Why Isn't He on Trail

What example is President Bush setting for the world?

By Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: June 25, 2004

Why Isn't He on Trail

When Neris Gonzalez sees the photos of Abu Ghraib prison, she sees not abuse, but torture. Similar to other torture survivors, she sees not a few bad apples, but clear evidence of state-sponsored terrorism.

That's a harsh assessment. But for torture survivors, nothing causes a greater repulsion than government-sanctioned torture and violence. As has now become clear, the Bush administration has seemingly been involved in an attempt not simply to legalize or "redefine" torture -- but to carry it out on an unprecedented scale and, minimally, to create a public climate of tolerance.

Despite the government release of formerly classified memos (which do not exonerate the administration), this effort has arguably included the willful intent to evade laws against torture, countless deaths and "disappearances" of prisoners, and the creation of a network of secret and illegal detention facilities worldwide, purportedly accountable to no one but President Bush.

For Gonzalez, these are unsettling times, and it is personal. She was brutally tortured in 1979 by Salvadoran National Guardsmen, and in 2002 she won a historic lawsuit against two generals (Jose Guillermo Garcia and the notorious Carlos Vides Casanova). Ironically, they lost their trial not because they committed torture, but because of "command responsibility" -- they should have known that those under their command were committing torture and other atrocities.

Under this precept, the legal ramifications for today are inescapable.

Gonzalez was also troubled by all the recent hoopla surrounding former President Reagan's death. To her, it's inconceivable how a president who essentially trained, armed and financed El Salvador's military death squads could be so honored as a peacemaker. More than 75,000 of her compatriots were killed, many thousands were "disappeared," and several million were displaced. "It wasn't just the killings of the Jesuits, the nuns or Archbishop Romero. It was the total destruction of my country," she said. It also involved countless massacres and the destruction of the environment. And it wasn't just her country. "He financed an entire war in Central America," she said.

Even more unsettling to her are the recently revealed memos that show government lawyers essentially engaging in a Clintonesque explanation over the meaning of "torture." However, unlike the previous administration, it goes far beyond stained reputations. While the president was claiming last year to be "leading by example" in the movement against torture, the administration was plotting ways to inflict pain upon prisoners without "violating the law." One way was to argue that the laws against torture don't apply to the president, and that following his orders provided legal immunity. Another was to argue that the laws did not apply inside (or outside) the United States. The result was "forceful interrogations," which have resulted in the torture and humiliation of hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners worldwide. Many have been held incommunicado without charges or legal representation for more than two years.

Even though Amnesty International recently reminded the president that torture is a war crime, the administration obviously already knows this; all the legal wrangling took place in the context of avoiding war crimes prosecutions. This is also the context of the president's insistence in not simply exempting the United States from the U.N.'s International War Crimes Tribunal (which has since been withdrawn), but in blackmailing nations and actively sabotaging the court.

In releasing the memos (the Aug. 1, 2002, memo has now been shelved), the president did not disavow his Feb. 7, 2002, claim to have the legal right to "exempt" the United States from torture laws and treaties. Neither did he repudiate the belief that he can pick and choose which prisoners are entitled to full protection. Neither addressed nor repudiated are the secret and indefinite detentions of prisoners without charges (or legal representation), nor the maintenance of clandestine prisons -- all of which are clear violations of the Geneva Conventions.

Reflecting on her own case, Neris Gonzalez said: "Who would have thought that we (Gonzalez, Carlos Mauricio and Dr. Juan Romagoza) would have prevailed over two generals?" (All are U.S. residents.) The law that made their victory possible -- a historic $54 million judgment -- was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Under this law, it allows U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike to bring claims in U.S. courts for torture and extrajudicial killings committed in foreign countries.

Without such laws, governments would torture with impunity, she said. "Many Americans today are embarrassed of what their president is doing. It's the height of arrogance. What example is he setting for the world?

"He has destroyed relations between religions and peoples, culture and the environment," said Gonzalez. "The only things he hasn't been able to destroy are faith and hope. Why isn't he on trial?"

* Neris Gonzalez is a member of Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition Intl -- a group spearheading zero tolerance for torture worldwide. TASSC will be commemorating the UN International Day in Suport of Torture Victims and Survivors on June 26 with a 24-hour vigil in Washington DC. To learn more about this event and related activities, call 202-529-2991 or go to: Please consider supporting the work of TASSC with a financial contribution. Send to: TASSC, 4121 Harewood Rd. NE, Suite B, Washington DC 20017.

(c) Universal Press Syndicate 2004

About Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez:
Rodriguez & Gonzales can be reached at:

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