Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Accountability: It Could Happen to Yoo

Despite the U.S. government’s attempts to resist accountability for serious human rights abuses committed against terror suspects, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled recently that John Yoo, a former lawyer for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and author of the infamous “torture memos,” must testify in court about his role in designing the legal framework supporting such abuses. The court's ruling is a significant breakthrough for human rights organizations such as the World Organization for Human Rights USA, which have long advocated for accountability for detainee abuse.

The lawsuit, filed in January by Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen currently serving a 17-year sentence on terrorism charges, alleges that Padilla was tortured while detained for nearly four years before he was charged by the U.S. government. In denying the government’s motion to dismiss the suit, Judge White, a Bush appointee, concluded that “government lawyers [like any other lawyers] are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their conduct.” The order represents the first time that a U.S. government lawyer could be held potentially liable for the abuse of detainees.

In allowing the lawsuit to go forward, Judge White rejected the government’s argument that courts are precluded from reviewing top-level administrative decisions in wartime, or that allowing allegations of unconstitutional treatment could damage U.S. national security or foreign relations. Judge White ruled that Padilla may be able to prove that Yoo’s memos “set in motion a series of events that resulted in the deprivation of Padilla’s constitutional rights.” According to the judge, the treatment alleged by Padilla violates the Constitution, “and John Yoo should have known that.”

This major decision demonstrates the importance of the rule of law. If John Yoo, or the U.S. government, is ordered to pay damages for their role in Padilla’s mistreatment, this case stands to advance the U.S. government's compliance with international human rights norms, which require states to afford justice and reparation to victims of state-sponsored human rights abuse.

While a civil remedy is an important first step, however, justice demands criminal investigations into human rights abuses committed by or at the direction of U.S. government officials, as well as prosecutions, where warranted. This case brings the United States one step closer to upholding its responsibility to investigate and punish human rights abusers, and to afford justice and reparation to victims of such abuse.

-Ari Levin, Human Rights & Anti-Terrorism Legal Intern

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