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What? Torture is legal in N.C.?

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Anti-torture activists won in the General Assembly today when a House judiciary committee approved the legislation they've been working to enact for nearly two years.

House Bill 2417 would create two new criminal statutes in North Carolina specifically outlawing "torture" and "enforced disappearance" for the purpose of torture. Both would be added to the list of crimes for which a state investigative grand jury could be empaneled. That process can be initiated through a petition to the state Supreme Court by a local district attorney or the state attorney general.

State Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, a primary sponsor of the bill, called the committee action, which came by a 4-3 vote, a "significant victory" and "an important statement in opposing torture in North Carolina."

The vote was along party lines, with Democrats voting yes and Republicans voting no.

Luebke cautioned that the committee's action is just the first in a six-step legislative process. The bill now moves to the House Appropriations Committee, which will consider its cost to enforce, if any. If approved there, the bill would go to the House floor. The same process would be repeated in the Senate. Gov. Mike Easley's signature would also be required to enact the bill into law.

The chances of the bill clearing these hurdles before the current short session ends are "unsure," Luebke said, but he emphasized that the judiciary committee's approval was a critical move; the committee was careful to draw up a statute that is consistent with the rest of the state's criminal code and that would pass constitutional muster if challenged.

Stop Torture Now is the activist organization pushing for the legislation along with such allies as the N.C. Council of Churches. Stop Torture Now, recipient of a Citizen Award from the Indy in 2007, has been urging state officials to investigate Aero Contractors, an aviation company based at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield that is widely alleged to be a CIA contractor for the "extraordinary rendition" of terrorism suspects to countries where torture isn't illegal.

"North Carolina is known worldwide as home base for the ‘torture taxis' of Aero Contractors," STN's Christina Cowger said in an e-mail to supporters today. "The people of North Carolina need to stand up and say, 'We do not want to host torture.'"

In the fall of 2006, a dozen House Democrats, including Luebke, backed Stop Torture Now's efforts in a letter to the State Bureau of Investigation asking for a probe of Aero.

"It appears that Aero Contractors, in flying suspects to overseas torture sites, violated North Carolina and federal laws concerning conspiracy to commit torture," the legislators wrote. The signers included Reps. Linda Coleman, Deborah Ross and Jennifer Weiss of Wake County.

When N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said he lacked statutory authority to investigate the firm, the 12 lawmakers introduced legislation calling for investigative state grand juries in cases of apparent or attempted "torture, kidnapping or the enforced disappearance of persons." With Ross, the judiciary committee chair, helping, their bill was referred to the N.C. Sentencing Commission, which helped keep it alive from last year's legislative session to this year's.

Cowger called on Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, to bring the bill up in his committee in the next two weeks, before the July 4 holiday.

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