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Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Case Against Alan Dershowitz

Public Committee Against Torture in Israel vs. Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz is a well-known lawyer and professor at Harvard law school, a prolific author, and makes regular appearances in the media. When it comes to Israel, he is particularly outspoken and taken quite seriously within certain segments of the North American mainstream. Whether he deserves to be taken seriously is another issue altogether. In a recent talk at York University in Toronto, Canada, Professor Dershowitz repeated many of the controversial claims of his recent book,[1] but one struck me as -- even by his standard -- exceptionally far-reaching. In the course of arguing that Israeli authorities no longer torture Palestinians, Dershowitz claimed he had a long conversation with the Israeli human rights organization, Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), in which PCATI not only conceded that there was no longer any torture for them to investigate, but that they refused to change their name because it helped them attract media attention.[2]

Although organizers of his lecture wore shirts arrogantly proclaiming, "Dersh knows more than you", I decided to check his claim. First, I visited PCATI's website (www.stoptorture.org.il) and immediately found its July 2003 report containing 48 affidavits testifying to the continued use of torture against Palestinians by Israeli authorities. More than three years after Professor Dershowitz claims torture had stopped, PCATI reported: "Each month, the ill-treatment reaching the level of torture as defined in international law is inflicted in dozens of cases, and possibly more. In other words -- torture in Israel has once more become routine."[3] And after Professor Dershowitz claims PCATI conceded torture had ended, PCATI was still reporting that "Instances of torture, abuse, prisoners held incommunicado and excessive violence against [Palestinian] detainees continue to grow in both numbers and severity", while "interrogators and perpetrators of torture, their commanders and superiors enjoy impunity."[4]

These reports didn't exactly corroborate Professor Dershowitz's story so, next, I contacted PCATI to confirm his allegation. "Dershowitz's claim that he had long conversations with PCATI and that we reported that there is no longer any torture in Israel," I was told by PCATI's Orah Maggen, "is totally false. We never met with him or spoke with him directly. I did meet him at the Knesset [Israel's parliament] when he spoke at the Law and Constitution Committee [but] I, and representatives of other human rights NGOs challenged most of what he said about torture, the role of human rights NGOs and other issues."

When I reported PCATI's denial to Professor Dershowitz, he replied: "During my conversation at the Knesset I asked the representative of the committee [Orah Maggen] why they kept their name, despite their acknowledgement that torture was no longer a significant issue? She responded -- I remember clear as day -- as follows: 'You have no idea how difficult it is to get attention to any human rights issues in this country. Maintaining our organizational name, with the word torture, is essential to getting needed attention.' I had an extensive argument with her about that tactic, focusing especially on the international implications and the misleading nature of the name outside of the country. I am certain she remembers the conversation because it was quite heated. It also took place in front of numerous witnesses."

When I emailed PCATI Dershowitz's "clear as day" recollection, Ms. Maggen replied that it is true that there was a heated exchange with others present, but "All other statements made by Professor Dershowitz are blatantly false and utterly preposterous. Neither I nor any other representative of PCATI acknowledged, claimed or in any way stated that torture is no longer a significant issue. On the contrary, it is our claim that the systematic and large-scale torture and ill treatment of Palestinian detainees and prisoners continues to this day." She further stated that, "Neither I nor any other representative of PCATI ever stated that we kept our name to 'get attention' for any reason whatsoever. Considering the fact that torture is still widespread and that PCATI has its hands full struggling against the torture and ill treatment of Palestinian detainees (and others) by Israeli authorities, the claim regarding statements we supposedly made about our organization's name is totally absurd." Finally, she concluded that Dershowitz's claim was "shocking in its audacity."

In fact, however, it is on par with Dershowitz's claim in The Case for Israel, that the Israeli government has a "generally superb record on human rights," and that "Israel's record on human rights is among the best in the world."[5]

What's "clear as day" from this little episode is that Dershowitz's every word should be taken with a mountain of salt.

Regan Boychuk is a graduate student in political science at York University in Toronto, Canada and gets irritated when people get away with lies. < reganboychuk@hotmail.com >


[1] Alan Dershowitz, The Case for Israel (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons,

[2] Alan Dershowitz, public lecture at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 14 March 2005.

[3] Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, "Back to a routine of torture: Torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees during arrest, detention, and interrogation", July 2003, p. 11, < www.stoptorture.org.il/eng/images/uploaded/publications/58.pdf >.

[4] Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, "Preventing torture: Legal advocacy, legislative activism & public outreach: A narrative report", [Draft] 2004, p. 1.

[5] Dershowitz, The Case for Israel, pp. 204, 199. Despite Dershowitz's fervent attempts to prevent its publication, readers can soon find what promises to be a thorough debunking of The Case for Israel in Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (Berkeley, CA: University of California, June 2005).

Regan Boychuk
Copyright © Information Clearing House

Indonesians Hold Anti-Israel Protests

More than 100,000 people held anti-Israel protests Sunday in the Indonesian capital and several other cities, calling for protection of Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site - the disputed Al Aqsa Mosque compound.

Unfurling big banners saying, ``Save Al Aqsa from raid of the Jewish,'' about 80,000 people - mostly conservative Muslims dressed in traditional white garb - marched peacefully down Jakarta's main streets. Some marchers chanted, ``Israel is the terrorist!''

A group of extremist Jews in Israel called ``Revava'' opposes Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and has threatened to storm the Al Aqsa Mosque in July, when Israeli police and soldiers are to evacuate 9,000 settlers from Gaza. Clashes at the site could ignite violence all over the region and force Israel to halt its withdrawal.

The mosque compound is on a hilltop known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The Al Aqsa Mosque compound, including the shrine marking the spot where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven, is built over the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples.

Thousands of Indonesians protested Sunday in Semarang, Lampung, Pekanbaru, Banda Aceh and Makassar. Protesters in Banda Aceh and Makassar trampled on Israeli flags while waving the Palestinian flag.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, strongly supports the Palestinian struggle and has no diplomatic ties with Israel.

Police estimated that more than 100,000 people participated in the protests, organized by the Justice and Prosperity Party, a rapidly growing Islamic-based political party seeking to establish Islamic Sharia law.

``We are ready to be martyrs to save Al Aqsa because it belongs to Muslims all over the world!'' some protesters in Jakarta chanted.

``We urge the Indonesian government to prioritize the Palestinian issue in the upcoming Asian-African summit,'' said Tifaful Sembiring, an organizer of the Jakarta protest.

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP)

With Poison In Their Souls

In the absence of chemical poison, a war against Iraq, a fake link between al-Qaeda and Saddam and a double helping of contempt of court were brewed up on Kamel Bourgass's hob. Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Colin Powell and senior police officers all used the arrests to illustrate the existence of a new breed of Islamist super-terrorist. A criminal prosecution was exploited to fit a political agenda. A war was justified and civil liberties imperilled by the ricin stash that never was.

The demonisation of the ricin suspects by politicians and the media smacks of Salem

Kitchen table terror is not new. The Wood Green 'ricin' larder, stocked with lethal ingredients, such as cherry stones and apple pips, brings back memories of Auntie Annie's 'bomb factory' at the height of the IRA's mainland assault.

Annie Maguire, a court was told, taught her small children how to mix up nitroglycerine for the paramilitaries in her Kilburn parlour. Under prosecution questioning about what bombs looked like, her son, Patrick, drew on his knowledge of the Beano and described a 'long black ball with a wire coming out of it'.

The fantasy was enough. Mrs Maguire, a monster for a fearful nation, was jailed for many years. Two of her sons were also locked up and her younger children farmed out. Of those sentenced with her, her brother-in-law, Giuseppe Conlon, died in prison, of emphysema and despair, with an inmates' chorus of 'What shall we do with the fucking bombers?' in his ears.

More than a quarter of a century later, in February this year, Tony Blair apologised publicly to the Maguire seven for one of the gravest miscarriages of justice of the last century. There was no bomb factory and no plot. Annie Maguire and her family had long since been declared innocent. They deserved, the Prime Minister said, to be 'completely and publicly exonerated.'

By then, another war on terror was in train. Other suspects had supposedly been bottling death like marmalade, and the long trial of Kamel Bourgass and his alleged co-chefs was nearing its end. Last week, Bourgass was convicted of conspiring to cause a public nuisance. Four others were cleared and a second trial of four more men abandoned.

There was no ricin and no al-Qaeda recipe, only a formula apparently confected by a white American Christian survivalist and downloaded from the internet. Even if Bourgass, a nasty and deluded loner, had managed to create his poison and smear it on car-door handles, it would not have worked. Had Bourgass the poisoner devoted himself to creating the perfect Nigella chickpea couscous, he could hardly have been a less likely mass exterminator.

But he had another persona. Bourgass the murderer, a failed asylum seeker, knifed Stephen Oake to death when the police came looking for him. The killing of a brave officer shifted the story into the arms of Michael Howard, who flouted the compassion of DC Oake's widow and attacked the 'chaos' of the asylum system.

Labour is unlikely to have minded this switch of focus. The annual number of asylum applicants, now 34,000, has almost halved since Bourgass applied, and the backlog of cases has been sliced from 50,000 to 10,000 in a decade. Electronic fingerprinting and e-borders make police better able to find people who change identity, as he did, and monitor who is entering and leaving the country.

There is evidence, too, that Mr Howard's own-brand fear factory is driving voters towards Labour. Last of all, the Home Secretary has seized the chance to promote ID cards, even though they would have made not a shred of difference in the Bourgass case. The Tories' insidious opportunism on asylum and immigration should not disguise that the government also cashed in on bogus ricin, disseminating panic with an efficiency of which Bourgass could only dream.

In the absence of chemical poison, a war against Iraq, a fake link between al-Qaeda and Saddam and a double helping of contempt of court were brewed up on Kamel Bourgass's hob. Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Colin Powell and senior police officers all used the arrests to illustrate the existence of a new breed of Islamist super-terrorist. A criminal prosecution was exploited to fit a political agenda. A war was justified and civil liberties imperilled by the ricin stash that never was.

The case is over, but old myths die hard. In the age of the precautionary principle and Donald Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns, reality gets so sparse that even the most blatant lies acquire substance.

The day after the case ended, London's Evening Standard was barmily talking up 'a new terror fear over lost poison' on the basis of a police claim that an al-Qaeda cell could have the 'missing ricin'. But even if a quantity of poison existed, which it did not, it would have harmlessly degraded long ago. Fear and prejudice have a longer half-life. Once manufactured, they are almost impossible to unmake.

Right-wing conflation of asylum and terror will be difficult to unknot. Lawyers for the eight cleared men are outraged at the way their clients have been portrayed by the media and politicians, and there is so little acknowledgment of a just result, from the Home Office and elsewhere, that one wonders if dodgy convictions would have left some politicians more satisfied. Meanwhile, a new terror law, more draconian than expected, is in the Labour manifesto, pushing criminal trials for those who 'glorify or condone acts of terror'.

The hunger for something new eclipses the fact that all necessary means were in place to stop Bourgass, who slipped through the immigration net after a shoplifting conviction because no official was available to interview him and whose murder of DC Oake followed some questionable operational decisions by Greater Manchester police.

Bourgass will, probably and rightly, spend the bulk of his life in jail. But, as our leaders have not said, it was also proper that those charged with him were cleared. None was vindicated because terror prosecutions are too difficult or evidence inadmissible. They were supposedly caught in the kitchen with their fingers in the ricin pot. Nothing could be more damning, except that it wasn't true.

A panel of their peers devoted many weeks to assessing the evidence and discovered that there was none. The result was a tribute to beleaguered juries and a vindication of a justice system that politicians often deem too arcane, or too wilful, for an age of nameless fears and elusive proof.

The affair of the sham ricin casts a long shadow over the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the credulous sensationalists of the media and, most of all, over politicians. Last week was a good one for the rule of law, but the sullen reaction to the outcome also highlights a dangerous disregard for justice.

Eight innocent men were presumed guilty. Ten others held for two years without charge reportedly had non-existent links to the ricin plot cited on their government control orders. Sanctions get harsher and the borderline grows fainter between fair trials and wild allegation garbed in flimsy intelligence and sanctified as truth. All the lessons of what could happen next lie in our recent past.

Justice tailored to a time of terror, real or perceived, is the shortcut back to the world in which Annie Maguire was torn from the dock, kicking and hysterical, to begin her 14-year-sentence. 'I'm innocent, you bastards,' she cried. 'No, no, no.' But this was Salem. So the door slammed on her screaming and almost no one thought she might be right.

Mary Riddell
Sunday April 17, 2005
The Observer

Intelligence Reports Undercut US Claims of Iraq-Qaeda Link: Top US Senator

A top Democratic senator released formerly classified documents that he said undercut top US officials' pre-Iraq war claims of a link between Saddam Hussein's regime and the Al-Qaeda terror network.

"These documents are additional compelling evidence that the Intelligence Community did not believe there was a cooperative relationship between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, despite public comments by the highest ranking officials in our government to the contrary," said Senator Carl Levin.

The declassified documents undermine President George W. Bush's administration claims regarding Iraq's involvement in training Al-Qaeda operatives and the likelihood of a meeting between September 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001, Levin said in a statement.

In October 2002 Bush said: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses."

But a June 2002 CIA report, titled "Iraq and al-Qa'ida: Interpreting a Murky Relationship," said "the level and extent of this is assistance is not clear.

The report added that there were "many critical gaps" in the knowledge of Iraq-Al-Qaeda links due to "limited reporting" and the "questionable reliability of many of our sources," according to excerpts cited by Levin.

The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons programs said much of the information on Iraqi training and support for Al-Qaeda was "second-hand" or from sources of "varying reliability."

And a January 2003 CIA report indicates some of the reports of training were based on "hearsay" while others were "were "simple declarative accusations of Iraqi-Al-Qaeda complicity with no substantiating detail or other information that might help us corroborate them."

In December 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney said Atta's meeting with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague was "pretty well confirmed."

But, according to Levin, a June 2002 CIA report says: "Reporting is contradictory on hijacker Mohammed Atta's alleged trip to Prague and meeting with an Iraqi intelligence officer, and we have not verified his travels."

And a January 2003 CIA report says "the most reliable reporting to date casts doubt on this possibility."

Levin requested the documents' declassification in April 2004 as part of his minority inquiry within the Senate Armed Services Committee into Iraq intelligence failures.

Copyright: AFP