Legal challenge seeking George W. Bush's arrest during B.C. visit fails

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Lawyers Against the War's Gail Davidson speaks to an RCMP officer at the protest against George W. Bush's visit to Surrey, B.C.

George W. Bush's visit to Surrey, B.C., on Thursday was met with a protest and an unsuccessful courtroom bid to have him detained for torture during his presidency.

Roughly 200 demonstrators chanted for his detainment, many waving their shoes in the air, in reference to a 2008 incident at Baghdad press conference, when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi hurled a sneaker at the former president. 

"We have many orphans in my country because of his war," said an Iraqi woman who would not give her name out of fear for her family in Iraq. "So many innocent women and children have been killed -- what did they do to deserve this? I want him to face prison."

Inside the Sheraton Guildford Hotel, where the event took place, 500 businesspeople paid $599 to attend.

As Bush arrived yesterday morning, the Canadian Centre for International Justice filed a private prosecution in a Surrey provincial court to have him arrested. Made on behalf of four plaintiffs the unsuccessful attempt joined calls by Amnesty International, as well as a 4,000-page legal submission to Canada's Attorney General. 

The four men -- Hassan bin Attash, Sami el-Hajj, Muhammed Khan Tumani and Murat Kurnaz -- endured years of inhumane treatment including beatings, chaining to cell walls, being hung from walls or ceilings while handcuffed, lack of access to toilets, sleep, food and water-deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, sensory overload and deprivation at U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and/or at the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. While three of the plaintiffs were released without ever facing charges, Bin Attash still remains in detention at Guantánamo Bay, never having been formally charged with any wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, Bush was forced to cancel a trip to Switzerland after Amnesty International and other rights organizations threatened him with a similar court action.

He and other members of his administration insist their measures were both legal under international law, and necessary to prevent terrorism after September 11, 2001.

In one exchange with demonstrators yesterday, one RCMP officer guarding the Surrey Regional Economic Forum -- where Bush was to speak alongside another former U.S. president, Bill Clinton -- said the former president could not be arrested because he is an "internationally protected person."

This prompted Gail Davidson, of Lawyers Against the War, to argue that Bush no longer enjoys diplomatic immunity from prosecution as he is no longer in office.

When asked what he would do if one of the demonstrators were to begin water-boarding someone across the street, the officer replied, "I would immediately arrest them."

"I hate the criminal justice system, but if anyone deserves justice it's war criminals like Bush and Clinton," said Usman Majeed, a member of No One Is Illegal Vancouver. "Ultimately it's the system itself that should be put on trial -- it's built on imperialism and the transfer of wealth from third world to first world."

Amnesty International and members of Occupy Vancouver were joined by local residents upset with Bush being invited to speak at a business summit by Surrey mayor Dianne Watts.

"Canadians have the right to show their contempt," said Harbhajan Cheema, of the East Indian Defense Committee. "He violated international law and should be charged."

Amnesty International said the charges against Bush stem from his authorization of "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as simulated drowning, isolation, exposure to extreme temperature and noise, and confinement to coffin-sized cells.

"There's so much publicly available evidence," said Don Wright, B.C. regional coordinator of Amnesty International. "That's the key. The evidence is clear and should be acted on. We'd really regret if Canada didn't live up to its obligations."

With three RCMP helicopters flying overhead and U.S. Secret Service agents at hand, business guests reportedly paid $500 to hear the former presidents speak on Canada-U.S. relations. Last year, Bush released his memoir Decision Points -- in which he states that he authorized water-boarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques which human rights critics say are illegal under international law.

Also present was Vikram Bajwa, who is running against Watts for mayor of Surrey in the Nov. 19 civic elections and earlier this week announced he was opposed to Bush's visit and supports his arrest.

"I can't see any reason how any business in Surrey would benefit from Bush's visit at this economic summit," he said. "How much did we pay for President Bush to speak here? How much do residents of Surrey have to pay for their $5 million (event)? The mayor has an obligation to let residents know."

David P. Ball is a freelance writer in Vancouver, B.C., on Coast Salish territories and blogs for rabble.ca. His website can be found here.

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