Experts: Torture Issue Needs More Attention

While Congress works to fund torture victims assistance centers at home and abroad, some experts say Washington needs to scrutinize countries that torture people and make sure torturers don't seek safe haven in America.

Experts estimate that about 500,000 torture survivors live in the United States — many of whom fled their native countries to escape the practice. About 30 percent of all refugees in America are torture survivors from Africa, parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

"Torture is fundamentally a political weapon, employed by repressive regimes to shape cultures through fear," Douglas Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture (search) (CVT) in Minnesota, told a House committee during a recent hearing on the issue.

Since the CVT was founded in 1985, centers have been established in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. CVT has international branches as well.

The 1998 Torture Victims Relief Act (search) is the main major source of government funds for treatment centers in the United States and assists global victims through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (search), the U.S. Agency for International Development (search) and donations to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (search), to which the United States is the biggest contributor.

In 2002, the United States distributed $25 million — $10 million for U.S. treatment centers, $10 million for treatment centers abroad and $5 million for the U.N. Voluntary Fund.

The Torture Victims Relief Act expires in September, however, and lawmakers are looking to re-up the funds. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., introduced a bill that gives U.S. centers roughly $20 million to $30 million per year through fiscal year 2006. Another $11 million to $13 million per year would go to foreign centers and $6 million to $8 million would be given annually to the U.N. fund.

"The use of torture is inhumane but allowing victims to go it alone cannot be tolerated," Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who sponsored the companion bill, said last month. "We cannot turn a blind eye to this crisis, and this funding will give these victims hope and a chance at a new life."

Smith's bill was passed by the House International Relations Committee July 23 and has been sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Coleman's bill is awaiting a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But experts who support helping torture victims say the aid shouldn't come only after victims are tortured. They say the United States needs to address torture allegations in countries it considers friends.

While it's good to fund the centers, "it's also vital to prevent torture so that we don't have any more victims," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

The Bush administration has spoken out against torture, but "a bit more moral clarity is in order" when it comes to persuading allies to stop torture practices, Malinowski said.

Roberta Cohen, senior fellow for foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution (search), said the United States could find itself in a difficult position if it tries to hold accountable countries that are needed in the war on terrorism.

The torture issue "will be held hostage against" other desires by the United States, she said.

"Suddenly, these countries have some foreign policy game for us to overlook" their torture practices, Cohen said. "Dealing with torture is part of a political issue between states, among states and even within society. It's quite difficult."

Another factor is that torturers are being given safe haven in the United States. The  United Nations Convention Against Torture (search) (CAT) prohibits the United States from extraditing an alien if it's thought he or she may be tortured in the home country.

Some say this loophole gives a safety net to foreign torturers hiding out in the U.S. — as many as 1,000 of them, according to the U.S. government.

"The biggest problem is, no matter how awful someone is, they make a torture claim and they can't be returned," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (search). "It certainly hamstrings the ability of the federal government to control immigration."

If the United States sticks closely to the convention, "that has a very profound impact on who we can return in a time of great national security," Stein said.

Steward Verdery, assistant secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy (search) at the Department of Homeland Security, testified during a recent House subcommittee hearing that DHS is studying about 20 cases involving CAT and terrorism.

He said the U.S. commitment to CAT challenges the government's ability to protect Americans by not allowing alien suspects to be detained indefinitely.

"Some of the people we are forced to release are not people the American public would want to be released," he said, adding that U.S. attempts to deport torturers often are met with host country refusals to let them back in.