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which included an absolute ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."
In broad historical terms, many forms of violence are being eliminated or are diminishing significantly in frequency, in the United States and abroad. But the flipside of recognizing that there is nothing "inevitable" or "natural" about cannibalism or infanticide or the burning of witches, or--for that matter--fist fights, spanking, child abuse, spousal abuse, or cruelty to animals, is that trends away from such practices can easily be reversed. We may be living through such a reversal on torture.
Some of the torture cases discussed at the conference involved U.S. victims; most did not. Some implicated governments that receive support from the United States, such as that of Bahrain. So the United States is unable to advocate against torture from a persuasive position to governments it opposes, not only because of its own conduct but also because of the conduct of governments it supports, including the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. This problem was confirmed for me by various conference attendees, including U.S. government grant recipients and some federal employees.
Our government helps fund support of torture victims, both through the Office of Refugee Resettlement and through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), both of which create grants to aid the victims of torture by any government other than the United States. The United Nations, partially funded by the United States, provides grants without that limitation. I spoke with participants at the conference who worked at centers in the United States helping torture victims from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Fiji, and other countries. There is a National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs that was holding its own meetings in DC around the same time. While these groups were new to me, I had worked in the past with the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition, an organization that seems to bridge the gap between treating victims and addressing the root problem of torture acceptance through political mobilization.
Examination of how individual cases of torture are being addressed suggests another trend of recent years. Even as torture has been gaining acceptance, a nonprofit complex of treatment centers and non-governmental organizations has been developing the tools with which to more expertly diagnose, document, and testify on torture, and to aid the victims. While in the United States best-selling books by former president George W. Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney contain passages in which both openly admit to authorizing the waterboarding prisoners, numerous other nations have been codifying the procedures of the "Istanbul Protocol: Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment," published by the United Nations in 2004. This conference, in fact, was the culmination of a three-year project funded by the European Union.
While both of these trends--the acceptance of torture and the development of a professional system of response to it--lead to greater public awareness of torture, they have opposite effects in terms of the amount of torture that occurs. It's not clear whether torture is on the rise or is declining in practice, but I heard at the conference many stories of systematic state torture and careful documentation thereof, and many stories of aid provided to victims including helping them to obtain asylum. I didn't hear any stories of top government officials being held seriously accountable for torture.
The possible exception to that rule is Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt overthrown by nonviolent protest in 2011. Speaking at the conference, Mostafa Hussein of the El Nadim Center for Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation in Egypt told the story of Khaled Mohamed Saeed, a young man who was beaten to death by Egyptian secret police in June 2010. The police lied about the cause of death, but photos of their victim's horribly disfigured corpse went viral online, and public pressure grew. Experts from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) produced a report. (The IRCT was a sponsor of the conference I attended.) Eventually two low-ranking police officers were given seven-year prison sentences, an outcome widely seen as insufficient after decades of systematically torturing thousands. Saeed was seen as a martyr, and the resulting outrage was channeled into the movement that took over Tahrir Square in Cairo in January 2011 and drove Mubarak out of power. Protesters painted Saeed's portrait on the wall of the Ministry of the Interior.
But Hussein told me that the public prosecutor hasn't changed, and dictatorship hasn't been dismantled. Although activists entered the Ministry of the Interior in March 2011, he said, they brought away very few documents, destroying many more. Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian intelligence, is out of office and being sued by an Australian who says Suleiman oversaw his torture in Egypt on behalf of the United States prior to shipping him to the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Suleiman is also accused of having performed a key service for the United States by torturing Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi until he said that Saddam Hussein was tied to al Qaeda, a statement al-Libi later recanted and which conflicts absurdly with the facts. Will Suleiman be brought to justice? Mostafa Hussein wasn't holding his breath. "Only the faces have changed," he said of the new Egyptian government.
After Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab Spring of 2011 emerged in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, a protectorate of the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the port where the U.S. Navy keeps its Fifth Fleet. Bahrain has hired U.S. police chief John Timoney, who made his name by infiltrating and brutalizing nonviolent protesters in Miami and Philadelphia, to lead the crackdown on protesters in Bahrain. On the weekend of the conference on torture in DC, U.S. friends and allies of mine were being tear-gassed, beaten, and arrested in the streets of Bahrain. Speaking at the conference was Dr. Ala'a Shehabi, a British-born Bahraini civil rights activist, economist, writer, and a founding member of the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) established in January 2012.