Sister Dianna Ortiz, torture survivor and anti-torture activist
Sister Dianna Ortiz, torture survivor and anti-torture activist
By Sister Dianna Ortiz
July 2004

Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun, is executive director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C. She was tortured in Guatemala in 1989 after spending two years there as a Catholic missionary teaching Mayan children. She is the author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.

On November 2, 1989, I was abducted by Guatemalan security forces and taken to a clandestine prison, where I was burned with cigarettes more than 111 times, raped repeatedly, and subjected to other forms of torture. While there, I met the man my torturers referred to as their boss.

He was an American.

Later, when I first spoke of this man publicly, many of my fellow citizens here in the United States had difficulty believing that an American could be involved in torture, much less be boss of a squad of torturers. Even fewer would accept that he was undoubtedly acting on orders from superiors.

I hope this is easier to believe today.

News of U.S. military involvement in cruel prisoner abuse in Iraq and against our captives from Afghanistan should not surprise foreign policy experts or anyone familiar with U.S. involvement in many developing nations. Not only have U.S. presidents supported governments that
systematically engaged in torture, they have presided over administrations that taught torture to foreign military personnel and practiced it as well. The abuses I experienced first-hand also occurred in prisons in El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and the Philippines while those countries received U.S. military aid.

Our leaders who violated U.S. law by ordering torture or knowingly permitting it have evaded responsibility for their actions largely by hiding incriminating documents from the rest of us by classifying them, turning into state secrets this information the public had a right to know. The usual justification is the protection of “sources and methods.” As a result, U.S. torturers and torture instructors have long been protected.

Due to government secrecy, we do not know all the details, but anyone who wants to do so can learn enough to be convinced that our government has been involved in torture.

Naturally, most citizens don’t want to know, don’t want to believe. Knowing and believing that our government is guilty of torture makes us uncomfortable. The demands of torture survivors like me and others who have sought to declassify the facts have gone unheeded. The government we are accusing of torture is in charge of deciding whether to release the documents that would prove our accusations.

Today’s situation is different. Those U.S. leaders responsible for torture in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq either did not know about the photographs or did not foresee their impact. Now our top leaders have taken “official notice” of torture. The issue has become so public that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush have apologized.

But their apologies do not go far enough for me or any other torture survivor who has suffered from U.S.-supported abuse. Our leaders have voiced regret that a “few bad apples” tarnished America’s human rights record. In fact, there have been quite a few apologies—but not enough consequences. Rumsfeld, for example, apologized because it happened “on his watch.” But does that mean he was responsible? Apparently not. He seems to have suffered no consequences. For this administration, the buck stops with a few bad apples.

Thanks to leaked memos, we now know that the White House was fully aware of attempts to redefine torture as “not torture,” under the impetus of some Justice Department lawyers and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales.

Even if only the people around him were plotting to make torture acceptable under U.S. law, should Bush be exonerated? If he is so irrelevant or ignorant, should we not demand to know who is truly the chief executive?

I want to say, “Of course. We’ve known all along this was going on,” but until now, few would listen—perhaps because there were no photographs. But my second reaction is pure horror, or rather, a revisiting of horror. There it is again—this time all over the front pages. What was done to these detainees brings me and many others back to our own prison cells, to our own torturers. Again we live under their control. Again we experience indescribable pain and suffering. Doesn’t our government know what it is permitting?

Dark as the deeds of our leaders, there is a ray of hope. The media is tearing down the walls of silence that has surrounded our torture policies. Now it is our responsibility. We all must express outrage at what has been done in our name. That outrage has power—the power to compel our leaders never to permit torture again.