Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sometimes torturers can face justice ...

even if only belatedly.

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:

The Area 2 cases offered a chance for a Western democracy to show how torturers can be pursued and prosecuted. ... The police force would not have been decimated, since the number of alleged torturers was relatively small: although scores of detectives have worked at Area 2 in the last twenty years, the allegations of torture were made against a core group of about fifteen men ....Helpful officers might have been found by interviewing Area 2 detectives who disliked the Burge gang and their treatment of suspects ... For the Chicago City Council there was no statute of limitations, nor was there one for the local media. ...

[But] the citizens of Chicago were unmoved. The clergy showed no leadership; with the exception of a few mostly low-ranking ministers, religious officials were silent. In the absence of any clamor, politicians showed no interest. Reporters, hearing no complaint, conducted no investigations, and editorial writers launched no crusades. ...

I found I did not have to journey far to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like, preferably someone we like who lives in another country.

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.

"These sorts of things that happened in 1982, 1985, being punished 25, 28 years later, that's not a full measure of justice," Fitzgerald told reporters. "On the other hand, the sense that finally there's a verdict ... that a jury found beyond a reasonable doubt, all 12 of them, that this happened should be some measure of justice to recognize and reckon with history that we need to have it on the record that this happened."

Chicago Breaking News

1 comment:

LKT said...

I guess the message here for me is to continue to demand justice, demand that torture be investigated. And not to give up if it takes a long time.

Do you know about the National Religious Campaign Against Torture? (www.nrcat.org) You might want to check them out, if you don't already know about them.

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