Accountability for Torturers: Breaking the Cycle of Impunity

The historic ACLU lawsuit brought against psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, architects of the post-9/11 CIA torture program, has been settled out of court. Much has been said and written about these men who designed a program of unspeakable cruelty to the tune of $81 million in American tax dollars. My colleagues at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) work with individuals all over the world who have survived torture: in some cases, torture starkly resembling that which Mitchell and Jessen’s victims—Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, Gul Rahman and Suleiman Abdullah Salim, and more than 100 others—were subject to. But this case wasn’t just about Ben Soud, Rahman and Salim: it’s about every man, woman and child who has fallen victim to the worst that a human can do to another human, and their absolute right to hold their torturers accountable.

This lawsuit mattered because Americans deserve to know what viciousness and inhuman brutality these men suffered. We know it’s only when torture is forced out of the shadows that the horror of what it actually is and the reasons for its absolute legal prohibition can be understood and the fight to abolish it can gain momentum. This settlement may be the only moment in time that Mitchell and Jessen will be held accountable in some measure for the hell they brought down on Ben Soud, Rahman and Salim.

All three of these men suffered extreme brutality, both psychological and physical, including sleep deprivation, beatings, stress positions and water dousing. The U.S. government eventually released Ben Soud and Salim, but Rahman died in captivity, finally succumbing to hypothermia after being chained to a wall in a bitterly cold room after extensive torture. The details of the torture and subsequent death are gruesome. Every American should be outraged that this happened in our names, that it was done by our government and paid for with our taxes. And for what: absolutely nothing. No lives were saved, no plots thwarted, no ticking bombs defused as a result of torturing three men in hidden government black sites. No. Two men now struggle mightily each day just to survive with crippling, ongoing symptoms, and one man is dead while his family grieves. Lives were destroyed. That’s why this lawsuit mattered.

The horrors of Mitchell and Jessen’s actions and the system which sanctioned them are almost too sickening to stomach. They were hired by the CIA not only to torture, but to conduct experiments on human beings, to identify and refine torture methods, to push the very limits of human endurance and then to train others to inflict the techniques they developed. This lawsuit mattered because the victims of these experiments in torture are three human beings—like all of us—and one of them was tortured to death. The two who survived will never be the same again.

This lawsuit held the possibility that two men responsible for their deplorable actions would be held accountable, and this settlement should be hailed as a victory for accountability—but the specter of torture has not disappeared. Torture is ongoing in many places around the world. People are being tortured as you read this. Children’s bones are being shattered. Men are being waterboarded. Women are being raped in the presence of their children and husbands. Mitchell and Jessen are hardly the only torturers in the world. But seldom are perpetrators of torture held accountable. The cycle of impunity must be broken. This is the time to pay rapt attention, so that we may never relive this scenario again in this country. To join together in declaring, “Never Again.” That’s why this lawsuit mattered.

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