European Nations May Investigate Bush Officials Over Prisoner Treatment

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

BERLIN, April 21 -- European prosecutors are likely to investigate CIA and Bush administration officials on suspicion of violating an international ban on torture if they are not held legally accountable at home, according to U.N. officials and human rights lawyers.

Many European officials and civil liberties groups said they were disappointed by President Obama's opposition to trials of CIA interrogators who subjected terrorism suspects to waterboarding and other harsh tactics. They said the release last week of secret U.S. Justice Department memos authorizing the techniques will make it easier for foreign prosecutors to open probes if U.S. officials do not.

Some European countries, under a legal principle known as universal jurisdiction, have adopted laws giving themselves the authority to investigate torture, genocide and other human rights crimes anywhere in the world, even if their citizens are not involved. Although it is rare for prosecutors to win such cases, those targeted can face arrest if they travel abroad.

Martin Scheinin, the U.N. special investigator for human rights and counterterrorism, said the interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration clearly violated international law. He said the lawyers who wrote the Justice Department memos, as well as senior figures such as former vice president Richard B. Cheney, will probably face legal trouble overseas if they avoid prosecution in the United States.

"Torture is an international crime irrespective of the place where it is committed. Other countries have an obligation to investigate," Scheinin said in a telephone interview from Cairo. "This may be something that will be haunting CIA officials, or Justice Department officials, or the vice president, for the rest of their lives."

Manfred Nowak, another senior U.N. official who investigates torture accusations, said the Obama administration is violating terms of the U.N. Convention Against Torture by effectively granting amnesty to CIA interrogators. He said the United States, as a signatory to the treaty, is legally obligated to investigate suspected cases of torture. He also said Washington must provide compensation to torture victims, including al-Qaeda leaders who were waterboarded.

"One cannot buy the argument anymore that this does not amount to torture," he said. "These memos are nothing but an attempt to circumvent the absolute prohibition on torture."

Nowak, an Austrian law professor based in Vienna, acknowledged that there is no mechanism in the anti-torture treaty to punish governments that ignore its provisions. From a political standpoint, he said, it is more important for the White House or Congress to authorize an independent commission to conduct a public examination of how terrorism suspects were treated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I still have full trust in the Obama administration to do the right thing," he said in a telephone interview from Bangkok. "It is more important for the United States to overcome a dark chapter in its history."

On Tuesday, Obama for the first time raised the possibility of creating a bipartisan commission to examine the Bush administration's handling of terrorism suspects. He also said he would leave it up to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to determine whether to prosecute senior officials who approved waterboarding and other tactics.

Several CIA and Bush administration officials have been targeted for prosecution in Europe, though the cases have generally not progressed very far.

In Spain, a human rights group is pushing prosecutors to investigative six senior Bush administration officials for allegedly sanctioning the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last week, Spanish prosecutors recommended dropping the case after Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido called it a politicized attempt to turn Spanish courts "into a plaything." A Spanish judge will make the final decision.

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