Attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a war crimes lawsuit today in Germany against outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking U.S. officials, for their role in the torture of prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo. We go to Berlin to speak with CCR President Michael Ratner. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a criminal complaint in Germany today against outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The complaint requests the German federal prosecutor open an investigation—and, ultimately, a criminal prosecution—looking into the responsibility of high-ranking U.S. officials for authorizing war crimes in the name of the so-called war on terror.
Former White House counsel and current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former CIA Director George Tenet are also charged in the complaint. The suit is being brought on behalf of a dozen torture victims—11 Iraqi citizens who were held at Abu Ghraib prison and one Guantánamo detainee. The plaintiffs claim they were victims of electric shock, severe beatings, sleep and food deprivation and sexual abuse. The complaint filed today is related to a 2004 complaint that was dismissed. This new complaint is filed under new circumstances, including the recent resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Germany’s laws on torture and war crimes permit the prosecution of suspected war criminals wherever they may be found.
We go first to Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, joining us now from Berlin. Democracy Now! welcomes you, Michael. Can you explain the lawsuit and the major news conference that you held today? The world, for the first time, really, picking up this story.
MICHAEL RATNER: I think that’s right, Amy. This is the first time they’re really picking it up. The press conference was well attended. This is news all over the world. I mean, one of the things we noticed about this lawsuit was the number of groups willing to join. The Center for Constitutional Rights, we have a major group of human rights organizations under the title FIDH, the International Federation of Human Rights, which has 140 branches. We have Theo Van Boven, the former rapporteur for the United Nations on torture has joined the suit, Nobel Prize winners and others. It’s really—it’s taken off. I think people are tired, really tired, and angry over what the United States has perpetrated in the name of fighting the so-called war on terror.
What we did today was file a 220-page complaint—we’ve been working on this for quite a while—against 14 high-level U.S. officials, Rumsfeld being the lead one, but, of course, General Sanchez being in there, Tenet, the former head of the CIA, and a number of the lawyers who wrote some of the so-called torture memos, particularly lawyers Yoo and Bybee. The procedure here is you file that complaint with the prosecutor, and the prosecutor then decides whether or not to begin an investigation.
As you said, we did file a case, a similar case, in 2004. The prosecutor in 2004 dismissed the case. He dismissed it really for legal reasons on the face of it, but for political reasons, as well. The legal reasons, he said, were the United States, it appeared to him, was still investigating up the chain of command and was making an effort to look into who was responsible for the war crimes and the torture that went from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. We thought that was a wrong ruling then. We didn’t think there was any evidence the U.S. was looking up the chain of command.
But here, we’re now even in a different situation that makes that excuse really irrelevant and not possible again. Two things have happened. One is, a year and a half has passed since we filed the last case, and, of course, nothing has been done to go after Donald Rumsfeld or Tenet or Sanchez or any of the other people we’ve named. So, that alone says a lot about what the U.S. is doing. But as you also mentioned in your opening, that the U.S. has also immunized these people from war crimes. In the Military Commissions Act, which was signed by the President on October 17th, he amends the statute that makes violations of the Geneva Conventions criminal. That’s called the War Crimes Act. He amends it, not just going forward, but he amends it going backwards, back to 9/11/2001, essentially immunizing these officials in the United States from any prosecutions for war crimes.
So now that we’re in Germany, which is really a court of last resort—we can’t go to the United States courts, we can’t go to the international courts. They have no jurisdiction. You have to go to national courts. We’re in Germany, in part because it has the best law on universal jurisdiction and in part because certainly in the past, and as far as we know today, some of the perpetrators are actually at military bases in Germany. Germany can no longer say, well, the U.S. is seriously investigating, because the U.S. has essentially immunized these defendants.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about some of the other people, outside of Donald Rumsfeld—for example, former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and the former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, who’s a professor at UC Berkeley right now.
MICHAEL RATNER: Those two people are remarkable. I mean, they—one, of course, as you said, is a judge, and one is a professor. And, you know, they keep saying, “Well, we just wrote these sort of abstract legal memos on the lengths to which you could go to carry out certain kinds of interrogations.” And of course they say they narrowly define torture so that everything from being strapped down and using dogs to waterboarding doesn’t constitute torture. And then they actually say in these memos that the president, in the name of national security, can use torture. Their claim is these were abstract legal opinions, and they’re not liable.
Our claim is very different. Our claim is that these memos were written specifically, first to justify what was already going on in terms of torture, and they knew that, and they were also written to justify going forward to allow this whole series of interrogation practices that we all know that was authorized by Donald Rumsfeld and others, from waterboarding to stress positions to a variety of other kinds of torture. They were written specifically for that purpose. These were not simply lawyers in an academic exercise. These were lawyers at the Justice Department whose opinions were influential, in fact, instrumental, in our belief in aiding and abetting the torture that has occurred.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Stephen Cambone, the under secretary of defense for intelligence, as well as David Addington, the new Scooter Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, we believe all of these people named, that—really there was a torture program created in the United States after 9/11. The key players were people like Stephen Cambone, people like Donald Rumsfeld, David Addington, who’s the president’s chief of staff now. He was the counsel. But we believe that Addington was one of the people, again, pushing for tougher and tougher interrogation tactics that we believe amount to violations of the Geneva Conventions. This was a group of people who aided and abetted really the torture program in the United States.
What is critical to us is, first of all, really to bring public attention to this matter, to say that these people have engaged in a torture program and that there be some accountability for it. Whether we ever put Donald Rumsfeld in jail or not, I cannot say, but hopefully, hopefully, this case and other kinds of investigations will expose, stop and hold accountable these officials.
One part of this effort, of course, is at the Center for Constitutional Rights, people can go, as they did last time, but even more important now, can go to the Center’s website at ccr-ny.org and actually send a letter to the German prosecutor, urging the German prosecutor to open a prosecution in these cases.
AMY GOODMAN: How significant is it, Michael Ratner, that Donald Rumsfeld will soon no longer be secretary of defense, in terms of this criminal complaint?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, it’s of some significance. I mean, first, as I’ve said, you know, the U.S. has given these guys immunity. That immunity doesn’t apply outside the United States. So, they’re in trouble on that. But there is also an immunity that people in office have—the president, most likely the vice president and the foreign—the secretary of state, as well as probably Donald Rumsfeld—that many would argue, make him immune while he’s in office from any kind of a lawsuit. So, the fact that within a short period of time from now—maybe a week, maybe two weeks, maybe a month, whatever it is—he will no longer be in office actually exposes him to this kind of investigation and prosecution. He’s in a dangerous situation.
One of our hopes is, really, we believe, and we have believed for 30 years, that torturers deserve no safe haven. They should not be free to travel around the world and go wherever they want, once they’ve been seriously accused of torture. And they can be tried in those countries. And one of our goals here is to really turn, I would hope, a Donald Rumsfeld into a Henry Kissinger, where he will be not free to travel from country to country.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you mentioned that some of the people you’re suing are currently in Germany on U.S. military bases?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, they certainly were in 2004. General Sanchez was here. Colonel Pappas was here, who’s one of the people in the Military Intelligence Brigade that was involved in Abu Ghraib. A man named, I think pronounced, Wojdakowski was here. We are no longer as sure as we were then that they’re here, but we don’t have contrary information.
So, there are big military bases in Germany. Germany, therefore, has an ability to do an investigation here that should allow it to go forward. We also, as you will be interviewing, we have a witness who can actually testify and help Germany go forward with the investigation, and that’s Janis Karpinski.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to go to Janis Karpinski right now. Michael Ratner, I want to thank you for joining us. When we come back from break, we’re going to go to the former brigadier general to talk about these military officials right up to Donald Rumsfeld. And then we’ll speak with Gita Gutierrez of the Center for Constitutional Rights. She represents Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is at Guantanamo and says he was tortured. She’ll talk about her attempts to meet with him and finally having those conversations with him.