A Brief Time-out in the Statehouse

Nelda Holder Photo: Tim Barnwell

Nelda Holder Photo: Tim Barnwell

Legislative News by Nelda Holder –

The NC General Assembly starts its semi-long winter’s nap on December 15, when the last December committee meeting is scheduled. 

And though there is rumor of (yet) another special session in early January, the official legislative calendar promises time out from mid-December until the first committee meeting on January 9, followed the next day by the reconvening of the session.

Hanging over their heads as the legislators take this break is the congressional redistricting court case with its potential redrawing of certain state districts, as well as the scramble to effect fundamental changes in the state’s judiciary, in terms both of judicial redistricting and elections. (Rumor has it that a special session could be called to address judiciary issues.)

House Bill 717 passed in House on October 5 and was sent to the Senate, where it is before the Committee on Rules and Operations (see Urban News feature “Buncombe County Stands to Lose under Proposed Changes”). In addition to new district configurations, contemplated changes include electing both superior and district court judges every two years, although the Senate has been looking at the potential for a judicial merit appointment process to replace elections. Stay tuned on this one!

What can happen when you look the other way

On Thursday and Friday, November 30 and December 1, this columnist attended the public hearings of the NC Citizens Commission of Inquiry on Torture in Raleigh. The NCCIT (see website at nccit.org), composed of knowledgeable and experienced commissioners and operating with a small staff, is roughly based on such citizen activism models as the well-known Commission of Truth and Reconciliation that was activated in South Africa in the 1990s, and other similar models adopted by such countries as Guatemala and Peru.

This state-based commission has worked for the past year toward these public hearings hosting national and international experts. The event was an exemplary display of citizenship—serious citizenship—taking place just a few blocks from the state’s Capitol, but without evidence of any gubernatorial staff on hand. Just blocks from the NC Statehouse, but insofar as could be verified, with only one legislator in attendance. More about her later.

This intense occasion involved two days of testimony concerning this state’s culpability in defying international law. Expert testimony illuminated a great deal of what is known, and has been proven, about the use of two NC-based public airports as springboards for post-9/11 torture flights through the private carrier Aero Contractors. The scrutiny noted the use of public funds both in building and operating these airports (Johnston County Airport and Global TransPark in Kinston, in Lenoir County), and the role of public officials in the ongoing operations of the airports.

Why?

With information drawn from declassified CIA documents and elsewhere, and as repeatedly pointed out by various experts, these North Carolina airports have been directly implicated in the extrajudicial rendition of “suspects” to so-called “black sites” in foreign countries where for months, or years, individuals were systematically tortured in flagrant violation of the law. And as many expert witnesses pointed out, in spite of the massive body of knowledge demonstrating that the use of torture is counterproductive to any reliable interrogation method.

The excuse is worse than the crime

Two of those giving testimony possessed the ultimate qualifications to speak to the issues of the day, and drew emotional, standing ovations from the audience and commissioners at their conclusion. Via video remote, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen, offered live testimony about his transport by the NC-based Aero Contractors, and his 14-year imprisonment without charge at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. (He is the author of Guantanamo Diary, a memoir published in 20 countries.) Abou Elkassim Britel, the wife of another torture victim — Italian citizen Abou Elkassim Britel—spoke also by live remote and told of her husband’s secret rendition to Morocco, followed by eight years of inhumane imprisonment.

The openness of these two witnesses, and the stark stories they had to tell, deeply impacted the audience at the sparkling Raleigh Convention Center, so full of atriums and light; so far removed, it would seem, from blindfolded beatings, waterboarding, and much worse. One of the most glaring statements regarding culpability in torture was Mohamedou’s telling of an old Turkish joke and then soberly translating its meaning: “The excuse is worse than the crime itself.”

Soccer mom gets involved with torture

Witness Allyson Caison of Johnston County—a person who would hear of no excuse—first investigated the implications of this state’s role in torture flights years ago because she paid attention to rumors that her local airport was playing a part in the torture program. She became a founding member of NC Stop Torture Now, and continues to educate the public about this state’s role and its obligations.

Citizens organized and met with state and federal officials, Caison testified, who either “knew nothing,” or failed to address the issue, or agreed with the rendition program. As more local residents banded together in the face of the growing knowledge concerning the flights, they held vigils at the airport and sponsored a downtown march. And every month, she said, they asked their county commission to investigate Aero Contractors.

“How did a middle-aged, real estate agent, soccer mom get involved with torture?” Caison posed. “I consider myself an activist. I’m a person of faith, and I’m a mom. As a person of faith, I have to (act), right? Once you know about the people in cages, how can you forget them?”

But Aero’s stronghold in Johnston County runs deep in the social structure, complicating both social interaction as well as accountability through normal governmental channels. “I knew them,” she said. “I interfaced with them at soccer games, Boy Scouts…. If you saw them (you’d think) these are not bad people.”

The next level up?

With local officials turning a blind—or blindfolded—eye to the legal implications of being investigated by NCCIT, what about state government?

There was only one state official recognized at the two-day hearings. She was the legislator mentioned earlier, Rep. Verla Insko of Orange County. A 10th-term veteran of the Legislature, Insko sponsored HB 1682 in 2007, the Study/NC No Place for Torture Act. It was introduced in April, and basically put out to pasture in the Rules committee in May. But the bill would have required the NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission to study appropriate penalties for legislation “making torture, enforced disappearance, and related acts unlawful in North Carolina.”

The Commission heard from 16 other expert witnesses, including psychologists, former or current CIA and military officials, and academic specialists. (More information about the commissioners and the witnesses is available at the NCCIT website listed above.)

Invited to testify or submit written statements, but without responses to date, were Aero Contractors Ltd, Johnston County Commissioner, Johnston County Airport Authority, Gov. Roy Cooper (D), former Govs. Easley (D), Perdue (D), and McCrory (R); Attorney General Josh Stein (D), Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), and former Johnston County attorneys.

The NCCIT also invites all relevant input from members of the public as it continues to gather facts.

Ending on a positive note

Thinking about college? Got talent? The American Talent Initiative (a Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported collaboration) has just added a third North Carolina school to its roster of universities working to enroll high achieving, low- and moderate-income college students. Wake Forest University has joined the list, alongside Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For more information and a complete list of the colleges/universities participating, check out AIT’s website.

 


Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts. Read Holder’s blog, www.politicallypurplenc.com

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