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Torture in the News: Year-End 2011

2011 December 20

Some catch-up items accumulated
over the past couple of months…

Who Are We, Really? 

In her blog post for The New Yorker, Amy Davidson asks, “Is it enough, in a place like Afghanistan, to believe that we are good? One of the many striking aspects of the Washington Post’s story, on how our forces sent prisoners to an Afghan detention center despite what seem to have been solid warnings that they would be tortured there, is the nature of some of the denials: they are based not on what happened, but on who we think we are.” One example she cites, quoting a U.S. official: “If there had been ‘serious, substantive allegations of systemic institutional torture of detainees, the embassy would have acted on these.”
            In other words, “We are good people. Good people would have responded to allegations of torture. We did not respond. Therefore there were no allegations or, if allegations were made, they cannot have been serious or substantive.” It’s an important, provocative piece; check it out.

Torture in Syria’s hospitals

An editorial in the November 5, 2011 issue of The Lancet deals with international concern over the abuse – in some cases torture – of physicians caring for victims of state violence in government-run Syrian hospitals.

“Doctors in state-run hospitals in Syria are facing a grievous trade-off: to offer treatment and risk torture to patients and possibly themselves, or withhold treatment to those under their care. A report by Amnesty International, published on Oct 25, 2011, alleges that patients with firearms injuries admitted to state-run hospitals are being targeted and tortured by the authorities to quell dissent that has spread throughout the country since March, 2011. The central blood bank, which is controlled by the Syrian Ministry of Defence, is the sole provider of blood. Therefore, doctors face a dilemma every time they receive a patient with firearm injuries: if they request blood for transfusion, the authorities will be alerted, putting the patient at risk of arrest, torture, and death.

Sadly, as the editorial also notes, the Amnesty report also cites incidents in which medical personnel have mistreated or denied care to wounded patients based on their ethnicity or politics.

Supreme Court Will Hear Torture
Suits vs. International Corporations

Bloomberg’s Greg Stohr reported in October that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider two cases determining whether international corporations can be sued in American courts for complicity in torture that takes place in other countries. In one case, a group of Nigerians claimed, under the 200-year-old Alien Tort Statute, that units of Royal Dutch Shell were complicit in torture and executions in the Ogoni region in the early nineties, including the killing of well-known playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa. 
            A divided (2-1) federal appeals court threw out the case, saying companies cannot be sued under the statute creating, in the words of the victim/plaintiffs, “a blanket immunity for corporations engaged or complicit in universally condemned human rights violations.” As Stohr reports, most courts to consider similar issues in the past have held that companies can be sued under the statute, so a decision to uphold the appeals court denial in this case would overturn established precedent.
            The second case was brought under the Torture Victims Protection Act, and involves the alleged torture and murder of a U.S. citizen by agents of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization. The TVPA authorizes suits against “an individual” engaged in torture. The case was thrown out by the appeals court, which ruled that the term means only “natural persons,” not corporations or organizations. It would be interesting to see how the Supreme Court justices could justify agreeing with that argument after ruling, in the “Citizens United” case that corporations are persons for the purpose of campaign contributions.
            The cases will be argued before the court next year, with a possible decision by June.



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