Time for an honest discussion of torture and Guantanamo

By Aubrey Harris, Amnesty Canada’s Coordinator for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. Follow Aubrey on Twitter @AmnestyCanadaDP

The fact that torture occurred in Guantanamo Bay is not news. Not only did former president Barack Obama state it bluntly as “we tortured some people,” even former vice-president Dick Cheney implied it in his “dark side” quote justifying some forms of torture. International law, however, is explicit in it. The International Convention Against Torture makes clear that any statement extracted as the product of torture cannot be used except as proof that the torture occurred.

Efforts to present the public perception of torture as “acceptable” exist not only in the tough-guy films of Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino, but most explicitly in the propaganda film “Zero Dark Thirty.” For the first 25 minutes of the film, a man is portrayed being tortured by operatives at CIA black sites in order to obtain information to find Osama bin Laden.

There are dubious elements to the film – as one would expect with propaganda. But some elements are surprisingly true and the producers worked with the U.S. government to get that detail. The torturer in it refers to “Ammar” as the nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohamed (“KSM”) and tortures him using prolonged physical and psychological methods.

The torture and Ammar are based in fact.

Ammar al-Baluchi was tortured by the CIA at black sites for more than three years before being sent to be imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in 2006. He is currently facing a death penalty trial for his alleged involvement in 9/11 by “wiring money.”

Regardless of what the alleged involvement was, basic principles of justice hold that an accused person be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof must be on the accuser (i.e., the state) and the proof must meet legal standards. i.e. when it comes to a statement extracted through torture, it cannot be used except as evidence against the torturer, not the tortured.

When it comes to the death penalty, international law is particularly clear:

A “sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime … This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court.” (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, S. 6(2))

The Military Commission at Guantanamo Bay has been roundly criticized for failing to meet international standards for fair trial. Ammar’s legal team struggles to deal with black holes of “classified” evidence, with a court that permits statements produced through torture and a court that might not even have jurisdiction to hear the case.

Ammar himself suffers the effects of his torture. He appears to have Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is unable to effectively assist his counsel despite the fact that his very life is on the line in this trial.

Ammar’s military lawyer, Maj. Raashid Williams, will be giving a free presentation tonight (Thursday) at the Amnesty International Canada office at 312 Laurier Avenue E., co-hosted by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group at 7 pm. If you are unable to attend, the event is also being live streamed on Facebook.

Note: The op-ed was originally pubished in the Ottawa Citizen

Watch the video and from Raashid Williaim’s presentation and Q & A

Take action on the case of Ammar al Baluchi