When we visited Argentina last winter, a fellow we met who had escaped that country's Dirty War (1976-1983) by going into temporary exile, told us with conviction: "it took a long time, but it is worth it. Finally we brought some of the torturers into the courts."
For example, in 2006, Miguel Etchecolatz, a former senior official of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, on charges of homicide, illegal deprivation of freedom (kidnapping), and torture. Etchecolatz had once held the power of life and death over political suspects; that he was brought to court was a remarkable victory for civil society and the rule of law.
For many African Americans in Chicago, today's jury verdict, convicting former Police Commander Jon Burge of lying under oath about torturing suspects at his Area 2 police headquarters between 1973 and 1986 was a similar vindication. For decades there has been overwhelming evidence that officers in this police station systematically subjected men they picked up to beatings, electric shock, burns, guns forced into their mouths, plastic bags forced over their heads and other forms of physical and mental torture. Yet judicial, and especially political, obstacles prevented any recourse by the victims of this police misconduct for decades. Juries didn't trust the testimony of Black men with criminal records; judges distorted procedure to police advantage; and the courtroom was the cops' arena of comfort, not nearly so friendly to their illiterate, powerless accusers.
I first read about these cases in John Conroy's 2001 book: Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. His overarching subject is the implications of torture when it occurs in democracies. His conclusions about the Chicago case are bleak:
Actually, Conroy did mention one avenue of potential recourse that remained open: a federal prosecutor bringing a perjury case would not be hampered by a statute of limitations. Perhaps if one intervened some justice might be won. And he turned out to be right.
The U.S. District Attorney who won this case today is a familiar figure to political junkies: Patrick Fitzgerald won the only verdict ever that repudiated the Bush/Cheney regime's disdain for law when he won a conviction of Cheney aide Scooter Libby for lying about leaking the name of a CIA agent.
Fitzgerald spoke to the press after the Chicago verdict. The first couple of minutes of the clip are especially telling.