The Torturers Among Us

On February 13, 1978, Edgegayehu Taye, a twenty-one-year-old employee of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture, was taken into custody by the military government. Her father had been a prominent official in the previous regime of Haile Selassie, and this may have been the cause of her arrest. Transported to a detention center, Taye was ordered to remove her clothes. With her arms and legs bound, she was suspended from a pole and threatened with death if she refused to admit that she was a member of a political opposition group. For several hours guards beat her and poured water on her wounds to increase the pain. Finally she was cut down from the pole and taken to a prison cell but received no medical care for her injuries. For the next three years Edgegayehu Taye languished in various prisons in Addis Ababa until, with no explanation, she was released. During her years in custody she was never charged with a crime.

Not surprisingly, Taye took the first opportunity she had to flee Ethiopia; she escaped to Canada and eventually moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she found work in a hotel. By a remarkable coincidence, an Ethiopian named Kelbessa Negewo had also sought refuge in the United States in the 1980s and had also found a job in the very same hotel; and he was, Taye believed, the Ethiopian official in charge of the detention center to which she had been sent in February 1978. He had not only overseen her torture but participated in it. Taye and two other Ethiopian women filed suit against him in September 1990 under the Alien Tort Claims Act, legislation that provides that federal courts have jurisdiction over tort actions filed by aliens alleging violations of international law. The Federal District Court in Atlanta found that Negewo had indeed tortured Taye and the other two women and awarded them $1.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

But the story was not to end with the court’s decision. For while the Atlanta lawsuit was pending against him, Kelbessa Negewo had been applying for naturalization and, although the Immigration and Naturalization Service had apparently been informed of the court’s judgment, it granted his application. Despite the finding that he was a torturer, Kelbessa Negewo is today a US citizen residing in this country.1

Since the attacks of September 11, the US government has been assiduous in rounding up people it suspects of some connection with terrorism. At least 1,200 immigrants living in the United States were taken into custody in the days and weeks following the attack. Many of them have been held for months without knowing the reasons why they have been detained and in some cases they have not had access to an attorney. None of them has been charged with any terrorism-related crimes.2 And yet hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign nationals who have been plausibly accused of the most heinous human rights crimes, including torture and assassination, either have lived or still…

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