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Demonstration of waterboarding by protesters in Iceland May 2008

If you were lucky enough to have been listening to BBC Radio 4’s “The World at One” last Friday lunchtime, you would have been treated to a chat with William Taft. Now to regulars on this blog William Taft is an old friend.

Warm, smooth, effortlessly urbane, he is a natural diplomat and ambassador for his county. Taft is an attorney who has served various US administrations as a legal adviser. An advisor in his time to George W Bush. He is also the son of William Howard Taft III, and great grandson of President William Howard Taft. An oligarch of the first water.

An oligarch who was clearly, audibly, angry about his subject.

Now George W Bush has also been in the press this week speaking to “The Times” in a promo piece for his new book “Decision Points” stating that he was “damn right” to authorise “waterboarding” of Al Qaeda suspects. Waterboarding is the practice of repeatedly bringing a person to the point of drowning to encourage him to tell you things you want to hear. George W Bush thinks waterboarding is both legal and appropriate.

William Taft knows that it is neither and that was making this silk angry.

Now he wasn’t basing this simply on International Agreements that the US has signed up to and should abide by such as the United Nations Convention against Torture, which at Article 1 declares “the term torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purpose as obtaining from him…information or a confession…at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official”. And further, to drive the point even more firmly, at article 2 it states “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture”. So clear as day then, it’s illegal to torture.

Well, we know the way Bush sought to get round that one. He simply said the US did not see waterboarding as torture. End of. And that was that.

So it was most illuminating for us here to hear this former State Department lawyer tell us that “the US tried and executed Japanese who waterboarded captured American pilots during the Second World War”. It was electric – tantamount to accusing the former President of the United States of War Crimes.

Could this be true? It sent me off to the archives to see if this stood up because if it does there is little defence for Bushy boy here.  And it certainly seems that it is true. Back in 1947 the United States charged a number of Japanese with torture of United States service personnel captured in World War II in Singapore. The torture was effected by waterboarding. The man who authorised the waterboarding here, Lt Col. Sumida, was hanged, and others lower down the chain of command like Yukio Asana, were found guilty of war crimes and got fifteen years hard labour. Another trial saw a man called Hata get 25 years. As The Washington Post on October 5th 2006 said reporting this matter in a retrospective piece “In 1947 the US called it a War Crime”.

The academics have condemned Waterboarding too. Judge Evan Wallace of the US Court of International Trade wrote an article “Drop by Drop: Forgetting the History of Water Torture in US Courts” for Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. Well, maybe that was just “winner’s justice” a one off, a case, as they say in legal circles, that turns on its own merits; and it was all a long time ago, far away and featured foreigners and not US officials. Best forget it eh?

Except that the United States Courts have also taken a dim view of “waterboarding” stateside too. In 1983 Reagan’s Department of Justice prosecuted a Texas Sheriff, one James Parker and three of his deputies who waterboarded a suspect. The Sheriff got ten years in the poky, and the deputies four years apiece.

So George, (and anyone else who wants to stand this one up), how come, if this practice is so abhorrent that the US will hang foreign servicemen for indulging in it, so vile the United States Government sign up to a treaty against it, and so egregious that the Department of Justice will place its own officials in jail for utilising it , you alone stand up for its use?

Don’t all rant at once.

Copyright David Macadam 2010

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