Europe’s Narrow Lead on Prosecuting CIA Torture

In her latest blog, guest blogger Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign writes about the few, but encouraging efforts in Europe to prosecute those believed to have been complicit in the notorious CIA rendition programme.

The December 2014 publication of the redacted findings and conclusions of the US Senate Select Committee investigation into the CIA’s use of torture shed further light on and confirmed some of the worst practices of the extraordinary rendition programme, leading to calls for prosecution of those involved.

Eight months on, little has changed. On 24 June, a coalition of over 100 groups worldwide sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability, prosecution and reparations for CIA torture.

Throughout the CIA’s long history of ‘coercive forms of interrogation’, prosecutions have been few. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, there have been some encouraging moves against those believed to have been involved in the rendition programme.

On 23 June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) heard a case brought against Italy by an Egyptian national for its collusion in his abduction and ‘rendition’ to Egypt in 2003 where he was detained illegally and tortured for several months. Italy denies the claims and the judgment is pending, but it is a unique case as in 2012, in domestic proceedings, the Italian Supreme Court’s final judgment in the related criminal case saw 23 US citizens convicted in absentia for his kidnapping; prison sentences and fines were imposed.

This is the first and only successful prosecution against the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme anywhere. The ramifications of this hit home a year later, in 2013, when convicted former CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady was arrested, as he transited through Panama, pending extradition to Italy to serve his eight-year sentence, although he was released the next day. He has admitted his role in the operation and that it was illegal.

This is the third such case to be heard before the ECtHR; previous cases heard against Macedonia and Poland have found both states guilty of breaches of the absolute prohibition on torture under the European Convention on Human Rights, with both ordered to pay compensation. Further cases are pending against Romania and Lithuania.

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Aside from one other case recently reopened before the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights, following new revelations against Djibouti, this is as far as international legal efforts to prosecute extraordinary rendition have gotten. Although neither court has jurisdiction over the US, these cases reveal the global extent of the extraordinary rendition programme, which would have been impossible without the collusion of so many states.

The Torture Report findings have also led the European Parliament to announce the reopening of its investigation into member state complicity in rendition in February 2015 and urging states to investigate and prosecute allegations.

Domestic efforts are still underway in some parts of Europe. As part of an ongoing criminal investigation into at least six alleged torture flights through Scottish airspace, police in Scotland are seeking access to a full non-redacted copy of the Torture Report.

In Spain, an ongoing criminal investigation brought by a number of former Guantánamo prisoners under universal jurisdiction laws was recently closed following restrictive changes to the law, but a number of NGOs have appealed this decision.

There is still much work to be done. Elsewhere, political pressure and state secrecy have seen prosecutions end prematurely or shut down. Denial remains a popular option and impunity reigns.

While the focus is on the US, the involvement of its allies must not be ignored. Investigation, prosecution and accountability matter, not just to draw a line under the crimes of the past, but to ensure they are not still occurring or will again in future.

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