Civil rights, Latino groups charge Gonzales unfit for office

Torture role condemned, ‘No’ vote urged

In Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, senators mostly held their punches on Alberto R. Gonzales’ role in the torture of Iraq war detainees. But defenders of democratic rights branded Gonzales unfit for the office of U.S. attorney general and called on the senators to reject him.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents detainees at the Guantanamo detention center, urged people to sign their online petition calling for a “No” vote on Gonzales.

“We have seen the terrible effect of his policies on human beings firsthand,” a CCR appeal states. “Gonzales and his circle discussed specific torture techniques like mock burial and ‘water boarding’ when the victim is made to feel he is drowning, and approved the use of dogs, hooding and extreme sensory deprivation, all forbidden by the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant Against Torture.”

Latino civil rights leaders held a press conference in San Francisco Jan. 10 to urge Gonzales’ rejection. The nominee “has a very troubling view of our government’s checks and balances,” said Maria Blanco, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and former senior counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). She cited Gonzales’ testimony to the Senate that the president, and not the courts, has the right to decide legal issues, including defining torture so narrowly as to allow physical punishment short of death or permanent physical harm.

“I agree that these are difficult times,” Blanco said, “but they will only be made more difficult for our troops and for our standing in the world, if Mr. Gonzales is approved.”

Dr. Zita Cabello, a Chilean-born filmmaker, told the news conference that Bush’s position on terrorism reminded her of another Sept. 11, when in 1973, the Chilean armed forces under Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. “For 17 long years they destroyed life, honor and human dignity in the name of defending democracy,” she said.

Her brother was murdered by the Pinochet regime. Cabello and her family came to the United States. “We felt safe.” But now, she added, “I am afraid that one day there will be no place left for us to be safe.”

“The fact that Mr. Gonzales is a Mexican American who has worked his way out of poverty gains much respect,” said Mercedes Castillo, chair of the National Latina/o Law Students Association and a law student at U.C.-Davis. “However, this is not enough to automatically garner the support of our community.”

Castillo said Gonzales should be rejected because he espouses an ideology that would deprive people of civil rights and subject detainees to torture, detention without legal counsel and even death.

Mexican American Political Association San Francisco chair, Paula Fiscal, presented a statement from MAPA National President Nativo Lopez. “MAPA cannot support the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as U.S. attorney general,” the statement said. “We can only support a candidate who has a demonstrated commitment to the rule of law.”

Asked about Gonzales’ potential impact on California’s troubled justice system, Blanco said, “In California we have great problems of abuse and lack of accountability. When you start undermining conventions for humane trial, that kind of thinking spreads.” Fiscal noted that African Americans and Latinos make up most of the prison population, and a Gonzales confirmation would “say to the rest of the world that it’s okay to do whatever we want to prisoners.”

In Washington, People for the American Way (PFAW) cited Gonzales’ authorship of an August 2002 memo in which he concluded that “the president could lawfully order the use of torture and those following his orders would be immune from criminal prosecution.”

The senators have avoided questioning Gonzales about Bush’s culpability in the torture.

On Dec. 20, the American Civil Liberties Union released FBI e-mails and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (see PWW Jan. 8-15). It included a May 22, 2004, e-mail that refers to a secret Executive Order signed by Bush, authorizing torture.

An agent who identified himself as “On Scene Commander, Baghdad” sent the e-mail to FBI headquarters, seeking guidance on whether to report the severe abuse of detainees he was witnessing.

“We are aware that prior to a revision in policy last week, an Executive Order signed by President Bush authorized the following interrogation techniques, among others, sleep ‘management,’ use of MWDs [military work dogs], stress positions.”

It continues, “According to a Task Force 6-26 e-mail stream I have seen, the following techniques can no longer be used absent the high level authorization: stress positions, MWDs, sleep management, stripping (except for health inspection) and environmental manipulation (e.g. loud music).”

All are forbidden under the Geneva Conventions and the Covenant Against Torture both of which the U.S. is a signatory. The FBI e-mails can be viewed at the following ACLU web site:

The vast majority of the torture victims at Abu Ghraib were innocent civilians swept up in dragnet U.S. military operations. Worldwide outrage forced the military to release many of them. Yet thousands more, including the 600 detainees at Guantanamo, remain in jail, held without criminal charges or the right of legal representation. The Bush administration plans to build prisons for their permanent incarceration. click here for Spanish text