Jennifer Harbury’s harrowing memories of U.S.-backed torture extend more than two decades. Not much has changed since her husband was tortured and murdered in Guatemala 10 years ago by Central Intelligence Agency-backed torturers.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Harbury moved near the Mexican border in southern Texas in the 1980s to work with Latino farmworkers. She was immediately horrified by her encounters with Guatemalans and Salvadorans, many of whom had left their war-torn Central American homes to flee violence and oppression.
“The Guatemalans and the Salvadorans had been flocking in as refugees in the early ’80s with just unbelievable stories about massacres and torturers and kidnappings off of the streets, and they had machete scars all over their bodies and cigarette burns and their children were traumatized,” Harbury says.
The refugees’ stories led Harbury to Guatemala in 1985. She planned to go there for two months in search of affidavits from church and human rights leaders to help her make the case in the United States that these refugees deserved political asylum. Harbury, who will speak in Raleigh about her efforts to eradicate torture, ended up staying in Guatemala for two years. When she married Mayan resistance leader Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, Harbury’s experience with torture tragically became a family matter. Velásquez was abducted by the Guatemalan military on March 12, 1992. He was detained, tortured and eventually executed without trial.
Harbury, who went on three public hunger strikes to force the U.S. government to divulge information it had about Velásquez, knew about the CIA’s role in supporting “assets,” or paid informants, many of whom were “very well-known torturers on their [CIA] payroll in Guatemala and throughout Latin America,” she says. “They were paying them to go get information even though they knew it was being extracted through the use of torture. In my husband’s case, [the CIA] knew that my husband was being tortured. They knew he was a secret prisoner. They knew I was looking for him. They knew that Congress was asking about him and being told there was no information. They knew he was going to be killed, and they kept on paying for more information knowing it would be extracted through torture and result in his murder.”
Harbury, 54, has since pressed her case through a successful international trial at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, and she continues to litigate claims against the CIA in federal court.
Harbury wrote two books about her experiences, Searching for Everardo (Warner Books 1997) and Bridge of Courage (Common Courage Press, 1993). In her ongoing work as director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s STOP torture campaign, Harbury continues to investigate and document CIA involvement in torture in Latin America as well as the Middle East.
Harbury will be speaking Friday at a noon press conference on Raleigh’s State Capitol grounds. She will also speak and sign copies of her books Friday at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books in a program being taped for C-Span’s Book TV. Harbury’s visit is being sponsored by North Carolinians Opposed to Torture.
In the years following her husband’s murder, Harbury says little has changed regarding U.S. torture policy and that following Sept. 11, the policy has been “broadly extended to a very horrifying degree.” Harbury says the torture going on today in Iraq, Guantánamo, Cuba and other secret locations is business as usual for the U.S. government.
“The problem has been there all along,” she says. “The CIA secretly supporting or even directly carrying out torture or paying someone else to carry out torture for them–torture by proxy. That has exploded into a huge problem since Sept. 11, whereby our own troops are being ordered to carry out torture,” actions Harbury says “fly in the face” of U.S. law and international treaties signed by the United States.
The United States is conducting or approving torture on a “broad scale now–and very openly,” she says, and some in the Bush administration are suggesting that the torture is legal, a claim Harbury called “preposterous.”
Supporting torture is also dangerous for U.S. troops on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, because they may face similar retaliation, Harbury says.
“The people who are going to pay the price are our own troops,” she says.
While many U.S. citizens have a perception of the United States as being a beacon of light illuminating freedom to the world, Harbury says that’s not the opinion of many of the world’s people, many of whom “have a very different view of the United States. They don’t see us as a beacon of morality at all.”
The U.S. government “does many good things,” Harbury says, “‘but we have to understand and recognize that certainly in terms of our foreign policy, we are not a beacon of light. We’re openly supporting and carrying out torture on a massive scale in violation of just about every human rights standard that there is, including our own.”
Harbury says documents recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union show direct connections between the U.S.-backed torture policies and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who Harbury says “specifically authorized” a number of the torture techniques being used against detainees and so-called enemy combatants.
“I certainly don’t think Rumsfeld did any of this without the president’s knowledge,” Harbury says.
The Bush administration is also using “‘disinformation’” to confuse people about U.S. torture policy, she says, and President Bush uses fear to maintain his support.
“The most important thing I think we have to remember is that people are very frightened after Sept. 11, and this administration has drummed it into us again and again that we have to allow these [torture] techniques if we want to be safe,” Harbury says. “‘We need to get over our shock and fear from what happened Sept. 11 and start thinking our way through this instead of reacting our way through this.”
Harbury, who says she “stays on the road” fulfilling speaking engagements all over the country, says she meets many people who are outraged by what the United States is doing with regard to torture.
“I do find people very upset,” Harbury says. “I’ve had many Republicans tell me, ‘You know, I voted for Bush, but I didn’t vote for torture.’ This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue.”
Activities Friday at the Capitol include volunteers erecting a 20-foot wide, 10-foot tall “Peace Pentagon” to be displayed among the war memorials. The five sides (representing the five First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, public assembly and petitioning of the government for redress of grievances) will be posted with art and information about torture and how people can use those freedoms to stop torture. For more information on the monument project contact Public Assembly at 380-8380.
Legislative action: Call on your congressional representatives to co-sponsor HR 952 (Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act), HR 3003 (to establish an independent commission to investigate detainee abuses) and HR 2011 (Transparency and Accountability in Security Contracting Act) or in the U.S. Senate, S 654 (Convention Against Torture Implementation Act.)