Marguerite Feitlowitz International Herald Tribune 8/18/06

WASHINGTON–The gray-haired Caucasian woman. The five men in black whose black masks had openings only for their eyes. The older man, graying at the temples. The young woman with shoulder-length blond hair.

Who are these individuals who, according to testimony reported in The New York Times on July 7, are players in the “shadow world” of rendition, in which secretly captured prisoners are secretly transferred to obscure compounds in obscure countries to be tortured by cooperating foreign nationals or U.S. operatives in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”

Laid Saidi and Khaled el-Masri, erroneously detained and then tortured as “rendered captives,” provided the above thumbnail descriptions of the individuals who handled, interrogated or checked in on them during situations of hideous abuse.

Who, we must wonder, was the translator who confused the plural for tires (tirat) with that of airplanes (tayarat) in a flawed report that led to Saidi being “rendered” to a series of torture chambers in Africa?

It may be that the individuals referred to above are considered among the best and brightest in this war against terror. But as we know from “dirty wars” of the past, individuals who would otherwise be marginalized as sociopaths can rise to positions of considerable power in these situations. Like Julio Simón, known as Julian the Turk, one of the most notorious and brutal torturers of Argentina’s dirty war, from 1976 to 1983.

Simón was recently tried in Buenos Aires and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the torture of José Poblete and Gertrudis Hlaczik, and the selling of their 8-month-old daughter, Maria Victoria, to a military couple who knew very well where she had come from.

Poblete and Hlaczik were kidnapped along with other members of a Christian organization active on behalf of the handicapped. Poblete had lost both of his legs in an accident, a fact that enflamed Simón to acts that would strain credulity–torturing his stumps, making him walk on his hands, forcing him to box with his tortured companions–but for Poblete’s testimony and that of a group of survivors.

Hlaczik, who was pregnant at the time of her kidnapping, was murdered after being tortured. This case, which even by the standards of Argentina’s dirty war was of a sickening perversity, brought about a major reversal in the Argentina legal code.

When the country returned to fragile democracy in 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín promulgated two controversial amnesty laws that allowed thousands of lower-ranking, hands-on torturers to escape prosecution. Over the years, jurists, scholars, and human-rights groups pressed for the overturn of these laws, which violate both the Argentine Constitution and international law. In June 2005, the Argentine Supreme Court nullified those laws. The first man to be tried was a former commissioner general of the Buenos Aires provincial police, Miguel Etchecolatz; Julio Simón was the second. Other trials are to come.

The Bush administration, its agencies and operators should not believe they are destined to be exempt from such legal reckonings.

In the coming months, Italy and France will try Argentine repressors for the torture and disappearance of their own nationals during the dirty-war dictatorship. This is possible after so many years, after incidents that took place so far away, because of the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, according to which some crimes are so heinous that there is no statute of limitations and the trial may take place anywhere.

The law is intended to protect us from the Simóns of this world. From the black-masked interrogators in the shadows. From the graying supervisor who comes round to question the men hanging by their wrists from the ceiling. From the blonde woman checking in on the man whose head is being dunked in a tub of foul water. From those who gave and executed the orders to torture, brutalize and dehumanize.

But the laws exist for another reason as well, and that is to protect us from our worst selves, from descending to the lowest depths of our humanity. The law provides us with a rational, commonly ratified code of morality. In subverting this shared deference to law, the Bush administration, with its zeal for secrecy, intimidation and shadowy alliances, endangers us all.

Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of “A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture.” She teaches at Bennington College, Vermont.

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