Dick Cheney and the burden of proof

When former US vice-president Dick Cheney made his book tour appearance in Vancouver this week, Human Rights Watch was calling on Canada to arrest him for war crimes.

When former US vice-president Dick Cheney made his book tour appearance in Vancouver this week, Human Rights Watch was calling on Canada to arrest him for war crimes.

According to the US-based human rights group, there is ample evidence to connect Cheney with torture, including the torture of two Canadian citizens, Maher Arar and Omar Khadr. In addition, he is implicated in the illegal invasion of Iraq, from which companies with which he is associated have profited to the tune of billions.

It’s for a court to decide whether Cheney is guilty of torture, mass murder, war profiteering, and various other crimes, but his own words alone should be enough to bring him to trial.

Last year, he told ABC News, “I was a big supporter of waterboarding,” and went on to brag that the White House set policy on “enhanced interrogation techniques” and then ordered legal staff to “fix the law to fit the policies.”

Waterboarding is a torture based on near drowning that was popular during the Inquisition under the name la tortura de agua.

Cheney claims his country’s illegal use of torture saved “hundreds of thousands of lives,” though the evidence to support this is, naturally, classified. It’s worth noting that during the Inquisition, waterboarding and other tortures led people to confess to flying to hell on broomsticks to join in orgies with Satan.

Former FBI agent Ali Soufan told the CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti this week that Cheney’s torturers extracted similar fantasies, while he and other interrogators who used psychology and trickery gathered a lot of useful intelligence without ever abusing a detainee.

Cheney had little to fear, even in the unlikely event Canada had decided to prosecute him. His visit comes at a time when Canadian prosecution of war criminals entails little more than a ticket home.

This July, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews jointly cut the ribbon on their new Turn In An Illegal Alien website, bearing the names and pictures of 30 people wanted for war crimes. All had been declared inadmissible to Canada, and would be summarily deported as soon as they were apprehended.

When you deport an alleged war criminal without concern for what happens when they get home, any one of a number of things might happen. They may be innocent, but be subject to politically motivated prosecution in their own countries. They may be guilty, and face due process of law. Or they may, like Cheney, have a great deal to answer for, but be returning to a safe haven, where there is no chance that they’ll ever be prosecuted. Canada’s message for accused war criminals is, who cares? We don’t care if you did it or not, we don’t care what happens to you, all that matters to us is that you are off our hands.

Since that first joint photo-op, Kenney and Toews have been a bit of a deportation road show, trotting out the portable podium and flags whenever one of the accused men was packed off home, each deportation celebrated as a win for the tough-on-crime Conservatives. A few unkind commentators have suggested that the whole performance is being conducted to appeal to the baser instincts of anti-immigration voters.

The 30 accused war criminals all had at least one thing in common with Dick Cheney, and you guessed right, it wasn’t skin hue. None of them has ever been imprisoned or faced charges. They entered Canada through regular channels, but were later accused of having lied by failing to reveal past criminal activities. This is how we’ve removed many a Nazi war criminal, and it’s a perfectly legitimate practice, provided you have sufficient evidence to support the accusation and a functioning justice system to receive the accused.

Human Rights Watch members weren’t really expecting Cheney to get the orange-jumpsuit treatment in Vancouver. They know that prosecutions, like deportations, are for the weak and the defeated. Cheney came to Canada to brag yet again about his involvement in the atrocities of Iraq and Afghanistan, about black sites and extraordinary renditions and enhanced interrogation techniques, all in the service of freedom. He was welcomed, if not universally, and if he chooses to return in the future, he’ll be welcomed again.

Those other 30 alleged war criminals will not be welcomed back. They may go free or they may be harshly punished. No doubt, some have committed terrible crimes, though surely none on the scale of those Cheney stands accused of. But that’s the difference between Cheney and the others – scale.

He is a man of great wealth, power and influence, accused of great crimes. They are small men facing lesser charges. In their case, the burden of proof is much lighter.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.