November 18, 2010

INFORMED COMMENT: Bush-Cheney Use of Torture Derails Ghailani Prosecution

This is how George W. Bush and Dick Cheney got Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, suspected of involvement in the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998, off hundreds of murder charges: They had him tortured.

Ghailani was convicted Wednesday of conspiracy to damage US government property, for which he could well face life imprisonment, but was acquitted of murder charges stemming from the deaths caused by the blowing up of the embassies.

The US right wing is jumping up and down and denouncing Attorney General Eric Holder for trying Ghailani in a civilian court instead of in a military tribunal, and implying that he got off because civilian law is more lax than that of the tribunals would have been.

For instance, Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY) thundered, “This tragic verdict demonstrates the absolute insanity of the Obama administration’s decision to try Al Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts.” King, defended Bush’s commitment to torturing people, saying “Bush deserves credit for what he did.” King should be aware that advocating war crimes itself was considered a crime at the Nuremberg trials.

In fact, the government case against Ghailani was undermined precisely by Bush and Cheney and their foaming-at-the-mouth supporters on the Right, which increasingly deserves to be called simply American Fascism. The case was undermined by the use of torture.

When Bush admitted in his memoirs to torturing people, he may as well have just grabbed the key from Ghailani’s prison guard and stuck it in the jail door and yelled for the Tanzanian to make a run for it.

Ghailani was waterboarded, i.e. tortured, into revealing his relationship with Hussein Abebe, who in turn provided the most damaging testimony against Ghailani.

As FDL perceptively wrote, it is possible that Abebe’s own testimony against Ghailani was itself coerced.

On Oct. 5, Judge Lewis Kaplan [pdf] excluded Abebe’s testimony, on the grounds that it was a a fruit of a poisonous tree, i.e. was only available to the prosecution because Bush had had Ghailani tortured (and maybe had had Abebe tortured, as well!)

That was why Ghailani could not be convicted of murder, as he from all accounts ought to have been. Had his connection to Abebe been discovered by ordinary questioning or by good police work, then the latter could have freely taken the witness stand. In fact, it seems to me very likely that Abebe would in fact have been discovered in other ways– from the record, e.g., of Ghailani’s cell phone calls, or even just from his own account of his activities.

King’s and others’ assertion that a military tribunal could have gotten a conviction on the murder charges is simply incorrect, as Judge Kaplan himself pointed out (h/t FDL):

‘ It is very far from clear that Abebe’s testimony would be admissible if Ghailani were being tried by military commission, even without regard to the question whether the Fifth Amendment would invalidate any more forgiving provisions of the rules of evidence otherwise applicable in such a proceeding.

Military commissions are governed by the Military Commissions Act, 10 USC 948a et seq. (the “MCA”). Evidence in such proceedings is governed by the Military Commission Rules of Evidence (“MCRE”). U.S. DEP’T OF DEFENSE, MANUAL FOR MILITARY COMMISSIONS (2010 ed.).

MCA 948r(a) and MCRE 304 preclude or restrict the use of “statements obtained by torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,” and evidence derived threrefrom, and could require exclusion of Abebe’s testimony. Even if they did not, the Constitution might do so, even in a military commission proceeding.’

The military tribunal still has to operate within the terms of the US Constitution, however much Bush and Cheney (and Peter King) may despise that document, and it is the constitution that would force any judge, military or civilian, to invalidate evidence obtained by torture.

It isn’t the fault of American civil justice, still among the best and most upright in the world. It isn’t Obama’s fault, or Eric Holder’s fault. It is the fault of the profound betrayal of American law and values by vapid thugs who want to take us back to absolute monarchy, to bills of attainder, star chambers, divine right of kings, and drawing and quartering and breaking at the wheel.

King and other members of Congress, who wish to make an end run around the constitution with their ‘military tribunals,’ are essentially violating the separation of powers, since the artificial tribunals operating beyond the bill of rights are a way for the legislative and executive branches to sidestep the judicial system so as to administer arbitrary ‘justice.’ This way of proceeding is essentially a bill of attainder:

“Bills of attainder . . . are such special acts of the legislature, as inflict capital punishments upon persons supposed to be guilty of high offences, such as treason and felony, without any conviction in the ordinary course of judicial proceedings. If an act inflicts a milder degree of punishment than death, it is called a bill of pains and penalties. . . . In such cases, the legislature assumes judicial magistracy, pronouncing upon the guilt of the party without any of the common forms and guards of trial, and satisfying itself with proofs, when such proofs are within its reach, whether they are conformable to the rules of evidence, or not.”

The actually existing constitution of the United States of American forbids bills of attainder (Article I, Section 9 ), as an abuse of the British Old Regime. If Tea Partiers had any integrity and actually stood for the values that their tricorner hats imply, they’d be denouncing arbitrary tribunals themselves.

Terrorism, like any other social pathology, can best be fought with a rule of law, not by trampling on the very framework of our democratic system. We don’t have to become al-Qaeda to fight al-Qaeda. In fact, in America’s struggle to win over the Muslims of the world, adherence to our constitution is among our most effective weapons. Gallup found that:

‘ When asked what they admire most about the West, citizens of Muslim countries ranked technology first and liberty and democracy second. They expressed widespread admiration for the freedom of expression and assembly, rule of law, and government accountability they see in the West. ‘

Muslims already know all about military tribunals and torture and arbitrarily tossing people in jail. They are yearning for something better, which we, at least used to, have.

Bush and the Bushies screwed up, and they are blaming it on the liberties enshrined in the constitution by men a thousand times their betters, for which generations of Americans have fought and died, and whose memory is being desecrated by the sad likes of George W. Bush, Richard Bruce Cheney, Peter King and the rest of our would-be Anglophone Francisco Francos.

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