A grassroots commission involving several members of the Duke community is working to hold North Carolina accountable for its role in a controversial CIA program terminated by the Obama administration in 2009. 

In the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, North Carolina was home to a proprietary front company responsible for flying high-value terrorist suspects to and from CIA “black sites” overseas, where they were illegally detained and tortured.

Aero Contractors, a Smithfield, N.C.-based aviation firm, has been linked to two planes—known as “torture taxis”—that transported detainees to the secret CIA prisons overseas. Several investigations, including a 2014 Senate report completed under the chairmanship of Sen. Richard Burr, have connected the firm to more than 40 such flights.

The commission, known as the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture, is an independent non-profit organization examining North Carolina’s role in the program. During two public hearings on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at the Raleigh Convention Center, the commission received testimony detailing how Aero Contractors used state infrastructure—such as public airports—to house planes for the CIA.

“The group’s concern is that North Carolina allowed this company to operate under its nose and took no action,” said Jim Coleman, John S. Bradway professor of the practice of law, who sat on the NCCIT's 11-person panel. “The point of the commission is to put on the record what the facts were.”

Robin Kirk, faculty co-chair of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, joined Coleman on the panel. Rev. Ben Boswell, Divinity School '06, also served as a commissioner.

“I was glad to see Duke so well represented,” Kirk said. “This commission and the participation not only of Duke faculty, but also of Duke students who helped prepare some of the materials for this inquiry, shows Duke in the best possible light.”

Testimony from the hearings will be compiled alongside additional research in the form of a report. Kirk said the report—scheduled for release in 2018—would include a summary of findings and a range of legislative recommendations. 

She added that it would be timely given President Donald Trump’s favorable view of torture. Trump promised during his campaign to bring back waterboarding and tried in January to push an executive order that raised the prospect of reviving the secret CIA prisons program.

“We are on the brink of doing this again,” Kirk said. “If we don’t look at and understand why we tortured and the terrible negative effects of that torture, we risk repeating it.” 

The public hearings included testimony from two members of the Duke community: Imam Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim affairs and adjunct faculty of Islamic studies, and Jayne Huckerby, clinical professor of law and director of the Duke International Human Rights Clinic.

Antepli spoke about the Muslim perspective on torture and the impact of its practice on Muslim communities. He said he has been involved with the commission for many years now.

“It is our general human perspective that torture is a moral failure and a stain on our collective identity,” he wrote in an email. “As a Muslim, I not only outlined how torture is abhorred in Islamic theology. I also outlined how and why torture and the lack of moral outcry to it is proving terrorists’ narrative of, ‘The West is at war with Islam.’”

He said the lack of a legal and moral response to torture in the U.S. has emboldened dictators in Muslim majority societies to adopt the practice of torture as well.

In her testimony, Huckerby explained how states and local authorities are bound, as a matter of international and domestic law, to comply with human rights treaties that the U.S. has ratified—including the legal prohibition on torture. Federal governments cannot outsource torturous programs to states to avoid legal repercussions, she added.

“The ban on torture is absolute and non-derogable, meaning that it cannot be infringed,” Huckerby wrote in an email. “State authorities are bound by international law and this includes obligations to regulate the activities of private companies that are reported to be involved in perpetuating abuse.”

Kirk and Coleman said they appreciated hearing from Antepli and Huckerby, but that the most powerful testimonies came from individuals still suffering physically and psychologically due to torture they experienced years ago. 

Kirk said one individual discussed being legally prohibited by the conditions of his release from speaking about his experience or leaving Mauritania, where he has been relocated. Another—a Sept. 11 conspirator represented in testimony by an attorney—was tortured so severely that he has a permanent, degenerative brain injury.

“The pain and the damage that they suffer is not over,” Kirk said. “It’s not over for any of these people because the effects of torture last for the rest of life.”

It was also clear from the testimonies that torture is not only morally reprehensible, but also ineffective, she said.

For that reason, Coleman said that trust in the rule of law—as opposed to blind support for agencies like the CIA—needs to be restored. 

“If the United States has lost confidence in the rule of law to solve our problems—including terrorism—then we can’t hold anybody accountable under the rule of law,” he said. “I hope that people pay attention to this, because when our government openly rejects the rule of law as a restraint, it’s hard to know how we hold our government accountable for anything that it does.”