After learning that Mourad Benchellali and Nizar Sassi, both French citizens, were being detained by the US at Guantánamo detention center, their families filed a criminal complaint before French courts asking authorities to investigate torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention. That was in November 2002. Since then, the French judiciary has been conducting investigations into the US torture program and the high-ranking officials responsible for it.
ECCHR and the Center for Constitutional Rights from New York have been involved in the proceedings since 2014. In November 2019, ECCHR and CCR submitted an expert opinion on the criminal liability of former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and demanded that he be summoned. In December 2019, the court of appeal (Chambre de l’instruction de la Cour d’appel) in Paris nevertheless decided to close the investigations. Benchellali and Sassi appealed this decision.
Benchellali and Sassi were detained at Guantánamo for almost five years, where they were tortured – as were other inmates. The French judiciary has conducted investigations, but has not secured important evidence available about the US torture program in general and on torture in Guantánamo in particular. Due to the lack of cooperation from the US, the proceedings were suspended in September 2017.
In 2014, ECCHR and CCR took the initial step of submitting a dossier analyzing the criminal liability of former Guantánamo commander Geoffrey Miller. The French investigating authority then summoned Miller to testify about his role in Guantánamo. As expected, Miller did not appear. For Benchellali and Sassi, this was both progess and setback.
In 2016, a second expert report was filed, this time on the criminal liability of William Haynes, the former General Counsel for the US Department of Defense during the George W. Bush administration. The 26-page document established that Haynes was a key contributor to, and architect of, the Bush administration’s interrogation and detention policies. It elaborates Haynes’ role in the formulation and permission of interrogation practices that ultimately led to torture and ill-treatment in Guantánamo.
ECCHR and CCR also asked that the testimony of other witnesses be heard in several pleadings: former detainees, experts such as former UN special reporters as well as a number of former US officials willing to testify first-hand about their findings on the US torture program. However, the French judiciary has so far refused to collect this evidence.
ECCHR is taking selected legal measures against the US torture program in several European countries as well as before the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the UN Committee against Torture. As part of these efforts, ECCHR is working together with former Guantánamo prisoners and partner lawyers from Spain, France and Belgium. The various legal steps focus on the “architects” of the US torture program – high-ranking politicians, civil servants, secret service employees, and members of the army.