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No Safe Haven in U.S. For Torturers (Finally?)
November 19, 2007

On November 14th, Senator Dick Durbin (D- Ill), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, conducted hearings on the issue of the more than 1,000 people from 85 countries who are accused of such crimes as rape, killings, torture and genocide who are currently living in the United States, according to Department of Homeland Security figures.

America has become a haven for the world's war criminals because it lacks the laws needed to prosecute them, according to Sen. Durbin. He has sponsored legislation to correct that oversight.

As Renee Schoof of the McClatchey Newspapers reported this past week (the following is an extended excerpt of her piece), one of Durbin's key witnesses was Juan Romagoza Arce, the director of a clinic that provides free care for the poor in Washington.
In 1980, Romagoza was a young doctor caring for the poor in El Salvador during the early period of his country's civil war when the military seized him and tortured him for 22 days.

Romagoza told Durbin's subcommittee that he was given electric shocks until he lost consciousness, then kicked and burned with cigarettes until he came to. He also told of being sodomized, nearly asphyxiated in a hood containing calcium oxide -- which can cause severe shortness of breath when inhaled -- and subjected to waterboarding, including being hung by his feet with his head immersed in water until he nearly drowned.

Romagoza and two other torture victims brought a civil suit in U.S. federal court in West Palm Beach, Fla., against two Salvadoran generals who moved to Florida in 1989: Jose Guillermo Garcia, who was the minister of defense, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who was the director general of the Salvadoran National Guard.

In 2002, a jury found them liable for the torture of the three, and a judgment of $54.6 million was entered against them and upheld on appeal.

He testified that he'd received many threatening phone calls and letters at the time of the trial but that he'd overcome his fears and testified.

"I felt like I was in the prow of a boat and that there were many people rowing behind that were moving me into this moment," he told Durbin's panel. "I felt that if I looked back at them I'd weep, because I'd see them again, wounded, tortured, raped, naked, torn and bleeding. So I didn't look back, but I felt their support, their strength and their energy."

He said he and others were angry and frustrated that the two men "live in the same country where we have found refuge from their persecution."

Durbin said he'd send a letter asking the U.S. attorney in South Florida what was being done in the case.

"If he says he doesn't have authority, we should change the law. If he has the authority and is not using it, we should change the U.S. attorney," Durbin said.

Durbin and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., have introduced legislation that would authorize the government to prosecute anyone found in the U.S. who's guilty of genocide, human trafficking or recruiting child soldiers.

David Scheffer is a Northwestern University law professor who was the ambassador at large for war-crimes issues during the Clinton administration. He testified that after the experience of war-crimes tribunals after World War II and international tribunals prosecuting many atrocities over the past 15 years, "one would be forgiven to assume that surely in the United States the law is now well established to enable U.S. courts -- criminal and military -- to investigate and prosecute the full range of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. . . .

"That, however, is not the case."

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NOV. 14

The date of Wednesday's hearing is significant in the history of war crimes, Justice Department official Sigal P. Mandelker told the subcommittee:

On Nov. 14, 1935, the Third Reich issued regulations that deprived Germany's Jews of their citizenship and established a system to classify people as Jews based on their ancestry and affiliations.

On Nov. 14, 1945, the International Military Tribunal convened in Nuremberg, Germany, to try Nazi leaders.

On Nov. 14, 1995, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia issued its first indictments on genocide charges over the massacres of as many as 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. Two of the leaders indicted, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, remain fugitives.

The following is the text of Sen. Durbin's opening statement, "No Safe Haven: Accountability for Human Rights Violators in the United States."
Welcome to "No Safe Haven: Accountability for Human Rights Violators in the United States," the fifth hearing of the Judiciary Committee's recently-created Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law.

Unfortunately, our ranking member, Senator Coburn, is not able to be here today. But I know he feels as strongly as I do about the issue we will discuss today, and about the mission of this subcommittee. After a few opening remarks, we will turn to our witnesses.

First, an update on the activities of this subcommittee. This is the first time in Senate history that there has been a subcommittee focused on human rights. This year, we held the first Congressional hearings on the law of genocide and child soldiers. We also have held hearings on human trafficking and the impact of the so-called "material support" bar on the victims of serious human rights abuses.

I have been joined by Senator Coburn in proposing legislation to hold accountable perpetrators who have committed genocide, human trafficking and the use or recruitment of child soldiers. The Genocide Accountability Act passed the Senate unanimously and, after being reported last week by the House Judiciary Committee, is awaiting action on the House floor. The Trafficking in Persons Accountability Act and the Child Soldiers Accountability Act have both been reported unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee. I look forward to working with my colleagues to enact these proposals into law as soon as possible.

Today, another first. This is the first-ever Congressional hearing on the enforcement of human rights laws in the United States.


The end of the last century was marked by horrific human rights abuses in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda. The early years of this century have seen ongoing atrocities being committed in, among other places, Darfur and Burma.

While a growing number of perpetrators of human rights abuses have been held accountable in international, hybrid and state tribunals, a much larger number of perpetrators have escaped accountability for their crimes. Some of these human rights violators have fled to the United States.

In the Subcommittee's last hearing, we discussed how our immigration laws prevent some victims of human rights abuses from finding refuge in the United States. It is a tragic irony that, at the same time as we turn away these deserving refugees, war criminals have found sanctuary in our midst.

How we as a country treat suspected perpetrators of serious human rights abuses in the United States sends an important message to the world about our commitment to human rights and the rule of law. As the late Simon Wiesenthal, the world's leading Nazi hunter, often said, the appropriate response to human rights violations is "justice, not vengeance."

Now I would like to show a brief graphic video we created for this hearing to provide some context for our discussion.

[SHOW VIDEO]

Our country has a long and proud tradition of providing refuge to victims of persecution. These victims hope to leave behind the terrible abuses they have suffered in their countries of origin and begin a new life in the United States. They should not have to come across those who tortured them, as Edgegayehu Taye did at the hotel in Atlanta, Georgia where she worked as a waitress. One day, she walked out of an elevator and saw Kelbessa Negewo, the man who had supervised her torture in Ethiopia, who was working as a bellhop at the same hotel.

These victims should not have to fear retaliation or the threat of retaliation for speaking out against those who persecuted them, as one of our witnesses today, Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce, and many like him, have experienced.

I want to commend the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security for their efforts to hold accountable human rights violators who have found safe haven in our country. But more must be done. During today's hearing, we will explore what the U.S. government is doing and what more it could do to identify, investigate and prosecute suspected perpetrators of serious human rights abuses or deport them to be held accountable in an adequate forum. We will also explore what the U.S. government is doing to prevent such perpetrators from entering the United States in the first place.

To my knowledge, there has only been one indictment in the United States of a suspected perpetrator for committing a serious human rights abuse. This is unacceptable. We must ask ourselves why. Why do so many suspected human rights abusers find a safe haven in the United States? Is the government doing enough with its existing authority? Are new laws granting the government greater authority and jurisdiction necessary?

Torture is the only serious human rights violation that is a crime under U.S. law if committed outside the United States by a non-U.S. national. That's why Senator Coburn and I have introduced legislation that would give the government authority to prosecute individuals found in the United States who have participated in genocide, human trafficking and the use or recruitment of child soldiers anywhere in the world. I hope that this hearing will shed light on whether additional loopholes in the law hinder effective human rights enforcement.

The United States has a proud tradition of leadership in the promotion of human rights and the world watches our steps in this field closely. By holding perpetrators of serious human rights abusers found in the United States accountable, we will demonstrate our commitment to upholding the human rights principles we have long advocated and discourage human rights violators from fleeing to the United States.
(emphases added)

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