Open Criminal Investigation Ahead of Ex-President’s Visit to British Columbia
October 12, 2011
The US government’s refusal even to investigate Bush’s role in authorizing torture makes it all the more important that Canada take its obligation seriously. Canada’s commitment to respecting human rights should not be put on hold when an ex-US president comes to visit.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch

(Toronto) – The Canadian government should investigate possible criminal charges against former US President George W. Bush for his role in authorizing the torture of detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. Bush is scheduled to visit to Surrey, British Columbia on October 20, 2011.

There is overwhelming evidence that Bush and other senior administration officials authorized and implemented a regime of torture and ill-treatment of hundreds of detainees in US custody,including at least two Canadian citizens. Under the Convention against Torture, Canada is obligated to prosecute individuals suspected of committing torture found in its territory if other countries have failed to do so. The Obama administration has failed to investigate allegations of involvement in torture by Bush or other senior administration officials, and none are expected.

“The US government’s refusal even to investigate Bush’s role in authorizing torture makes it all the more important that Canada take its obligation seriously,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Canada’s commitment to respecting human rights should not be put on hold when an ex-US president comes to visit.”

Canada ratified the Convention against Torture in 1987 and incorporated its provisions into the Canadian criminal code. Under domestic Canadian law, suspected torturers can be prosecuted for conduct regardless of whether the alleged victim is Canadian or the conduct took place in Canada, as long as the person is found present in Canada.

On September 21, 2011, Amnesty International sent a memorandum to Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general detailing the basis for charges against Bush. On September 29, the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sent the minister of justice a draft indictment setting forth the factual and legal basis for charging Bush with torture.

Human Rights Watch has reported on specific interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration, including waterboarding, confining detainees in a dark box for up to 18 hours at a time, prolonged sleep deprivation, exposure to heat or cold, pushing detainees into walls, and the use of stress positions.

Bush himself admitted that he authorized “waterboarding” and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” against certain alleged terrorism suspects, methods that constitute torture or ill-treatment in violation of international law. On several occasions, beginning in April 2008 as well as in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, Bush said that after seeking the advice of Justice Department lawyers, he authorized use of waterboarding on the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Khalid Sheihk Mohammad, and suspected al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. The US government has prosecuted waterboarding, a form of mock execution simulating drowning, as a war crime for more than a century.

Even without Bush’s presence in Canada, the Canadian government can charge Bush for torture if a Canadian citizen is the victim. On September 26, 2002, US authorities detained Syrian-born Canadian national Maher Arar, while on his way home to Montreal, at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City, and flew him to Syria, via Jordan. Arar alleges that in Syria he was beaten in the stomach, face, and back of the neck, whipped with a two-inch thick electric cable on the palms, hips, and lower back, and interrogated for up to 18 hours a day. He was confined in a dark, dank, underground, grave-like cell that was three feet wide, six feet long, and seven feet tall for more than 10 months.

The Syrian government released Arar after nearly a year, finding he had no connection to any terrorist or criminal activity. The Canadian government, following an extensive inquiry, cleared Arar of all terror connections, offered him a formal apology, acknowledged playing a role in his rendition, and provided compensation of CA$10.5 million plus legal fees. The inquiry expressly concluded that Arar had been tortured in Syria. The Bush administration refused to assist the Canadian inquiry and disregarded Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request that the US government acknowledge its inappropriate conduct.

In February 2011, Bush was scheduled to address a charity gala in Switzerland when news broke that two individuals planned to file complaints with the Geneva Canton prosecutor against him for authorizing torture and other ill-treatment. Amid reports that there would be protests and criminal complaints, the trip was cancelled. The complaints alleged that one current Guantanamo detainee and another former Guantanamo detainee endured beatings, shackling in stress positions, prolonged food and sleep deprivation, and extremes of heat and cold while in US custody.

Bush attended an unpublicized event in Canada in September, the same month former Vice President Dick Cheney also traveled to Canada. Prior to Cheney's trip, Human Rights Watch urged the Canadian government to investigate his role in authorizing torture and the CIA secret detention program. At the same time, New Democratic Party Member of Parliament and Immigration Critic Don Davies urged the immigration minister to bar Cheney’s entry into Canada based on provisions of Canada's immigration law which prohibit entry into the country of certain suspected criminals.

“The US record on accountability for detainee abuse has been abysmal,” Roth said. “Canada has an opportunity to fill that void and send the message that no one, not even a former head of state, can get away with torture.” 

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