Is torture against the law?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 13 2004 5:26 PM

Is Torture Against the Law?

What Uncle Sam has to say about it.

Mohammed: Interrogated or tortured?
Mohammed: Interrogated or tortured?

According to an article in today's New York Times, the CIA is using "coercive interrogation methods" against some al-Qaida suspects. The piece notes that "defenders of the operation said the methods … did not violate American anti-torture statutes." What U.S. laws are they referring to?

The federal anti-torture statute is formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code. The law consists of three sections (2340, 2340A, and 2340B), which define the crime of torture and prescribe harsh punishments for anyone—an American citizen or otherwise—who commits an act of torture outside of the United States. (Domestic incidents of torture are covered by state criminal statutes.) A person found guilty of committing torture faces up to 20 years in prison or even execution, if the torture in question resulted in a victim's death.

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The law was added to the books in 1994, as part of the United States' efforts to ratify and comply with the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (more simply known as the CAT). The treaty was adopted by the United Nations in 1984, but not ratified by the U.S. Congress until a decade later. The CAT mandates that all parties to the treaty "take effective legislative, administrative, judicial, or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction."

Another section of the U.S. Code (Title 28, Part IV, Chapter 85, Section 1350) also deals with the issue of torture. The so-called Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 allows victims of torture, or the families of those who were killed through extrajudicial means, to sue their tormentors in U.S. courts, regardless of their citizenship or where the crime occurred.

Both of these anti-torture statutes include identical, albeit imprecise, definitions of what constitutes torture. Among the proscribed actions are "the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering"; the use of "mind-altering substances"; and threats against other people, presumably family members.

Despite its efforts to adhere to the directives of the CAT, the United States has recently grumbled over the United Nations' efforts to add an inspection regime to the treaty. In 2002, the United Nations added an "optional protocol" to the CAT, requiring signatories to permit surprise inspections of their prisons. The United States has so far refused to sign, contending that the inspections would infringe on states' rights.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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