The US’s Worldwide Torture Policy: Venezuela is Not Doing it Right

The case against Luis Posada Carriles, who a court ruled could not be sent to Venezuela on the grounds that he could face torture, highlights the worst aspects of US policy towards suspected terrorists over the past years.

First, the media aired pictures of detainees in Abu Ghraib being tortured. Then, upon seeing unreleased photos and video, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld told Congress they showed acts that were “blatantly sadistic” and that their release would “obviously…make matters worse.” Then an Australian station aired more photos. Administration officials have been adamant that the publishing of evidence of torture is wrongheaded. Torture, it seems, is pesky for public relations. And the administration, according to their statements, would just like it to go away.

But the case of Luis Posada Carriles, if the media isn’t cowed, could again bring the subject of torture back into the spotlight. At issue is “extraordinary rendition”—the practice by which the US sends terrorism suspects to be tortured in third countries.

Well, at issue is a parallel to rendition. Turns out, the one-time CIA agent is America’s kind of terrorist. And Venezuela and Cuba say they want to try him, not torture him for information.

Posada, held in US custody on immigration violation charges, stands accused of the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner and hotel bombings in Havana in the late 1990s. A US court previously ruled that Posada could be sent to neither Cuba nor Venezuela on the grounds that he may be subject to torture in these countries, though Washington has yet to officially deny the Venezuelan government’s request. This morning, a court decided to continue to keep him in US custody so he could testify in an upcoming case.

Victims of extraordinary rendition, reading the decision in their morning paper, must have found the idea that the US doesn’t allow people to be sent abroad to be tortured rich. Or they would have—except it’s safe to say that they probably don’t have a morning paper. Some of them probably don’t even have their fingernails anymore.

Since September 11, according to whistleblowers, the US has stepped up its policy of extraordinary rendition, apparently using the legal argument that the United Nations Convention Against Torture is unclear when it requires “substantial grounds for believing” a detainee would be tortured. Just because a country’s prisons are well-known for torture, and previous terrorism suspects sent by the US have been tortured, doesn’t mean the next terrorism suspect will be. Substantial grounds are in the eye of the beholder.

But even this radical stretch doesn’t fully explain the logical loopholes the US is using to justify this policy. Dan Coleman, an ex-FBI officer told The New Yorker, “Now, instead of just sending people to third countries…we’re taking people, and keeping them in our own custody in third countries.”

Perhaps government officials aren’t clear if their policies of torture are going to change by the time the next detainee is put in US custody abroad. Perhaps the torture policies of the Dark Prison in Afghanistan, suspected by Human Rights Watch of having been run by the CIA and operated as recently as 2004, were always on the verge of ending. Perhaps the interrogators were always thinking, “We’ve held detainees in complete darkness for weeks on end, shackled them to rings bolted in the walls of their cells, made it impossible for them to lie down or sleep, and deprived them of food for days at a time, but tomorrow we’ll turn the lights on and take them all out to McDonald’s.”

But, then again, it could be argued that the Posada case shows that the system works for those who manage to get into a court. After all, Posada had a whole truckload more rights being arrested on immigration charges, than, say, Canadian-Syrian Maher Arar, caught for having worked with the brother of a suspected Middle Eastern terrorist. Arar was transported to Syria to be brutalized for a year.

Or it would show that the system works, if it were clear that US prisons didn’t subject prisoners to torture. Sexual assault is so common in US prisons that, when arrested protesters of the 2004 Republican National Convention complained of the conditions under which they were being held, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association said they “should count their blessings” they weren’t being exposed to the “alleged rapes and sodomies” of Rikers Island Prison. According to Human Rights Watch, “Inmates [in the US] confront sexual assaults and violence—by each other as well as by staff…Staff in many facilities can engage in excessive or malicious use of force with near impunity.”

Sure sounds like torture.

Venezuelan prisons, however, are undoubtedly generally worse than US prisons. The Venezuelan government is not known, however, for the widespread and accepted policies of torture to extract information as countries to which the US sends suspected terrorists.

But another alternative for Posada, one which is not out of the question, is for the US to just let him go free. Arguing that Posada should be released from detention, his lawyer said, “The only person that has to fear Luis Posada Carriles is Fidel Castro.”

Well, that’s all right then. As long as the only person at risk is just a head of state that the US doesn’t like. Of course, anyone who wants to avoid becoming collateral damage should fear him too: the 1976 plane bombing resulted in 73 deaths, including a pregnant woman. But, that’s small potatoes. After all, tens of thousands of civilians have died in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power and bring the nation to the cusp of civil war.

But Posada now walks a thin line. Sure, he’s the US’s kind of terrorist, but then, so was Osama bin Laden, when he received training from the CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

So Posada better testify properly in the upcoming trial. He’s expected to discredit a key government witness in a high profile weapons case. Might be a bad idea, because Washington has a number of options. They could send him to Venezuela. Or they could send him to Cuba. Or, as US torture policies are in full swing at Gitmo, they could just decide to take him to Cuba, and deal with him themselves.

So Posada’s in a bad situation. But maybe the publicity surrounding torture hasn’t been all bad for Washington. After all, it still hasn’t told Venezuela whether or not it will extradite Posada. And torture can’t serve as a deterrent if no one knows about it, neither for Posada, nor for those who would object to the US presence in Iraq.

For recent information on Posada Carriles, see: