Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Center for Torture victims speaks out against alleged torture by U.S.
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Volunteers and clients finished their anniversary ceremony at the Center for Victims of Torture by planting a tree. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
A Minneapolis treatment center that serves torture victims marked its 20th anniversary this weekend by speaking out against the use of torture by the United States. Leaders of the Center for Victims of Torture say the group remains non-partisan. But they say the center will be politically active amid allegations of torture by U.S. representatives in Iraq, Cuba, and Afghanistan.

Minneapolis, Minn. — In 1985 a task force put together by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich formed the Center for Victims of Torture. For 20 years, the center has provided healing services to torture victims from around the world, and trained health professionals in how to work with survivors of torture. It has also led research on the effects of torture and been an advocate for putting a stop to torture.

Outside its riverfront office on the University of Minnesota campus, the group paid tribute Sunday to some of its leaders and founders. Those include Bob Stein, the former U of M Law School dean who now heads the American Bar Association. After complimenting the center on its first two decades of work, Stein turned to all that remains to be done.

"Today, more than 50 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and more than 15 years after the Convention Against Torture, more than half the countries in the world continue to use torture as a strategic tool of repression," Stein said.

The Center for Victims of Torture is alarmed by reports that the United States may be among the nations using torture during interrogations, or may be sending prisoners to other countires for the purpose of torture.

The center's executive director, Doug Johnson, says some U.S. officials have responded to such allegations by emphasizing the seriousness of the crimes the detainees are accused of commiting. Johnson sees that response as inadequate.

"Because fundamentally, it's not about them. It's not who they are that's important. It's who we are that's important," Johnson said. "That's what we have to reach into as Americans -- into our values, and say in this policy and in this time of fear, that we are mostly concerned about who we are and who we will be and how we will be seen around the world."

There are places in the world where there are horrible acts being conducted, real torture being conducted. And it seems to me that's where the focus ought to be.
- U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.

In letters to President Bush and to Minnesota's congressional delegation, the center urges that evidence of U.S. torture be the subject of an independent investigation along the lines of the 9/11 Commission.

The group also recommends that a provision in a 1992 Army Field Manual written by and for interrogators become the basis of a national standard for all U.S. interrogations.

Johnson says that manual explains that torture is ineffective as a method of gaining accurate information. He says the authors go on to describe why respectful treatment of captives yields better results.

"They say that when people that we fight in our wars are captured, they come from countries where torture is used. They expect to be tortured," said Johnson. "And when they're treated humanely, it takes them by such surprise that they offer far more useful information far more quickly."

Johnson says the Center for Victims of Torture is not politically partisan. But he says the crusade against torture requires taking a political risk by speaking out.

Some of President Bush's supporters maintain that allegations of torture have been exaggerated in an effort to hurt the administration politically.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican who represents Minnesota's 2nd District, sits on the House Armed Services Committee. Kline says there have been cases -- such as those at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq -- where U.S. service members were found to have abused prisoners and were punished by courts martial. But Kline says he's offended by the suggestion that torture has become a part of U.S. policy.

"The policy in the United States rejects torture. We don't engage in torture," said Kline. "There are places in the world where there are horrible acts being conducted, real torture being conducted. And it seems to me that's where the focus ought to be for trying to stop torture in the world."

Kline says U.S. prisons in Iraq and Cuba have already been the subject of 10 investigations, some conducted from within the Pentagon, others from outside.

Rep. Betty McCollum, a DFLer from Minnesota's 4th District, applauded the Center for Victims of Torture for joining what McCollum says is a growing public outcry over evidence that the U.S. is complicit in torture.

"And yet when often we speak out we're told we're giving aid and comfort to the enemy," McCollum said. "Each and every one of us knows that the aid and comfort to the enemy is the enemy saying, 'Look, America doesn't respect human rights. We don't have to either.' We need to grab onto the high bar again, and we can do it."

Volunteers and clients finished their anniversary ceremony at the Center for Victims of Torture by planting a tree. Leaders of the center say in nearly every world culture they've encountered, tree planting is perceived as a symbol of hope for the future.

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