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November 18, 2008

You may recall the plight of Sameh Khouzam: he fled Egypt in 1998 to avoid torture for being a Christian. Last summer, the U.S. government was ready to deport him back to Egypt, after assuring Khouzam that it received a “diplomatic assurance” from the Egyptian government that it would not torture him upon his return. So despite a federal court’s finding that he would likely be tortured back in Egypt, a deportation date was set. The ACLU stepped in on Khouzam’s behalf, and secured a stay of his deportation.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot about our government’s turn-a-blind-eye approach towards torture. Today we made public documents responsive to a July 2006 Freedom of Information Act request for information about this country’s compliance with domestic law and international agreements — such as the Convention Against Torture (CAT) — that prohibit the transfer of individuals to countries where they face a substantial risk of torture.

The documents paint a pretty ugly picture.

First, you have to know that diplomatic assurances are like secret handshakes between countries. In fact, until now we’ve had to take our government’s word for it that they even exist, because the State Department insists that these “assurances” are kept secret.

Case in point: the memos (PDF) between high-level State Department officials and Indian diplomats regarding the extradition of Sikh separatist Kulbir Singh Barapind. In the memo, Deputy Secretary of State John Bellinger states, “There is no doubt that torture generally remains a problem for Indian law enforcement.” Despite this, the U.S. government extradited Barapind in 2006 based on, you guessed it, diplomatic assurances from the Indian government that he would not be tortured upon his return.

The CAT prohibits the U.S. from transferring a person “to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” The United States signed CAT in 1988 and ratified the treaty in 1994. Despite this and our own domestic laws against torture, the U.S. has deported people based on diplomatic assurances from Syria, India, Egypt, Romania and Mexico. And those are just the ones we know about.

After the past eight years, this is surely a pot-calling-the-kettle-black scenario. But despite our own government’s dark history of torture, it doesn’t mean we still can’t hold it accountable. Scott Horton wrote of torture in the December issue of Harpers: “Open criminality is a cancer on democracy. It implicates all who know of the conduct and fail to act.”