By John Hamilton
Finally, there's been a criminal indictment for acts of torture.
No, this isn't a case involving CIA operatives waterboarding high-value detainees. It's not a case, either, involving the Justice Department lawyers who redefined torture to allow for such niceties as "walling," "sleep deprivation," and "insects placed in a confinement box."
It's a case involving a 16-year-old runaway in the town of Tracy, a dusty suburb of Stockton surrounded by the farms of California's central valley. Husband and wife Michael Schumacher and Kelly Lau Schumacher and two accomplices stand accused of keeping the teen shackled as a prisoner in their home, where he says he was starved, repeatedly beaten with a baseball bat, and burned with corrosive chemicals. This month a grand jury indicted the four suspects on seventeen counts, including kidnapping, aggravated mayhem, and torture. This June they will stand trial for their alleged crimes. If convicted, they face sentences of up to life in prison.
The Tracy case reminds us--as if we needed a reminder--that torture is among the most serious crimes that one human being can inflict on another. It's on a par with rape, with slavery, or murder. The U.S. felony statute against torture calls for up to 20 years in prison for anyone committing the act, or conspiring to commit torture.
Yet a number of well-documented cases of torture have gone unpunished. At secret prisons operated overseas by the CIA, and at military prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, detainees in the "War on Terror" were subjected to physical abuse, prolonged sleep deprivation, and an infamous simulated drowning known as "waterboarding." Such torments would have been at home in that God-forsaken home in Tracy. Instead, they were official U.S. policy.
So what happens when those who ordered the crime of torture are high-ranking officials in the executive branch? What if the torturers were CIA and military officers, answering to the Attorney General, the Vice President, the National Security Advisor, or even the President himself? Can these people be held to account?
I set out to try to answer that question in a new documentary I created for Link TV, "Torture on Trial".
[WATCH: Contains graphic images] "Torture on Trial," an original production of Link TV:
In his relatively few public comments on the issue, President Obama has taken a firm stand against torture, but has gone to great lengths to avoid answering questions about whether officials in the former Bush administration should be held to account for violations of U.S. and international laws. Responding to a question from Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein about whether to prosecute former Bush administration officials, the President said that, "nobody's above the law and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen." But he hedged against prosecutions, saying that, "generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."
But the door to accountability is not closed. Though he has said he does not favor a Congressional inquiry, Obama has--grudgingly--said that it is up to the attorney general to investigate whether laws were broken.
So while accountability remains an option, how might it take place?
For starters, accountability could mean the impeachment of Judge Jay Bybee of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, or the disbarment of John Yoo. At the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, the pair co-authored a serious of now-infamous memos that argued an interrogation technique crossed the line into the realm of torture only if it produced pain equivalent to what a prisoner might experience during "organ failure...or even death."
Accountability might take shape through a non-partisan commission of inquiry--as Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy has suggested--similar to the 9/11 commission. Though the Obama administration has blown the lid off many of the dirty secrets of the Bush administration's interrogation tactics, there are still a great many unanswered questions swirling around the issue of torture. The task of reconstructing the past was made much more difficult after the CIA admitted its agents destroyed 92 videotapes showing "enhanced interrogation" methods used against detainees.
Finally, accountability might mean the appointment of a special prosecutor by the attorney general. That could ultimately culminate in real prosecutions of those found to have committed felony acts of torture.
The interrogation rooms of Guantanamo are a long way from the Schumacher's two-storey home in Tracy. But torture is torture. Shouldn't the law apply equally to all those who mete it out?
John Hamilton is a producer with Link TV, a nationwide television network available in more than 31 million U.S. homes as a basic service on DIRECTV channel 375 and DISH Network channel 9410. Select programs are shown on more than 50 urban cable systems, including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. "Torture on Trial" premieres on Link TV this Sunday, May 3rdat 10:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. PT, and will be viewable in its entirety online at LinkTV.org