Columnist Fanny Rothschild: Staying vigilant against torture

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Published: 6/23/2017 8:01:04 PM

On June 26, we mark International Day in Support of Survivors and Victims of Torture.

Ten years ago, the entire month of June was declared “Torture Awareness Month” when a group of human rights, civil liberties and faith organizations banded together with the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. Their intention is that we spend more than one day on the topic of torture. It is that important.

Through my volunteering with the local Amherst chapter of Amnesty International, torture has become a main focus for me. If you want to know more, see our group’s website at www.amnestyamherst.org, Facebook page, and come to our table by the Amherst Farmers Market most Saturday mornings and sign petitions against torture and for freeing political prisoners as well as other pressing issues.

A decade ago, human rights groups were concerned with our government’s use of systematic torture and other inhumane treatment in the name of the “War on Terror.” The Trump administration is making the “others” into even scarier devils and many are concerned about the return of forms of torture that had been let go (or we hoped they had because we’re not always sure what actually happened during the Obama administration). Officially, torture inside the U.S. as well as in “black sites” run by the U.S. is illegal, according to the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by the Obama administration for fiscal year 2016.

Not surprisingly, the current government is being secretive and contradictory about where it stands on torture. Still, this month we witnessed President Trump nominate Steven Bradbury — a George W. Bush official who had co-authored the infamous 2005 memo authorizing “enhanced interrogation techniques” including waterboarding — as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

And Trump gave Congress back a 2014 report on the CIA’s interrogation and detention practices in secret prisons during the Bush era. This report is to be sealed and kept from the public so that now we cannot learn from these reportedly unsuccessful torture practices.

In January, Trump issued a draft executive order to lift an Obama-era ban on CIA “black-site” prisons and to direct the Pentagon to transport new detainees to Guantanamo Bay. After the plan was leaked, Trump withdrew it due to bipartisan backlash. Before Obama closed them, these secret detention centers — over 50 in 28 countries since 2001 as well as 45 in Iraq and Afghanistan and 17 U.S. floating prisons — were where the CIA  reportedly tortured terrorism suspects.

In addition to joining global efforts to end torture, our Amherst chapter of Amnesty International has chosen to work at a more local level. We have an appointment July 7 with U.S. Rep. James McGovern who, as co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, has demonstrated a strong record on human rights and support of Amnesty International issues. We plan to discuss our concerns about the visit in March of Mohammed Atta, Sudan’s head of national intelligence and security services, with the CIA and FBI. Atta reportedly oversees Sudan’s torture programs and his visit could signal the return of U.S. involvement in black-site prisons run outside our country.

We also want to brainstorm with McGovern about how our local American International group can support his human rights work and vice versa: we’d like to participate in human rights campaigns that he or his commission initiates. We will urge him to take a more prominent stand in collaboration with other members of Congress, such as issuing a public statement or strong letter about human rights to circulate around Congress. Such a statement can become a useful and quotable document to many non-governmental groups in their efforts to eliminate torture.

We find it more productive to meet with our representatives in person rather than via phone calls or emails. Personal interaction is key: we get to know one another and can play a real role in how legislation is created or altered. We have that power.

So yes, it’s incredibly important to keep up with the news and spread the word locally. Still, we also need to meet with our elected representatives, show up at community and legislative committee meetings, and take to the streets when needed. See you there.

Fanny Rothschild, of Amherst, is a writer, editor, human rights activist, and Reiki practitioner.




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