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Law Professors Draft Petition On Iraq Abuse

By Risheng Xu, Crimson Staff Writer

A letter authored by 10 Harvard Law School (HLS) professors and signed by more than 300 law professors nationally that urges Congress to address alleged constitutional and human rights violations in Iraq will be sent to congressional members and committees within a week.

The letter—which includes the signatures of 44 HLS professors, including Tyler Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law Laurence H. Tribe ’62 and Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz—was finalized about 10 days ago. On May 28, authors began circulating it to law schools around the nation.

“It’s shocking to me that this has not been an issue,” said Wasserstein Public Interest Professor of Law Elizabeth Bartholet, one of the letter’s authors. “We’ve instituted various extreme coercive interrogation techniques [in Iraq]—there’s no doubt about that.”

The letter pushes for Congress to address U.S. violence on Iraqi prisoners. It asks Congress to “promote a rule of law produced and enforced through a democratic process and to protect the physical and psychological integrity of all people consistent with the traditions of our nation.”

Bartholet said she and her colleagues felt that they had an obligation to speak out.

“We’re teaching students law, and we’re in a situation where rights under that law are being violated,” she said. “Speaking for myself, I think that issues which we focus on in this letter are getting lost in the public debate.”

The letter asks Congress to examine the “accountability for human rights violations” in Iraq. The letter cites current international humanitarian laws that authors say are being violated in Iraq, including the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The letter said that though executive branch officials have admitted that interrogation methods used in Iraq may have violated international and domestic law, the prosecution of lower level personnel has been insufficient.

“Congress has an obligation to investigate and assess responsibility at all levels of the Executive Branch from the highest officers on down for the abuses in Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons,” the letter stated.

Calling the abuse of Iraqi prisoners “a grave breach of responsibility,” the letter said that the executive branch’s allowance of questionable interrogation tactics in Iraq fosters “a culture facilitating disregard for the protections required to be accorded prisoners.”

“Voices have been raised to see how high this goes,” Bartholet said. “There’s a lot of evidence that policies initiated at the highest levels contributed to the abuses. Our voice is to emphasize those policies initiated from on high. It’s not just a bad apple problem.”

Smith Jr. Professor of Law Henry J. Steiner, one of the letter’s authors, said that “we must control better who is in charge of making these decisions.”

“They hurt not only the victims, but also the image of the U.S. in a very serious way,” Steiner said.

The letter stated that while the executive branch should maintain its power to conduct military affairs, Congress should take charge of deciding whether to implement coercive interrogation methods.

“Congress should determine afresh its wisdom, its consistency with basic democratic principles of humane treatment, and its conformity with international and domestic law,” stated the letter.

And even if such a law were to be approved by Congress, the letter said that “the reviewability of such law through the operation of the courts in due course must be assured.”

The letter also calls for the prosecution and punishment of those who violate humanitarian law, asking for the “impeachment and removal from office of any civil officer of the United States responsible” for these crimes.

Bartholet said that the implication and reach of such a congressional investigation has the power to reach every post in the civil service.

“It could go as far up to and including the president,” she said.

Because the letter was not finalized until the end of exam period, many HLS students remain oblivious to the letter, though Vincent Y. Liu, a first-year law student, said that he approved of the letter.

“I think what happened in the prison of Iraq is abhorrent,” he said. “I hope this letter can wake the conscience of some legislators, especially from the Republican wing of the Congress.”

—Staff writer Risheng Xu can be reached at

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