Daily archives: October 28, 2005

Torture to be sanctioned again in Westminster? – et sic per gradus ad mia tenditur

By Martin Bright writing in The New Statesman

In Committee Room 1 in the Commons, the future of our democracy is in the balance. Here the law lords are being asked to sweep aside 250 years of legal precedent, writes Martin Bright

From the scrum of journalists, backbenchers and researchers in the committee corridor of the Commons, you would be forgiven for thinking great matters of state were at issue. But the mob outside Committee Room 14, where the Tories were holding the first ballots in their interminable leadership contest, were jostling for elbow room at a sideshow.

At the same time, a hundred paces along the corridor in Committee Room 1, the future of our democracy was being decided. Here the law lords were meeting to hear an appeal against a high court ruling last August that evidence obtained under torture in other countries could be used in courts in England and Wales.

When I attended, the rest of the media pack was nowhere to be seen and not a single front-bench MP from any party was present. In this small room, with just enough public seats to hold the lawyers, interested parties and a handful of spectators, their lordships were being asked to overturn a decision that sweeps aside 250 years of legal precedent. If last summer’s decision stands, evidence extracted by torture will be admissible in terrorist cases as long as no British official has connived in the abuses.

The form of torture last sanctioned in Britain, peine forte et dure, was abolished in 1772. In this bizarre judicial ordeal, defendants who refused to enter a plea would have heavier and heavier stones placed on their chests until they pleaded guilty or not guilty – or suffocated to death. But even this crude punishment was not designed to extract confessions to be used in evidence. At the time of its use, peine forte et dure was considered an insurance against the abuse of the jury system by defendants who “stood mute” – in other words, asserted their right to silence.

Although convicted criminals were still hanged, drawn and quartered well into the 19th century, there has been a gradual shift away from judicial cruelty since the Bill of Rights outlawed “cruel and unusual punishments” in 1689. The “war against terror” has changed that. Ministers are now persuaded that, in some circumstances, torture is tolerable – as long as it is carried out by foreigners on our behalf. The issue first emerged during hearings for ten Arab terror suspects held without trial under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, when an MI5 officer conceded that some of the evidence used to detain the men might have been obtained under torture.

Ranged against the government are lawyers for groups such as Amnesty International, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and Doctors for Human Rights. They argue that the prohibition of torture in law is absolute and that admission of evidence in a British court would act as a green light to regimes with a poor human rights record.

It is an established principle that international agreements on the prohibition of torture are breached not only in the perpetration but in the tolerance of such acts. Article 15 of the UN Convention Against Torture is clear on this.

In 1992 the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture found that courts accepting evidence obtained by inflicting pain were responsible for “the flourishing of torture”. Even in exceptional circumstances, such as at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, evidence obtained in this way was specifically excluded. Just last year the UN General Assembly restated its plea to states not to use evidence obtained under torture in court.

Although most UN conventions were signed straight after the Second World War, the Convention Against Torture came into force only in 1987. That it exists at all is a tribute to the work of the campaigning organisations that now oppose the government on the use of torture evidence. Signatory governments have a right to be proud of the high principles the document expresses.

What a contrast to the shabby little agreement the British government has just signed with Libya in which Tripoli agrees not to mistreat terror suspects deported from the UK. The spectacle of a British prime minister accepting such assurances from Colonel Gaddafi, in the week that Saddam Hussein went on trial in Baghdad, provided a stark reminder of the inconsistencies of British foreign policy.

Next month marks the 400th anniversary of our most celebrated victim of torture, Guy Fawkes. James I had to make an executive order because torture was, even then, frowned on in common law: “The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad mia tenditur [and so by degrees proceeding to the worst], and so God speed your goode worke.”

The law lords should perhaps visit the “Gunpowder Plot” exhibition in parliament’s Westminster Hall, a short walk from Committee Room 1, where they can see the crushed, barely legible signature of the tortured Fawkes, before they make their decision on reintroducing this barbaric practice to our courts.

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‘Bush Lied, 2,000 Died’ – that same slow slide into hell

New Yorkers take to the streets in protest of the war in Iraq

By Sarah Ferguson writing in The Village Voice

With angry chants of ‘Bush lied, 2,000 died!’ several hundred New Yorkers jammed the traffic island that’s home to the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square to protest on the day after the Pentagon announced the death of the 2,000th American soldier in Iraq.

That grim milestone brought out an eclectic mix of demonstrators, here and across the nation. In Manhattan, Grandmothers Against the War jostled alongside young anarchists with bandanas masking their faces, Green Party stalwarts, veterans, students, office workers bearing flowers, and a group carrying a dozen large coffins draped in American flags.

They were crammed up against about a half dozen counterprotesters, who came brandishing a remarkable assortment of their own American, British, Israeli, and Iraqi flags. One guy among them identified himself as Tom D. and wore a Union Jack tied around his face. ‘I recognized a few of my college professors in the crowd, and I don’t want this to bias them against me,’ said Tom, who said he’d turned out to ‘stand in solidarity’ with the troops.

‘How many more?!” the antiwar demonstrators demanded. ‘Bush we adore!’ the counterprotesters shouted back.

And yet just about everyone piped down for a moment of silence led by the members of Veterans for Peace, who came bearing a large banner printed with the image of empty boots and rifles planted barrel down into the ground, in honor of the fallen soldiers.

Behind them, the digital screen on top of the recruiting station flashed jazzy images of young recruits training in fighter planes and on submarines with the pitch line ‘Prepare for life.’

‘It’s a bogus mission. There is no ability to win this war,’ said Vietnam vet David Cline. ‘It’s only a matter of time and bodies before the U.S. does what is inevitable, pull out.”

Cline also took issue with supporters of the war’s efforts to minimize the casualties in Iraq relative to past wars. ‘I could look at the 2,000 and say it’s nothing compared to the 58,000 who died in Vietnam. But I think the people are out here now because they learned something from Vietnam and now they see that same slow slide into hell. The 2,000 matters today because we know if we don’t do something, it will be 58,000.’

Other demonstrators sought to highlight the tremendous civilian death toll, estimated by the British group Iraq Body Count at between 26,690 and 30,051. In Union Square, a trio of women sporting black top hats spent two hours reciting the names, ages, and manner of death for some 1,000 Iraqis, pausing for a moment of silence after each name, followed by the chiming of a Tibetan bell. Among the names was that of a three-month-old killed by a U.S. rocket.

And outside the offices of Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, about 70 people gathered for an equally somber reading of the names of the U.S. fallen.

‘We want to put pressure on both senators to come up with some kind of exit strategy and also demand that they hold the Bush administration accountable for misleading the country to war,’ said Gary Weingarten, the owner of the Lower East Side bar Verlaine, who recently helped found a group called truthempowered.org to raise awareness about the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence to justify the war.

‘It’s obvious Clinton is going to run for president in 2008, and she’s been supporting the war because of that,’ Weingarten added. ‘Does that mean she approves of these kind of tactics’of lying to your country to go to war?’

“Their only criticism is about the management of the war,” complained Chris Tompkins, a 40-year-old attorney from Queens. He cited Schumer’s appearance on Meet the Press last Sunday, when he told Tim Russert he did not regret voting for the U.S. invasion, even knowing now that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction.

“Here’s a Democrat who is supposedly as left as the Democrats can get, and he supports the administration’s policy. It’s a disgrace!” Tompkins said.

Folks turned out for candlelight vigils and streetside demonstrations across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, where activists gathered outside the offices of Republican Congressman Vito Fossella’part of a growing national effort to pressure Congress to cut funding for the war.

The New York events were among some 1,500 demonstrations and memorials that took place across the country, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Washington, D.C., where Cindy Sheehan and about two dozen others were arrested for staging a die-in in front of the White House.

The Pentagon did its best to blunt the protests. On Tuesday, the military’s top spokesperson in Iraq, Army Lt. Col Steve Boylan, sent an e-mail to reporters urging them not to make too much of the 2,000th death. “It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives,” wrote Boylan, who implied that calling it a milestone would only hurt troop morale.

“If it was really a false marker, they wouldn’t comment on it,” responded Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice.

‘The fact that the Pentagon is actually commenting on it means that we are tapping into something,’ said Cagan, citing the latest polls, which show the majority of Americans now think going to war was a mistake.

Yesterday’s protests and vigils were broadly organized by United for Peace and Justice, Move On, and the American Friends Service Committee, which used online portals to enable people to post events in their own communities.

Debra Anderson of Staten Island, whose husband returned home a month ago after spending 18 months in Iraq with the National Guard, said she felt a bit uncomfortable commemorating the 2,000th death, as if the soldiers who died before were somehow less important. Still, she said, the message needs to get out.

‘People need to be reminded that the war is still going on, because otherwise it’s like a movie to them,’ said Anderson, who has been hosting weekly vigils with the Staten Island chapter of Peace Action since July. ‘They have to realize that our people are still going over there, and this war is not going away.’

“My husband’s unit lost 19 members when they were in Baghdad,” added Anderson. “I’m very grateful that he’s home and he’s safe, but he will never be the same. We’re forever changed by this.”

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