- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

Sister Dianna Ortiz, who suffered torture at the hands of the Guatemalan military in 1989, is on a crusade to abolish "this modern plague."The American-born nun and her agenda have gained new attention as the war on terrorism prompts pundits to urge torture of al Qaeda soldiers to extract clues about terrorist plots.
"There was a lot of talk about the legalization of torture in the United States," said Sister Ortiz, an Ursuline nun and native of Grants, N.M. "We thought it was important for us to respond."
The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, which she founded in 1998, joined the debate in June with a conference, "On the Question of Torture," which was held in the District. The story of her own torture and its aftermath has just been released in her new book, "The Blindfold's Eyes."
All in all, Sister Ortiz said, victims have felt more connected in their common cause since 1998, when the United Nations declared June 26 to be International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
"Not by choice, we are the experts," she said in an interview. "One thing my torturer said to me was, 'No one will believe you, and no one will care.'"
Sister Ortiz had been teaching literacy to Indian children when she was abducted on Nov. 2, 1989, by the army security forces. She was presumed to be a nun with the left-wing insurgency.
Held in a prison for 24 hours, she was raped and hung by ropes above a pit with rats gnawing on human remains. She was forced to hold a knife as the torturers plunged it into another victim. She still recoils when she sees men in uniforms or cigarettes, which were used to burn her.
And she testifies that she was rescued only because an American called Alejandro, who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, informed her torturers they had kidnapped the wrong person. He was in the process of driving her to the embassy when she jumped out and fled across town to the Vatican headquarters.
"Somebody gave Alejandro, the American, his orders," Sister Ortiz said, suggesting that torture is as much the work of governments as it is of depraved individuals who conduct the torture.
She said she "clings to the hope" of one day finding out the truth about her case. Her work for human rights in Guatemala and to try to resolve her case peaked in 1996 with a visit with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House and a five-week vigil in Lafayette Park.
Now, her focus is the beast of torture itself.
"We have to do something to confront this epidemic that is shattering so many lives," she said. An estimated 500,000 survivors of torture live in the United States; mostly Holocaust victims and emigrants from communist countries or dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Most nations signed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which condemns torture. A 1987 U.N. protocol, signed by the United States, requires nations to "take effective legislative, administrative, judicial" action against the crime.
To fund "rehabilitation services for victims," Congress passed the Torture Victims Relief Act in 1998.
And in June, the State Department went on record saying the United States is "committed to the worldwide elimination of torture." Similarly, the Justice Department said the administration "would never acquiesce in the legalization or use of torture by" the government.
Still, Sister Ortiz's organization lists the United States as a nation that uses torture because of its complicity with dictatorships abroad.
The debate on U.S. policy was spurred by the 2001 terrorist attacks, first by conservative pundits who suggested torture of al Qaeda operatives could uncover the next plot. The idea was expanded by liberal civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, who wrote that judges should be able to issue "torture warrants."
Mr. Dershowitz said he already had proposed the idea in the 1980s, and that the warrant was useful only in the case of a "ticking bomb," in which extracting evidence rapidly could save lives.
While the U.S. government did not weigh in on the media-driven debate, some human rights workers viewed it as mostly academic.
"It takes place on talk shows and in university seminars, but I don't think it is swirling in the halls of our government," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
"In addition to torture being morally wrong, American law enforcement knows that torture is a pretty useless technique," he said.
He agrees with a general assessment, stated by legal experts and even disclosed in CIA handbooks after the Dershowitz article in November, that torture does not get truth from guilty parties, but usually false information from innocent parties.
"The purpose of torture is to torture," Mr. Malinowski said. "It is used to punish and terrorize."
The story of torture under Soviet communism and Latin American dictatorships is being brought increasingly to light.
In recent months, for example, the National Security Archives have opened reports collected by the U.S. Embassy in Argentina of 9,500 cases of disappearances during the country's "dirty war" of 1976 to 1983. Often, a victim "met the routine fate of torture and execution," archives spokesman Thomas Blanton said.
Between conservatives who collected records on communist torture and liberals who gathered it on right-wing dictatorships, a human rights movement was born, Mr. Blanton said. "It was not a happy marriage of right and left, but it turned the U.S. into the world's leading human rights information collector," he said.
Torturers are also coming to trial.
The first successful prosecution of a Guatemalan military official who ordered a killing of an American was completed this month in that country. And in another case in July, three torture victims in a Florida court succeeded for the first time in winning a jury award of $54.6 million against two Salvadoran military officials.
Two years ago, a Justice Department official testified in Geneva at the U.N. commission that "several hundred allegations" of police brutality are under investigation at any one time in the United States, mostly in prisons.
Earlier this year, news reports asserted that the CIA shipped al Qaeda suspects to nations such as Egypt and Jordan that are known to use torture during interrogation. The U.S. government denied the reports.
Mr. Malinowski said public outrage and policy pressure are weapons against torture and people like Sister Ortiz put a face on it. "You fight it by telling stories like hers," he said.
Use of torture will not vanish from the world quickly, he said. "But if the world succeeded in eradicating most slavery, it is certainly possible over time to establish a norm that torture is beyond the pale."

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