U.S. Sponsored Torture: A Religious Call To Action
General Assembly 2007 Event 2033
Eight people have been tortured to death by U.S. interrogators or their agents since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Another 34 people have committed suicide while in secret detention as suspects of terrorism in a program that has rounded up as many as 1,000 people.
Those statistics, compiled from the work of multiple human rights agencies, are fueling an interfaith campaign to end US-sponsored torture, according to a presentation Thursday (June 21) at the annual Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly (GA) here.
"We don't know how many people remain in secret prisons, and those secret prisons have not been closed," said Linda Gustitus, president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), who led a workshop on the topic attended by about 50 people at GA.
As many as 14 people listed as missing are believed to be part of the secret detentions, said Gustitus, who is also president of River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
In the workshop, Gustitus showed a 30-minute documentary in which two detainees graphically described their treatment in secret prisons in Morocco, Afghanistan and other countries. One man described a monthly process in which interrogators made small incisions on his genitals. Both men were held without being formally charged, appearing before a court or even having their families informed of their whereabouts.
"These are stories of 'disappearances,' a word we used to reserve for practices by South American dictators, but it is an American practice now," said Gustitus.
"No one knows where these people are, and the Red Cross doesn't get access to them," she said. "The reason is this allows you to do anything you want to these people," she added.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Administration has made a case for secret detentions and so-called "alternative interrogation techniques" as a method for protecting American citizens from future attacks. However religious leaders are banding together under NRCAT to assert that any form of torture is immoral. In fact the group recently changed its Web address to www.tortureisamoralissue.org.
"The common denominator in all religions comes down to one of our Unitarian Universalist (UU) principals—the inherent worth and dignity of all people," said Gustitus.
NRCAT was started by a Presbyterian minister in 2006 and now consists of more than 100 members including representatives of Islamic groups, many UU congregations and others. The group has defined an agenda for addressing US-sponsored torture.
"We need to stop the use of torture, close the secret prisons and hold the people involved accountable," said Gustitus.
Specifically, NRCAT is advocating bills in Congress including Senate bill 576 and companion bill HR 1415. Called the Restore the Constitution Act, it would revoke existing legislation that gives the president the sole authority to determine methods of interrogation and detain non-citizens indefinitely without any court process.
At the grass roots level, NRCAT recently received a grant to provide 1,000 congregations with a free educational package on state-sponsored torture. The package includes a documentary on DVD about torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as well as study questions and other resources.
"This is a great way to get a foothold on the issue in your congregations," Gustitus said.
Many of the roughly 50 attendees at the workshop were so moved by the presentation they volunteered to start a petition to circulate at the conference in hopes of getting action on the issue on the GA agenda. NRCAT also maintains a petition on its Web site for anyone wanting to publicly advocate opposition to US-sponsored torture.