Thursday, December 14, 2017

Taking Burge to the United Nations

Then, in 2004, the pictures of the torture, abuse and harassment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. military officers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published, causing a national and international uproar about the use of torture practices by military officials. In a stark contrast, the torture of Black people by law enforcement officials in the U.S., including the torture on Chicago's own South Side, continued to go without redress. The sharp juxtaposition propelled Standish Kwame Willis, a renowned civil rights attorney and activist who later founded Black People against Police Torture (BPAPT), to mount an effort to bring the Burge torture cases to international fora.

In May of 2006, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) was evaluating the U.S. Government's compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland. While the U.S. delegation implicitly acknowledged there were some "missteps" during the "War on Terror" sparked by the September 11, 2001 attacks, they insisted the U.S.'s record in complying with the Convention on U.S. soil was commendable. Domestic advocates also attended the hearings and had the opportunity to present evidence of torture committed in the U.S. by police, prison, and immigration officials. As part of this effort, I had the privilege of presenting the Burge torture cases to the Committee members.

After two days of formal hearings with the U.S. governmental delegation and reviewing reams of reports and primary sources, the UN CAT issued a scathing indictment of the U.S. Government's failure to comply with the UN Convention Against Torture on May 19, 2006. In addition to calling on the U.S. Government to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay and prosecute the chain of command at Abu Ghraib for crimes of torture, the Committee noted the "limited investigation and lack of prosecution" at Area 2 and 3 Police Headquarters, and it called on the U.S. government "to bring [the] perpetrators to justice."

It was a momentous occasion, validating the long silenced, disbelieved, and ignored voices of the torture survivors, many of whom were deeply moved by the notion of the highest human rights body in the world publicly holding the U.S. accountable on the world stage for the torture they endured. It was also poignant for the Committee to equally condemn the torture practiced here at home as well as that done abroad. The UN CAT's findings made national and international news, airing on all of the local nightly news channels. Once again, the whole world was watching Chicago.

A month after the UN CAT issued its findings, the special prosecutors concluded their investigation, finding that Burge and other detectives under his command committed crimes of aggravated battery and armed violence, surprising no one. However, the special prosecutors claimed they could not prosecute Burge and others because the statute of limitations had expired--not only on these physical violations, but also for the crimes of perjury or obstruction of justice for repeated false testimony denying the acts of torture. To briefly summarize the results of their four-year, $7 million investigation, it was too bad, so sad, time to close the book on this unfortunate story.

Torture survivors, their family members, CPPT and other activists and attorneys refused to take no for an answer. Organizations, including BPAPT, marched in the streets and held rallies at Daley Plaza. We convened a hearing at the Cook County Board and obtained the passage of a resolution calling on the U.S. Attorney's Office to prosecute Burge and his men for the crimes they committed. Others organized a letter writing campaign and petition drive demanding that the U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois bring charges against Burge.

A year and half after the UN CAT issued its findings, Burge was indicted by the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Northern District of Illinois and U.S. Department of Justice for two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice for falsely denying he and others engaged in torture in a civil rights case.

On June 28, 2010, after torture survivors Anthony Holmes, Melvin Jones, Shadeed Mu'min and Gregory Banks courageously testified against Burge, Burge was found guilty of all three counts, and in January 2011 he was sentenced to serve four and half years in prison.

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