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Jonathan Power: Obama's Inheritance and the Gitmo Problem

The courtrooms of America sometimes take us by surprise. Last week, Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, the son of the former Liberian president and notorious warlord, Charles Taylor, was sentenced in a Miami court to 97 years in prison for torture. It was the first time that an American court had applied a law passed in 1994 allowing the prosecution of citizens who commit torture overseas. (Taylor was born in the United States, but then moved to Liberia to join his father.)

Is there now one law in America for those who commit torture overseas and those who commit it at home with the authority of government? Perhaps not for much longer. In a recent television interview, President-elect Barack Obama said that his designate for attorney general, Eric Holder, would investigate whether some senior members of the Bush administration should be prosecuted for their part in torture, although he said that his belief was that “what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future.” Also, last week, Obama said that he had given his new appointees to top intelligence positions a clear charge to restore the nation’s stance on human rights. “Under my administration the United States does not torture.” Obama should also have reminded his audience that it was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan that the U.S. helped push for the United Nations to agree to a legally binding treaty against torture, and then propelled Congress to rapidly ratify it. (It is this treaty, mind you, that provides the legal underpinning for the prosecution of Taylor.)

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