No More Immunity for George W. Bush - Abroad, at Least

The former US president's visit would have been his first to Europe since his waterboarding disclosure in Decision Points. (Photograph: Anne McQuary/Bloomberg)

No More Immunity for George W. Bush - Abroad, at Least

UNITED NATIONS - Former U.S. President George W. Bush may have mostly vanished from the headlines since January 2009, but the alleged crimes committed by his administration are not forgotten.

On Monday, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released the 'Preliminary Bush Torture Indictment', a document outlining the core aspects of the case against Bush for torture, and his violations of the Convention Against Torture to which the United States is a signatory.

The move by the CCR, in conjunction with over 60 other human rights and legal advocacy groups, including the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), coincides with the ninth anniversary of the day Bush decided that "enemy combatants" were no longer entitled to the fundamental protections granted to every human being by the Geneva Conventions.

On Monday morning, two torture victims in Geneva had been planning to file criminal complaints against the former U.S. president, who was scheduled to arrive in Switzerland on Feb. 12 to speak at an event there.

Since Swiss law requires the presence of a torturer on Swiss soil before the investigation can proceed, rights activists say this would have been the perfect opportunity to hold Switzerland to its obligations as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture and send a strong message to the ex-president that he is not eligible for special exemption under the law, even as a former head of state.

Ultimately, Bush canceled his travel plans.

"In November 2009, Bush admitted that he authorized the torture of detainees in U.S. custody," Katherine Gallagher, senior staff attorney at CCR and vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), told IPS.

"We are supposed to be a country with a strong rule of law and when we act with such blatant impunity here at home it sends a very bad message to the rest of the world," she added.

In an interview with Matt Lauer on MSNBC in November last year, Bush claimed, "waterboarding [simulated drowning of a prisoner] is legal because the lawyer said it was legal. I'm not a lawyer." Asked if he would make the same decision again today, Bush answered, "Oh yeah, I would."

Along with the indictment brought by the CCR, two other cases of universal jurisdiction in Spain are already well underway, investigating the actions of the 'Bush 6' - constitutional lawyers in Bush's administration, all authors of the torture manual and architects of the legal framework that Bush invoked when prosecutions were brought against him.

"Both of these issues are part of a global accountability effort which I hope will come full circle to the United States," Gallagher told IPS. "With the Bush 6, we see this pattern of people trying to get each other off the hook and pretend like this is acceptable - but it's not."

While judges from Madrid to Geneva take on the previous U.S. administration, the White House is silent. Neither President Barack Obama, nor any spokesperson of his administration, has offered a word in support of its citizens who are fighting to end impunity.

Leading rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the U.S. government to thoroughly investigate the complaints being brought against the former president, stressing the need for impunity to be addressed immediately.

"We are asking the U.S. to at least investigate the potential for prosecution," Laura Pitter, a spokesperson at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

"There is no reason why U.S. courts should not open up such an investigation, even if it is based solely on what Bush has already admitted publicly," she added.

Obama's public poker face was belied by scores of leaked cables in the deluge released by the whistle-blower Wikileaks in December last year. The documents exposed that behind its silent exterior, the Obama administration was corresponding furiously with Spanish officials to keep the investigative cases off the radar.

"This is very disappointing coming from a president who used to be a constitutional law professor," Gallagher told IPS.

Regardless of Washington's indifference, human rights champions are forging ahead with their case.

"Bush is a torturer and deserves to be remembered as such," said Gavin Sullivan, solicitor and counterterrorism program manager at ECCHR.

"He bears ultimate responsibility for authorizing the torture of thousands of individuals at places like Guantanamo and secret CIA 'black sites' around the world. As all states are obliged to prosecute such torturers, Bush has good reason to be very worried."

And perhaps even more important than the success of the indictment, Gallagher said, are the scores of survivors of torture whose voices are not being heard, or who are still hidden away in Guantanamo who deserve, at least now, to see justice.

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