Holding government officials accountable for serious abuses is never easy; when high-level officials are involved, it can be politically divisive. But Human Rights Watch research over the past 25 years in dozens of countries has shown that forgoing criminal accountability carries a high price. (See particularly Human Rights Watch, Selling Justice Short (2009)). Lack of accountability may fuel future abuses and weaken the rule of law.

Globally, the US unwillingness to prosecute CIA torture weakens US authority to oppose torture and other abuses abroad, provides a ready excuse for countries unwilling to prevent or prosecute torture in their own countries, and undermines global respect for the rule of law.

The egregious abuse of prisoners in CIA custody and failure to hold anyone accountable has undermined global efforts to fight terrorism. Detainee abuse, including abuse of prisoners by the US military, has been used by terrorist groups to obtain new recruits and contributed to anti-US sentiment in many countries.

Ultimately, the guilt or innocence of any of the US officials involved in organizing or carrying out the CIA program will rest with the criminal justice system. Suspects should be tried in criminal proceedings that comport with international due process and fair trial standards, including allowing them to challenge evidence, present defenses, and raise mitigating circumstances. But before these fundamental institutions of democratic rule can even be set in motion, US criminal justice officials need to first conduct credible investigations and bring charges where appropriate, requirements that have gone unmet for well over a decade since the first revelations of CIA torture after 9/11.

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