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Academics, Community Teach on Torture, Look for Answers By JUDITH SCHERR

Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 03, 2005

Electro-shock, unmuzzled dogs, extreme temperatures, sexual humiliation, sodomy—U.S. torture didn’t begin or end with the abuse portrayed in shocking photographs coming out of Abu Ghraib one year ago, nor has U.S. torture been restricted to prisons on foreign soil, according to speakers at Thursday’s Teach-in on Torture, sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies, Asian Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies departments.  

“The America of my imagination seems to have turned into a nightmare,” L. Ling-chi Wang, associate professor in the Ethnic Studies Department, told an audience of about 50 people at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in downtown Berkeley. “I see neither courage nor outrage in the halls of congress. I’ve seen no serious investigation into these practices. I’ve seen cover-ups, contempt for laws. I see hopelessness, helplessness among my colleagues.”  

Wang’s profound disappointment in the country where he chose to become a citizen more than three decades ago has not sapped his will to fight back. He co-coordinated the teach-in with Dr. Mark Sapir, a local physician, that began with a rally in the rain at Sproul Plaza.  

U.S. responsibility for torture didn’t start in Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan or Guantanamo, Carlos Mauricio told the 60 or so gathered under umbrellas. Tortured in his native El Salvador in the early 1980s, Mauricio said his captors were instructed in torture methods at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. He said his torture was similar to that endured by U.S. prisoners today.  

Torture at home was a theme repeated in afternoon and evening presentations and discussions. Erin Callahan, Western Regional director for Amnesty International, talked about police and prison guard abuse, citing Taser-gun deaths of a 4-year-old boy and 71-year old grandmother, sexual abuse of women locked up in U.S. prisons, and beatings and “locking up children 23-hours a day in the California Youth Authority.”  

On a similar note, Andrea Pritchett of Berkeley’s Copwatch said police abuse paved the way for acceptance of torture in Abu Ghraib. Instead of using dialogue, conversation and tactics of de-escalation, local police use pepper spray, the Taser gun and “pain compliance,” she said.  

The photos coming from Abu Ghraib were important in jarring officials and the public out of denial, just as the video of the Rodney King beating had done. However, just as police abuse was not confined to King, prisoner abuse did not begin and end in Abu Ghraib.  

Before Abu Ghraib, much documentation was submitted to the Bush administration and ignored, said Marjorie Cohn, National Lawyers Guild vice president. Documentation has come from Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, the UN Human Rights Commission and from the FBI itself.  

“In August, 2003, Rumsfeld approved physical coercion,” Cohn said.  

Instead of looking seriously into the allegations that abuse was ordered by the highest levels of government, low-level soldiers have been tried and convicted.  

“Human Rights Watch said Abu Ghraib was just the tip of the iceberg; it was not Lynndie England who authorized the use of guard dogs to terrorize the prisoners,” Cohn said. Still, England pled guilty to various charges and fellow soldier Charles Graner was convicted. This has reinforced the notion that the abuse was committed by a “few bad apples.”  

Hatem Bazian, lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department, said that’s not possible. Do you mean to say that the low-ranking officers at Abu Ghraib were doing this on their own, he asked rhetorically. Do you mean that “no one in the U.S. government knew that torture was taking place… that the president and (Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld didn’t know it was taking place? This is the ultimate level of hypocrisy. It’s time to come clean. If I give you a weapon, I am responsible.”  

Human Rights First, a group formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and the ACLU hope to hold higher-ups accountable and have filed lawsuits targeting Rumsfeld and others.  

Evidence includes 23,000 pages plaintiffs received through the Freedom of Information Act, even including evidence that “the FBI was complaining about torture in Guantanamo,” said Lucas Guttentag, lead lawyer in the suit, being brought on behalf of eight men alleging torture and abuse when they were imprisoned in Iraq and Afghanistan under Rumsfeld’s command. None of the eight, now released, were charged with a crime.  

The suit says Rumsfeld “authorized an abandonment of our nation’s inviolable and deep-rooted prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in U.S. military custody” and further charges that brutal and illegal interrogation techniques were personally approved by him.  

The lawsuit is based on prohibitions against torture in the Geneva Conventions and federal law. “Aside from international law, the constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment,” Guttentag said, also noting that the procedures were “in direct contraction to the Army Field Manual on interrogation,” which specifies prohibitions against food deprivation, electric shock and beating prisoners.  

“The U.S. has become the outlaw. We told other countries to abandon torture; now we are the perpetrators,” Guttentag said.  

Beyond lawsuits, the solution lies in communities working together to get the truth out.  

“The truth gets twisted so that we think we’re alone; people are molded into this ‘good German syndrome;’ they don’t know what to do,” Mark Sapir said.  

Participants shared thoughts on solutions:  

• Get city councils to pass resolutions against torture, as the SF Board of Supervisors did.  

• Take actions against corporations involved in torture, such as CACI (Consolidated Analysis Center) International which provided interrogators at Abu Ghraib.  

• Support legislation to suspend operation of the School of the Americas: HR1217.  

• Find community alternatives to police.  

• Join activists in the International Human Rights Initiative that sponsored the recent Attica to Abu Ghraib conference.  

Wang was disappointed but not daunted when he looked at the empty seats in the auditorium – only 120 or so people had come through the teach-in during the day. Still, he said he was going to continue to work with the 100 professors who had signed onto the call for the teach-in. They would meet and plan university courses on torture and its effects.  

Earlier in the day on campus, Ming Yang, third year engineering student, stood by an Asian Student Association table and chatted with friends while the rally took place about 100 yards away. Asked if he knew what it was about, Yang said he’d heard the word democracy a couple of times. “I don’t know if it’s pro or counter,” he said. “There are a bunch of rallies – I feel apathetic because they happen so often.”  

Yang had missed what Hatem Bazian said just moments before from the steps of Sproul Plaza: “You can’t check out; you can’t say, ‘I’m studying.’ You might be in Guantanamo; the degree you earn may not be worth anything. The university is part of the real world….We need to launch a challenge to this government.”