By David Swanson
Printed in a number of Italian newspapers.
Almost 10,000 Americans have sent messages to the Italian Embassy in Washington thanking Italy's high court for upholding the conviction of 23 Americans (22 CIA officers and one military official) for the offense of kidnapping a man off the street in Milan on February 17, 2003, and shipping him to Egypt to be brutally tortured.
"La Legge E' Uguale Per Tutti," were the words on the wall behind the judges. Would that it were so. Those 10,000 messages, sent through the website of an organization I work for, RootsAction.org, also asked Italy to request the extradition of the 23 convicts, who are living free and immune from serious consequences in the United States.
If the law were the same for all, Italy would request extradition. If the law were the same for all, Italy would be able to kidnap the 23 and justify the act to the U.S. government by calling it "rendition." If the law were the same for all, the United States would prosecute our own criminals and not have to rely on Italy to do so. If the law were the same for all, prosecutions of mid- to low-level operatives would be followed by prosecutions of the ultimate decision makers at the top, including U.S. presidents. If the law were the same for all, the U.S. government would be more interested in shipping 23 convicts to Italy to serve their sentences than in shipping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Sweden or the United States, in neither of which nations he has been convicted of or even charged with a crime.
Abu Omar was walking near his home in Milano when he was stopped and questioned by a policeman. When the two men had been engaged in conversation for some minutes, the side door of a van parked behind Omar crashed open with a thunderous sound, two extremely large and strong men grabbed their victim and hauled him inside, and the door slammed shut three seconds after it had opened, as the van accelerated and the two men hit and kicked their victim repeatedly in the dark of the van's interior, pounding his head, chest, stomach, and legs.
They stopped. They stuffed a gag in his mouth and put a hood over his head, as they cinched cords tight around his wrists and ankles. Hours later they threw him into another vehicle. An hour later they took him out, stood him up, cut his clothes off, shoved something hard up his anus, stuck a diaper and pajamas on him, wrapped his head almost entirely with duct tape, and tossed him in an airplane.
The torture he received when he got where he was going left him nearly dead, prematurely aged, and barely able to walk. The torture was U.S.-sponsored and Egyptian administered.
The kidnapping was the work of dozens of CIA agents who had long been living it up in Italy's most luxurious hotels. They carelessly used identifiable cell phones and frequent flyer accounts, as well as disguising themselves with pseudonyms very similar to their real names. They believed they were above the law. The Italian courts are to be congratulated for showing them they might not be.
No other nation has done the same. The United States believes it can operate under different rules from the rest of the world. George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney left office to go on book tours rather than on trial. They tentatively established new U.S. practices, still considered somewhat illicit and scandalous. President Obama publicly instructed the U.S. Justice Department not to prosecute the CIA for torture. On the question of permitting the prosecution of his predecessor, President Obama said he preferred to "look forward." Sadly, we're looking forward to a world without legal limitations on presidents.
Under Obama, Bush's abuses have become openly acknowledged, formalized, and legalized public policy. New presidential powers include the power to spy on Americans without a warrant, the power to lock anyone up forever without a trial, the power to kidnap and ship victims to their torturers abroad, the power to assassinate anyone (men, women, children, Americans, non-Americans), the power to conduct drone wars in secret, and the power to launch and continue major wars without Congressional authorization (Bush, at least, went to the trouble to lie to Congress).
Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney's advisors have urged him to bring back torture techniques used by Bush and abandoned by Obama. Romney, or another future president, can only do that because Obama forbid his attorney general to enforce U.S. laws against torture. Obama has given torturers immunity, continued to sanction torture techniques like sleep-deprivation and sensory deprivation that don't leave visible scars, and claimed the right to resort to other forms of torture if he should choose to. Obama has, in short, transformed torture into a policy choice, rather than a crime. The statutes of limitations are expiring in the United States now, so that it is becoming too late to prosecute torture here, except in those cases that resulted in the victim's death. This makes it very difficult for us to strip the power to torture away from any future president.
We need Italians' help. We're struggling on our own. We need a friend who doesn't tell us pretty lies. We need a brother or a sister who gives it to us straight. We need the courageous principled action of the Italian courts to have consequences. I don't mind saying my nation is wrong. I said it when I protested U.S. Army base construction in Vicenza. I'm not asking for the United States to be stripped of the power to enforce its own laws. I'm asking for universal jurisdiction to be employed precisely where it must be, in those cases in which the relevant nation has failed. I'm asking for Italy to be able to enforce its own laws against everyone in equal manner.
Iraq managed this. Iraq refused to allow U.S. mercenaries to continue to operate with legal impunity. As a result, U.S. forces withdrew. If CIA operatives knew they were subject to the rule of law, perhaps they would withdraw as well. I have every confidence Italy could survive and prosper without them.