She wants it to stop
Spurred by her husband's death, Jennifer Harbury puts the US on trial for its role in torture abroad
CAMBRIDGE -- It has been 13 years since her husband was captured, tortured, and killed by the Guatemalan military, and more than a decade since her last hunger strike. But Jennifer Harbury has not given up her crusade against US involvement in torture abroad. Her book on the topic has just been released, and this weekend in Washington, D.C., she is helping host a mock trial of Bush administration officials who she and other activists believe have broken international and US laws regarding torture.
The ''defendants": Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and former CIA chief George Tenet. Actor David Clennon (''Missing") will portray Rumsfeld. An Oberlin professor will play Tenet. Francisco Letelier -- whose father, Orlando, a high-ranking Chilean government official, was assassinated in 1976 -- will portray Gonzales.
Various human rights activists -- including Harbury, who will ''testify" about the murder of her husband -- will serve as witnesses and detainees. Torture victims from around the globe will be witnesses, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mairead Maguire of Ireland will serve as commentator. ''Our goal is to sort out myth from reality," says Harbury, 54. Her new book, ''Truth, Torture, and the American Way," attempts to do the same. ''It's pretty clear that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were ordered from upstairs. Why are the people who authorized the torture not punished?" she says in a recent interview in her Cambridge office.
The subject of torture is both political and personal to Harbury, a Harvard-educated attorney and human rights worker. In 1990, while on a trip to Guatemala, Harbury met and fell in love with a guerrilla leader active in the resistance against the repressive military regime that had destroyed more than 400 villages, with some 200,000 people killed or missing. She and Efrain Bamaca Velasquez -- known as Comandante Everardo -- were married in 1991, living together in Texas or Mexico when he wasn't on the front in the Guatemalan mountains. Both knew that, as a high-ranking rebel, his life was in constant danger.
''Once you were taken, you were gone," says Harbury, who was a Legal Aid attorney in Texas when she began meeting Central American refugees slipping over the border with horror stories. ''There were no political prisoners. They killed everyone they picked up." Since the mid-1980s, she had traveled in and out of Guatemala with a tape recorder and camera, taking down eyewitness accounts of torture and getting the information back to human rights organizations in the United States. She'd get kicked out of the country but would later return, pulled by the plight of the people. Her book ''Bridge of Courage" detailed those accounts.
Government troops captured Everardo on March 12, 1992. The official word was that he had killed himself in combat to avoid being taken. Harbury never believed it. A year later she heard from an army source that he had been taken to a secret military prison, where he was tortured. Was he still alive? Could she help save him? Harbury began a highly publicized campaign to win his release, including several hunger strikes, one of which lasted 32 days.
She pleaded with the US government, but officials said they had no information about her husband's fate, and no evidence that secret prisons existed. But a ''60 Minutes" broadcast revealed that the US Embassy in Guatemala in fact possessed a CIA report confirming her husband's capture and secret detention by the Guatemalan army. Harbury later learned through US government documents that he had been killed on the orders of a colonel who was a paid CIA informant.
American involvement in Guatemala dates to 1954, when a US-backed coup overthrew the elected president, who had officially recognized the Labor Party, which placed leftists in charge of key peasant organizations and unions and even some government positions. For much of the 36-year civil war, which began during the Cold War, the United States gave financial aid to the right-wing government because it was fiercely anti-communist.
More than 40 years later, Using the Freedom of Information Act and sources in Guatemala, Harbury pieced together what she believes happened to Everardo: He was alive for at least a year, tortured for information, held in a complete body cast to prevent escape, and then killed. As a result of her husband's case, the CIA dismissed two officers and demoted or reprimanded eight others.
While investigating her husband's death, Harbury also heard many stories from Guatemalans about ''gringos" speaking Spanish with American accents who had been present during brutal interrogations. She met Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American nun who was dragged from her rural Guatemala convent, raped and tortured. (This weekend, Ortiz will play herself in the mock trial). Throughout her investigation into her husband's death, Harbury said she received death threats, and her lawyer's car was firebombed.
Her recent book documents the US condoning of torture in Central America, Vietnam, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where several Iraqi and Afghan insurgents are being held. She says that the United States trained some of the worst human rights violators -- including the Guatemalan colonel who ordered her husband's torture and death -- at the United States Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., and put several of them on the CIA payroll.
The school trains Latin American security forces in counter-insurgency, leadership, drug interdiction, and disaster relief. Among its graduates is former Nicaraguan dictator Manuel Noriega and many others accused of human rights violations. Defenders of the school, which has been renamed and operates under new guidelines, say that today human rights are taught in each class.
Not only is torture ruining America's image abroad, says Harbury, but torture is illegal -- and it doesn't work. ''We have two felony statutes about torture abroad," she says, sitting in her cubicle in the offices of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a nonprofit that promotes human rights and social justice.
Then there are the practical matters. ''When you torture someone, you don't get good intelligence. My husband was very high up. He was trained not to talk. What you do instead is develop rapport, you do heavy interrogation, you catch them in contradictions, you give them incentives to talk. In the Middle East, it's been suggested that you send in imams to talk to them."
Two years ago Harbury moved to Boston to accept a yearlong fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, which enabled her to write her latest book. When she finished, she was hired by the UUSC as director of its Stop Torture Permanently program. The mock trial is part of a Call for Justice weekend that includes workshops and panel discussions as well as testimony by torture survivors from the Middle East, Latin America, and the United States. Harbury's own case still haunts her: If only she could have saved her husband's life. She won $500,000 in reparations from the Guatemalan government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which she put into a trust for her husband's 28 nieces and nephews. ''Though my husband grew up working on a cotton plantation, uneducated, I'm happy to say that three Bamacas are about to start college," she says, smiling. ''I'm so proud of them." She travels to Guatemala regularly to see them.
Even though the government and the rebels signed a peace accord in 1996, Guatemala is still not safe, she feels. ''Before, the whole goal was to terrorize the population, so they'd leave bodies hanging from trees. Today, if you are a union or human rights activist, you won't have your hands amputated or be killed with a blowtorch. But your daughter will be raped, or you'll have a tragic car crash or your children or your bothers or sisters will be killed." Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit monitoring group, says Guatemala has made little progress on human rights.
In 2002, Harbury argued her own case before the US Supreme Court in a lawsuit she had filed against Clinton administration officials in which she accused them of deceiving her about Everardo's capture and death, thereby depriving her of access to the courts that might have saved him. The court ruled unanimously that she did not have the right to sue.
What she wants now is to get his body back, so she can give him a proper burial. So far, the Guatemalan government has resisted.