The New Yorker
Amnesty International — Victims and Volunteers
By: Ian Parker, Contributing Writer
At around eleven o’clock on the night of March 10,2002, Deputy Sheriff Brian King was driving on Highway 101 near Forks, a remote, rainy town in the northwest corner of Washington, when he noticed a car stopped fifty feet down the Wilson Road turnoff, with its hazard lights flashing and its headlights off. When King pulled up behind the car, a silver 1997 Honda Civic, he saw that its windows were steamed up—perhaps indicating a “young couple engaged in a rendezvous,” as the report of a private investigator later put it. There was someone in the driver’s seat, but when King tapped the window and called out he got no reply. The car doors were locked. Radioing in the license-plate number, King learned that the car belonged to a Forks resident, Barbara Bocek. He had met Bocek, a woman in her late forties, at the nearby Quileute Indian reservation, where he had once been stationed, and where she had a job writing grant applications for the tribe. He also knew that, in the previous year, Bocek had reported a dozen or so threats against her life that were apparently connected to the volunteer work she had done on political violence in Guatemala for Amnesty International, the world’s largest human rights organization.
King broke the driver’s-side window with his flashlight. Bocek was slumped across the front seats. Black electrical tape had been placed over her mouth and eyes, and was wrapped twice around her legs. Her hands were tied behind her back with wire. As King freed Bocek, she seemed “lethargic and relaxed,” he later reported. An ambulance took her to Forks Community Hospital.
Bocek did not immediately describe what had happened, but in the emergency room (where a doctor found no serious physical injuries) the events of the evening began to emerge: Driving home from the reservation a little after seven, Bocek had turned off the highway to check a scraping noise coming from the front of the car. She had knelt to look under the wheel well, and had heard a car pull in behind hers. Frozen with fear, she had not looked up as two men approached, grabbed her, bound and gagged her, and threw her into the car, saying that if she ever returned to Guatemala she would be killed.
King went back to the scene that night, and the next day he presented a report to Randy Pieper, the sole detective in the Clallam County Sheriff’s Department who serves the Forks area. Pieper made his own inquiries, and by the end of that week he came to a conclusion that would send Amnesty International into months of turmoil. In Pieper’s opinion, Bocek had staged the attack.
Barbara Bocek (whose name is pronounced Boh-check) sometimes describes herself as an “aging hippie.” She was born into a Catholic family in Seattle, where her five siblings and her parents still live. She first traveled to Latin America in 1980, when she was a doctoral student in anthropology at Stanford University. She spent five years, on and off, in Peru. “I loved it immediately—I think some people instantly take to the apparent chaos of a developing country’s sprawling capital city and others don’t,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “I wasn’t put off by the black exhaust from buses, the armed guards at banks, the cow heads in market stalls, the pickpockets, the beggars, or the totally lawless traffic.” After finishing her degree, in 1986, Bocek stayed on at Stanford as a staff archeologist, overseeing Native American sites on university-owned land, until 1992, when she resigned, partly, according to David Stoll, a friend who knew her from Stanford, because of a personality clash in her department. Bocek was then thirty-eight years old, and she decided to join the Peace Corps. She was sent to a village of two hundred and fifty Maya Indians in Totonicapan, in western Guatemala. Within nine months, she had become fluent in K’iche’, the most commonly spoken native language in Guatemala.
David Stoll was also in Guatemala, researching a book about Rigoberta Menchu, the Maya Indian who, after publishing an autobiography that told of her family’s brutal treatment during the country’s civil war—in which military governments fought left-wing guerrillas and destroyed Maya populations who were said to harbor them—became an inspirational leader for indigenous people and, in 1992, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Stoll’s work on a previous book, about the extent of Mayan support for the guerrillas, had led him to question the accuracy of Menchu’s narrative. He asked Bocek to travel with him for a week or two at a time as his K’iche’ interpreter on interviews, and on these trips Bocek heard witnesses recall, as she says, “acts of brutality that defy description.” Stoll remembers that as an interpreter Bocek was “very astute, very skeptical—I would even say cynical, but she did not lose the elementary trust that you need to meet new people.” Stoll’s controversial book, “Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans,” published in 1999, reported that Menchu’s account was, in part, a fabrication. Atrocities of the kind she described had happened, but not all of them were inflicted on her family; she had made herself a “composite Maya.” Stoll wrote, “With postmodern critiques of representation and authority, many scholars are tempted to abandon the task of verification, especially when they construe the narrator as a victim worthy of their support. At a time when rumor, myth, representation, and the construction of what we consider real pose fascinating issues, it has become all too easy to deprecate the task of separating truth from falsehood, deferring instead to the authority of fashionable forms of victimhood.”
Bocek returned to Seattle in 1997, when her father became seriously ill. Preferring not to live in the city, she took the grant-writing position on the Quileute reservation and moved into a two-bedroom duplex in Forks, a town of three thousand people, fifteen miles away. Once a logging center, Forks is “still a Carhart town,” as David Johnston, a local psychiatrist, recently put it. “But there’s also a socially conscious, intellectual base—a Birkenstock wing.” Bocek does not seem to have made many friends in either group, but there is no sign that she wished to. As her friend and Amnesty colleague Angelina Snodgrass Godoy explains, Bocek is a “lone wolf, an independent person.”
In 1997, Bocek applied to Amnesty International U.SA., one of fifty-eight national sections of Amnesty International, which is based in London, to become an unsalaried part-time “country specialist,” a sort of senior volunteer, for Guatemala. A.I.U.S.A. now has about a hundred and thirty country specialists. Volunteers submit a formal application, and those who are chosen to become country specialists spend several hours a week providing backup for Amnesty’s paid staff, monitoring the local media of their chosen country and serving as links between the staff and the membership.
Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a left-leaning British barrister, who was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, and who served in Military Intelligence during the Second World War. After the war, Benenson ran for Parliament unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate. He also converted to Catholicism. With the support of Eric Baker, a prominent Quaker who had helped found the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and Louis Blom-Cooper, a lawyer, Benenson launched his human rights campaign with a long article published in the Observer. “Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government,” he wrote. “The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.” He then announced the establishment of a London office to “collect information about the names, numbers and conditions of what we have decided to call Prisoners of Conscience, and we define them thus: Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) an opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.’”
Within a year, the campaign had become a permanent membership organization. It conducted fact-finding “missions,” headed by highly respected representatives— one of the first, to Czechoslovakia in 1962, was led by Sean MacBride, the Irish revolutionary and statesman—and invited members to “adopt” prisoners of conscience. Members formed into groups of about ten people, and Amnesty sent each group an ideologically balanced list of three prisoners—one in the Eastern bloc, one in the West, and another in the developing world. Members wrote to their “groups of three” and to the governments who held them with the aim of embarrassing those governments and, ultimately, pressuring them into releasing their prisoners.
Amnesty’s members had a clearly defined role, and they could share in the organization’s successes. Between 1970 and 1977, when Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize, it adopted more than fifteen thousand political prisoners, and helped gain the release of more than half of them. The human-rights scholar William Korey, in his book “NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Curious Grapevine,” quotes the Dominican trade-union leader Julio de Pena Valdez describing his experience with Amnesty International after being jailed in 1975: “When the first two hundred letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes. Then the next two hundred letters came and the prison director came to see me. . . . The letters still kept arriving and the President called the prison and told them to let me go. After I was released, the President called me to his office…. He said, ‘How is it that a trade union leader like you has so many friends all over the world?’” Amnesty has worked on behalf of Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Kim Dae-jung, and Agostinho Neto, the first post-independence President of Angola. It estimates that it has helped win the release of more than forty thousand prisoners of conscience.
But the model has evolved over the years. In outline, Amnesty’s history is a turn from the particular to the general, from the individual Soviet dissident to broader thematic or geographical campaigns (such as human-rights abuses in the diamond trade, or in Saudi Arabia), which are investigated by human rights professionals and announced in the media. Amnesty’s most significant recent work includes lobbying for the International Criminal Court and against the death penalty worldwide. One can read this development as a response to changes in forms of political cruelty: in the nineteen-seventies, the governments of Argentina and Chile, in particular, turned from incarceration to “disappearances” (perhaps, it has been suggested, to save themselves the inconvenience of an Amnesty campaign); and when the Cold War ended, human-rights abuse became more associated with ethnic conflict and disputed borders (in the Balkans, for example) than with individual prisoners. As Ian Martin, a former Amnesty International secretary-general, said in a speech at Harvard a few years ago, “Amnesty International’s brilliantly naive but effective tactic of deluging offending governments with letters from around the world can have no impact through a government whose formal authority carries no real power over warring bands in its own territory, or on non-governmental groups which are wholly isolated from the international community.” In other words, you could hope to embarrass the Franco regime, but not the Taliban.
Yet some members, including Barbara Sproul, an associate professor of religion at Hunter College, who joined A.I.U.S.A. in 1968, are inclined to see Amnesty’s evolution more as a matter of choice than as an inevitability. Sproul says that Sean MacBride once told her that some staff members complained that prisoners-of-conscience campaigns were complicated and laborious, and that they thought their time could be more effectively spent on research, presswork, and education. Sproul doesn’t speak for the membership; in fact, of A.I.U.S.A.’s three hundred and thirty thousand members—many of whom are high-school and university students—she recognizes as true members only the few hundred who are as active as she is. But she represents a vocal activist wing when she asks, “Do campaigns exist for prisoners or prisoners exist for campaigns? Originally, the prisoner was the thing. Now the campaign is the thing, and the prisoner is the illustration.”
Today, Amnesty International has more than a million members around the world; they pay dues, and they can be invoked, as a constituency, on Capitol Hill or at the United Nations. But, to use a word sometimes heard in Amnesty, the members have to be “serviced”: they must be given things to do. An organization like Human Rights Watch—Amnesty’s younger and, some say, more agile cousin—has never sought a mass membership; its research and campaigning are done by paid staff and consultants, who are most often lawyers and professionals with advanced degrees in their fields. Over the years, Amnesty has had the task of turning away from a pure member-driven model without turning away from its members. A former A.I.U.S.A. board member puts it this way: “It’s much harder to engage successfully in the question of how small arms sales fuel human-rights abuses in West Africa than it is to write a letter on your kitchen table. The old amateurs feel that they are being squeezed out.”
So when Barbara Bocek became a country specialist, she was joining a small but important and somewhat discontented group. (After the Wilson Road incident, a group called the Friends of Barbara Bocek was formed, and its members included many country specialists as well as other veteran activists.) She worked long hours, assuming more responsibility than was usual, particularly after the murder of the Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, who had led a Church investigation into human-rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s civil war. Bishop Gerardi was killed on April 26, 1998, two days after he had released a landmark report that held the Guatemalan military responsible for the great majority of the war’s two hundred thousand dead. (A United Nations-sponsored truth commission published its own report the following year, confirming the Church’s findings and recording the Army’s systematic use of torture, “disappearances,” and killings it described as genocidal.) Bocek joined an Amnesty mission to Guatemala in 1999; she helped found a “trial observers project” for human rights cases making hesitant progress through Guatemalan courts; and she helped mobilize members to campaign for justice in the Gerardi case. She also wrote an A.I.U.S.A.-approved op-ed article that was published in the Baltimore Sun on April 25,2001, under the headline “GUATEMALA MUST PROTECT WITNESSES TO ENSURE JUSTICE.”
A week later, shortly before she was to return to Guatemala on a second mission, Bocek’s phone rang at three in the morning. She says that a man speaking Spanish with a Guatemalan accent told her, “You’ll pay for what you’ve written,” adding that she would be tortured and killed along with others working on Gerardi’s case. On May 3rd, she received a similar call. In an e-mail memo sent to colleagues at the time, she wrote, “I answered the phone and when he said my name I said something really rude which I won’t translate, and then, ‘It’s you again, what a huge budget you must have for international phone calls.’ He said, ‘No, Barbara. Why do you say that? We’re very nearby to you.
’”Bocek apparently recalls little about the sequence or the timing of the threats made against her. But an internal Amnesty memo shows that nearly three weeks after the second telephone threat she reported that an anonymous fax had been sent to her workplace: a copy of her Baltimore Sun article with the words “You’ll pay with your life for this” written on it in Spanish. Then, on a ferry to Seattle, she found a page torn from the Forks telephone directory stuffed beside the driver’s seat of her car. On the page, her name and address had been scratched out.
Some acts of intimidation in the United States have been attributed to Guatemalan political forces; a private investigator’s review of the Bocek case records seven reports of threats between 1994 and 1996 to United States residents who were active in Guatemalan issues. A few were hostile telephone calls, but one involved the fire-bombing of a car belonging to Jose Pertierra, a lawyer who was representing Jennifer Harbury, the American widow of a Guatemalan rebel leader killed by the Guatemalan Army in 1992. (Pertierra was unharmed.) Nevertheless, the threats against Bocek, who was not a central human-rights figure, were surprising. Amnesty wanted her to pull out of the upcoming mission to Guatemala. She told them she would either go with Amnesty or go on her own. By the time she flew out, on June 4, 2001, A.I.U.S.A. had provided extra security measures and had referred her to a clinical psychologist with expertise in trauma: Judy Okawa, of the Program for Survivors of Torture and Severe Trauma at the Center for Multicultural Human Services, in Falls Church, Virginia. William F. Schulz, the executive director of A.I.U.S.A., had written to the F.B.I. to press them to take the threats against Bocek seriously, and a local F.B.I. agent, Stephanie Gleason, had been assigned to her case.
In Guatemala City, Bocek joined Tracy Ulltveit-Moe, a staff researcher from London, and Francisco Soberon, a leading Peruvian human-rights campaigner. They arrived at a moment of high tension and increasing political violence; in the preceding twelve months, there had been a hundred and seventy one documented cases of harassment and targeted violence against human rights advocates in Guatemala. On June 8th, the trial of three military officers and a priest who had been charged in the murder of Bishop Gerardi came to an end, with guilty verdicts returned against them. In the Westin Camino Real, the upscale hotel where the Amnesty members were staying, Bocek and her colleagues drafted a dozen or so letters in support of the convictions to the editors of American newspapers and e-mailed them to A.I.U.S.A. for approval and distribution. Although the trial was widely reported, Bocek suspects that these letters were a serious provocation. “We were raising hell!” she says.
On the night of June llth, Bocek says, when she returned to the hotel at about ten o’clock to make a telephone call, she was confronted in the hall outside her room by two men, who attempted to abduct her. She told me, “Before I could get in my room, these two guys stepped out of the stairwell.” She added, apologetically, “I can’t talk about it right now.” At twelve-thirty, according to Amnesty’s records, she was found at the foot of the stairwell, her legs and arms bound, and her mouth covered with tape. She appeared sluggish, but a medical examination found no serious physical injuries or evidence of drugging.Bocek has never offered a physical description of her attackers. Nor does she know why her abduction was aborted. She told Amnesty that the men spoke of “returning with a van.” (One Amnesty document suggests that the men decided not to use the door at the bottom of the stairwell, because it would have triggered an alarm.) She also says that she was able to throw her electronic key into her room and slam the door to prevent the men from taking her inside. She told me that one of the men had a gun, and that one told her, in Spanish, “We’re going to take you away from here and no one is ever going to see you again.”
Amnesty was horrified: no member of a mission had ever been subjected to this kind of violence. Staff members at the American Embassy in Guatemala City interviewed Bocek, and they helped transfer her to another hotel, where Embassy guards were posted at her door. After some urging from Amnesty, Bocek met with officials of the Guatemalan Public Ministry and made a statement. When she left the country the next day, the Embassy supplied an armed escort to the airport and onto the plane. (“Like being a rock star,” she recalled.) She flew home via Washington, D.C., where she saw her therapist, Judy Okawa, and had lunch with the American Ambassador to Guatemala, Prudence Bushnell. Shortly after the attack, the Guatemalan interior minister, Byron Barrientos, told a newspaper reporter that he thought it was a hoax, but Bushnell had promised to raise Bocek’s case with the Guatemalan authorities.
According to Bocek, the threats continued after she returned to Forks. On the telephone, a man speaking in Guatemalan-accented Spanish said, “We know you’re back.” She found a threatening note on her bedroom window, and she says a rock with another note wrapped around it was thrown at the windshield of her car while it was parked in her garage. In August, the F.B.I, urged her to move, but she refused. Amnesty pressed her to allow them to install house and car alarms as well as video cameras. Bocek threatened to leave the organization if the cameras were installed. “I didn’t like cameras—it’s nobody’s fucking business who comes to my house,” she told me. An Amnesty colleague remembers the arguments: “They were saying, ‘You have to take this seriously,’ but she didn’t want any change in her routine.” In the end, the cameras were installed, and Bocek retreated further into isolation. She told me, “You don’t want to visit anybody. I was so glad I didn’t have a partner then. I thought, God, what if I had a roommate or boyfriend? They would be going through this.”
During this time, Bocek was in regular contact with Stephanie Gleason, the F.B.I. agent, whom she found sympathetic. In September, she told Gleason that she found a note in which someone threatened to poison her cat. Later that month, a man approached her outside a grocery store in Forks, saying, “I noticed your car. I’ve been looking for a car like yours.” When she returned to the Honda, she found a note on the windshield which read, “We want you to realize that we’re watching you.” (Bocek says that she does not have copies of the notes and that some of the originals are with the F.B.I.)
With Bocek’s approval, Amnesty stepped up its public response to the threats, and in early October she went to Washington, D.C., for meetings at the State Department and with the Guatemalan Ambassador. She stayed a week. Amnesty asked her to check in with the local police when she got back to Forks. Instead, she drove directly to her apartment. There, she says, she found a knife stuck into a screen on one of her windows.
An Amnesty “urgent action” describes a proven or likely life threatening human rights abuse, and it is sent to members with a request that they write in protest to the government in question. Urgent actions are verified in London, and are traditionally supported by at least two reliable sources. At first, Bocek had not wanted this kind of attention drawn to her case, but in October a “special action” (a variant of the urgent action, authorized at the national level) was issued by A.I.U.S.A. Bocek helped draft it, and it did not draw on any corroborating evidence. “Amnesty International is deeply concerned for the safety of U.S. citizen Barbara Bocek, who has received repeated death threats in the United States and was the victim of an attempted abduction in Guatemala on June 11,” it read. It described the threats against Bocek up to the incident of the knife in the window screen. It urged members to write to the Guatemalan Ambassador about Bocek’s case, and more than a thousand did.
But the special action was out of date almost as soon as it was released. As an Amnesty staff member explained it to me, after Bocek found the knife she decided to sleep in her living room for a couple of nights. When she eventually went into the bedroom, Bocek later said, she found another knife, under her pillow. She did not report this directly to Amnesty or the F.B.I.; rather, Amnesty learned of it from Judy Okawa. There was no evidence of a break-in. The alarm did not go off. The video cameras were in place. Bocek now says that the tapes all went to the F.B.I., and that “for all I know they caught someone on the tape but didn’t want to talk about it.” She speculates that if there was no sign of forced entry, perhaps there were keys to her apartment in circulation, from previous tenants. The company that installed the alarm told Bocek that it was extremely hard but “not impossible” to disable the system after breaking in.
By that stage, Bocek told me, “I was mentally a mess.” Colleagues at the reservation were telling her that she looked ill. Her doctor recommended that she take anti-anxiety medication. She left Forks for a few weeks, and spent some of that time in Virginia, where she consulted Okawa.
The A.I.U.S.A. leadership was by now beginning to feel pressure about the Bocek case from two sources. First, the International Secretariat (I.S.), Amnesty’s governing body in London, apparently indicated that it had some worries about Bocek’s veracity. I was told that A.I.U.S.A. staff heard that a staff member in London had questioned Bocek’s account of events in the Camino Real. They also learned that an I.S. security report on the mission raised some doubts about Bocek’s story. In an effort to reassure the London office, A.I.U.S.A. agreed to ask Okawa to produce a report on her client. “In my professional opinion, Ms. Bocek is not malingering,” she wrote. (Okawa declined to talk to me about the case, citing therapist-client confidentiality.)
It also appeared that, following the incident of the knives, the F.B.I. was beginning to regard the Bocek case with suspicion. Charles Brown, then A.I.U.S.A.’s deputy executive director, met with the F.B.I. in Washington, D.C., in November, and was told that Bocek was not cooperating. So when the bureau asked her to meet with agents early in the new year, A.I.U.S.A. welcomed this as an opportunity to “get everyone back on board, to sort it out,” as one staff member told me. On January 3, 2002, in the F.B.I.’s offices outside Seattle, Bocek was interviewed by Stephanie Gleason and an agent she had not met before, Ray Lauer.
At the meeting, Bocek says, the agents immediately accused her of lying. Infuriated, she decided to tell “a big whopping lie.” She informed Lauer that she had made up the story of the knives. She says, “I honestly thought he would say, ‘No false confessions!’ Instead, he got all excited and turned his chair around facing me, and said, ‘Now we’re getting somewhere.
’”Bocek agreed to a lie-detector test, which she failed (although she claims that the process was flawed). After about five hours, she left. She said, “It was, ‘I’m out of here,’ and he said, ‘There’s nothing more important than you staying here right now and answering our questions.’ ‘Fuck that. I’ve got a ferry to catch.’ And I just left…. I called them the next day. I said, ‘Fuck you all forever. If you think that after that I’ll ever talk to you again, you’re crazy, you’re clearly nuts, completely out there.’ He said, ‘Lying to the F.B.I. is a federal offense and we can prosecute.’ ” Although the F.B.I. declined to comment specifically on the case, Ray Lauer told me, “We took the initial complaints very seriously and we did the things we needed to do, and at this point no further investigation is being conducted.”
Bocek had been due to fly to Guatemala on March 12th, to look at police mug shots of men who might have been her assailants at the Camino Real. Her colleagues were alarmed that she was going. One of them said, “I don’t want to be the person who has to call her family.” There is a risk, according to Jack Saul, the director of the International Trauma Studies Program at N.Y.U., that human-rights workers will mask their trepidations, “fearing that if they reveal their vulnerability they’ll be considered not fit to do that work. There’s an assumption you’ve got to be tough.” But although Bocek acknowledges that she was afraid to go back, she says, “If I’d not wanted to go I could have just not gone.”
On March 10th, two days before she was scheduled to leave, Deputy Sheriff King found her in her car on Wilson Road. Although the doctor who examined Bocek in Forks reported that she had “no specific complaints” besides a general soreness from sitting still for so long, she claimed soon after that she had broken a molar and suffered nerve damage to her hands and her left arm. At A.I.U.S.A.’s annual meeting a few weeks later in Seattle, she wore her arm in a sling. William Schulz addressed Bocek’s case in his introductory remarks. “We will not tolerate threats against our human-rights defenders,” he said, and a second special action, approved by Bocek, which noted her injuries, was handed out as he spoke.
The incident at the Camino Real had gained mention in the American press, but the Wilson Road incident was allegedly an act of political violence committed in the United States, and the media began to give it serious attention. The Forks police did not inform Amnesty of its findings, but two reporters—David Gonzalez, of the New York Times, and Mike Carter, of the Seattle Times—quickly discovered that Detective Randy Pieper doubted Bocek’s story. The Seattle Times ran its article on May 4th under the headline “WOMAN SAYS GUATEMALANS ATTACKED HER NEAR FORKS; DETECTIVE SAYS, ‘WE DON’T THINK IT HAPPENED.’” The New York Times story appeared two days later: “POLICE DOUBTS ABOUT ATTACK CAST CLOUD ON RIGHTS GROUP.” That same day, the senior staff of A.I.U.S.A., including William Schulz and Charles Brown, had a conference call with their I.S. counterparts in London. By the end of that conversation, it had been decided that Amnesty should hire a private investigator to examine the Wilson Road attack, and ask Bocek to take a leave of absence until a report was made. In a letter published in the New York Times, Brown noted that the police had not shared their doubts, and added, “The Bocek case appears consistent with a pattern of intimidation common to the Guatemalan military and its associates. We will continue our own inquiry into the case.”
Some A.I.U.S.A. members were angered by Bocek’s suspension. Among them was the longtime activist Barbara Sproul, who wrote regular e-mails to the board, the staff, and the network of country specialists. She said, “I saw someone being trashed. Normally we take the word of a person, on the basis of his track record, and what the likelihood is that such a thing happened. Suddenly the F.B.I. raises questions, and the local police chief follows suit, and we just roll over and play dead? I come from the seventies, when our offices would be broken into and the Chile files would go missing.” In recognition of the feelings of members like Sproul, A.I.U.S.A. released a statement to members in July that appeared to put some distance between itself and the I.S. A.I.U.S.A., it said, was “fully committed to Barb and to the truth of her claims.” It added, “Even if the results of the investigation are inconclusive, it will be A.I.U.S.A.’s position that the organization must remain steadfast in support of Barb and her veracity, preferring to err—if we err at all—on the side of the victim, a long standing principle of the human rights movement.”
Amnesty’s chosen investigator was Keith Rohman, of the Los Angeles firm Public Interest Investigations. Rohman, who has extensive human-rights and civil-rights credentials (he served as an international monitor for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission), worked on the case throughout the summer of 2002. He started with “a profound respect for the work of Ms. Bocek,” as he wrote in a statement which he sent to me, after declining to be interviewed for this article. He questioned Bocek twice (once in the presence of Judy Okawa, once with her lawyer); he talked to the police; he considered what he called “the Guatemalan connection.” He compiled a sixty-page report, which he delivered to Amnesty International’s lawyers in October. At Bocek’s request, the report was circulated narrowly within the organization. Those at Amnesty who saw the report signed confidentiality agreements, and Bocek was asked to do the same. She had not done so by the end of January, 2003, when she was sent a copy of the report anonymously.
Today, Bocek is living in a safe house. After we had exchanged e-mails, and spoken on the telephone, she said she would see me, disregarding the wishes of A.I.U.S.A., which has declined to make anyone available for an interview about this case. Early one morning, I drove to a roadside diner an hour or so from a midsized airport in a part of the country that she asked me not to name. Behind a screen door, beneath a row of photographs of James Dean, a family was eating pancakes. Bocek walked in a moment after me: a tall, slim, suntanned woman whose hair—blond turning gray—was pulled back into a ponytail. She wore denim shorts and a tie-dyed sleeveless T-shirt.
We took a booth by the window, and she sat with her hands in her lap. She rarely looked up, and tended to keep her eyes shut while talking. When I asked how she was, she wept. “I’m thinking of moving away quite soon,” she said. “Too many people know I’m here.” She sometimes spoke strongly, but often her voice dropped to a whisper; Bocek freely describes the events surrounding the threats against her but told me that although she has discussed the Wilson Road attack at length with Okawa and with “some of my friends who are also survivors,” she has been unable to tell anyone the full story. In the diner, she said that she supposed our waitress knew her from previous visits; she found even this level of familiarity unnerving. Bocek rarely uses A.T.M.s or credit cards, and if a car has been behind her even a short while and then turns when she turns into, say, a parking lot, she will not stop her car until she is sure she isn’t being followed.
Bocek did not want to go to the safe house, so after we finished our coffee she drove us up a narrowing country road to a big ranch house belonging to friends of friends, where she helped out in the garden once a week. We spoke on a poolside patio; now and then she would stop to talk softly to the household cats. In the middle of the afternoon, she agreed to let me read her copy of the private investigator’s report.
The document respectfully concludes that Bocek’s story is unreliable. Rohman writes, “Within the context of the Guatemalan situation, the Wilson Road attack appears plausible in its general outlines. Ms. Bocek is described as a woman of integrity, competence and intelligence by individuals whom we interviewed. Nonetheless, in our opinion, the specific evidence from the crime scene that challenges her account seems strong, while the evidence that supports her account seems weak.” In the margin of her copy, Bocek has written, “And that’s the big conclusion.” There are annotations throughout—next to a reference to F.B.I. agent Ray Lauer she has written, “He could no more tell a truth from a lie than find his ass with both hands.”
Rohman was careful to include the evidence that Bocek felt corroborated her story. A fragment of white latex was found stuck to the tape on her mouth, a scrap that could not be explained by anything worn by Bocek, Deputy Sheriff Brian King, or the paramedics. (“Sometimes all there is is one little thing,” Bocek told me.) But most of the material in the report discounted Bocek’s version. Rohman interviewed King, who told him that when he found Bocek the wire around her hands was in “a kind of funky figure-eight…. You could have gotten it off your hands easily with some wristy-twisty articulation.” Rohman reported that Bocek’s hands showed no sign of bruising; that, besides a wet left knee on her pants leg, her clothes showed no signs of rain or mud, even though seven and a half inches of rain and snow had fallen in the previous five days; and that her hair was neat. (Bocek wrote in the margin, “The first thing I did when I could lift my hands was smooth my hair. I’m a girl.”) The electrical tape over her mouth, Rohman wrote, which had been cut into strips and formed a kind of mask, did not look like something hurriedly fixed “over the mouth of a resisting victim kneeling on the ground in the dark.” And when King searched the car the next day he found a roll of electrical tape between the passenger seat and the center console.
Rohman himself conducted what he called “an informal forensic test,” in which he wrapped electrical tape three times around the legs of three women of approximately Bocek’s size. “Each woman was able to free herself in less than 30 seconds by pulling her legs apart and stretching the tape,” he wrote. There also appeared to be no explanation why Bocek hadn’t just pulled over into one of two lay-bys on the highway, rather than driving down Wilson Road, or why both car doors were locked.
Rohman phrased his written conclusion carefully, but later he was more forthright. He told an A.I.U.S.A. board meeting in October that a jury considering a charge against Bocek of filing a false police report would probably vote to convict. In his statement to me, he stood by the report, and described it as containing “significant evidence challenging Ms. Bocek’s account.”
An executive committee made up of A.I.U.S.A. staff members and some members of the board of directors looked at the report first; it was then considered by the full board, which released its response three months later. The eighteen board members—who are elected by the general membership and have responsibility for such tasks as appointing the executive director—included both grassroots activists and human rights professionals. In the former group were an epidemiologist, a teacher, and a woman who worked for an Oregon church group. In the latter were lawyers, a humanitarian-aid professional, and the director of an agency for torture survivors. Their deliberations involved long, wearying late-night conference calls and arguments about, for example, the meaning of the word “inconclusive.” Rosa Ehrenreich Brooks, a professor of law who has worked on Human Rights Watch missions in Uganda, Kenya, and Jamaica, and who joined the board in July of 2002, told me, “It was unbelievably fraught.” Linda Hartke, a softspoken woman who works for an international Christian-oriented organization based in Geneva, and who was then the board chair, acknowledged to me that it was “painful.
”Finally, on January 12th, the board released a statement. In a vote of thirteen to five, it affirmed “that Barbara Bocek is held in the highest regard as a woman of integrity and one of our most effective country specialists.” It continued, “We believe it would not be fruitful to press the authorities for further review of this matter and have decided to take no further campaigning action on Barbara Bocek’s case at this time.” In Rosa Brooks’s view, the statement was a “document of dysfunction.”
To a group of key Amnesty grassroots members it marked the abandonment of a fellow-activist on the word of a rural police officer, a private eye, and a couple of newspaper reporters. Several dozen members began mobilizing through a Yahoo e-mail group, the Friends of Barbara Bocek, and at Amnesty-D, an online meeting place. The chief argument heard, besides that Bocek was being held to a higher standard than other human-rights victims, was that the board’s delay in responding indicated a dispute over the report, which, in turn, suggested that the report was not conclusive, and, in that eventuality, Bocek had been promised the benefit of the doubt. The Friends made louder and angrier calls for action, and Amnesty-D became a place of rebellion: “The members of the Executive Director’s Leadership Council are listed in the corporate annual report,” one message reported, referring to the list of high-profile donors who in 2001 included Danny Glover and Patrick Stewart. “Who has a copy so we can start looking for phone numbers and e-mails?” An old-fashioned Amnesty campaign was emerging, this time directed against A.I.U.S.A.’s own leadership. Barbara Sproul claimed, “Amnesty had done something wrong and we could fix it, and save ourselves, as an organization—save our soul.”
Solidarity has always been part of Amnesty’s work, but the organization’s responsibility to monitor and verify claims of human-rights violations is investigative, and while a sense of compassion is inherent in that work, the verification process itself can be blunt. According to Rosa Brooks, “You ask, ‘Tell me about the time your children were hacked to death in front of you.’ And, if the story doesn’t make sense, you keep asking probing, obnoxious questions and then you say, ‘Thank you and goodbye.’” That was the way that Bocek and David Stoll had interviewed Guatemalans about their experiences during the civil war, yet Bocek and her supporters were resisting, and resenting, that process in her own case. Judy Okawa wrote to the A.I.U.S.A. board describing Bocek’s symptoms of trauma, and said that to question her risked retraumatizing her; Bocek’s account of events, even if incomplete and uncorroborated, had to stand.
Jack Saul, of N.Y.U., says, “Sometimes, people can only talk about traumatic experiences if they feel ready, safe, and secure, or if there is a compelling reason, like getting political asylum.” Yet, according to Malcolm Smart, the director of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, in London, which has one of the world’s largest archives of torture testimony, most victims respond well to questioning. He said, “Our experience is that people are relieved that somebody is interested.” Victoria Sanford, a Guatemala scholar and a senior research fellow at the Institute on Violence and Survival at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, who has collected testimony from five hundred massacre survivors, said, “I’ve never had anyone say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that—it’s too painful.’ That isn’t the framework.” Sanford sees the Bocek case as “a rerun of David Stoll’s Rigoberta book.” For some people, Bocek’s story, like Rigoberta Menchu’s, was becoming a kind of sacred truth.
During a weekend in late January of 2003, A.I.U.S.A. held a quarterly board meeting in Washington, D.C. Such meetings are, for the most part, open to the public, which enabled Bocek to attend, along with several of her supporters. Among them were Judy Okawa and Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American citizen who was tortured in Guatemala in 1989, and who now runs a charity for survivors of torture—which is the term she uses to describe Bocek.
In a prepared statement, Bocek described the fears and anxieties that she said still afflicted her. She said, “You the board of A.I.U.S.A. have tried repeatedly to silence me. You have subjected me to the pain of denial and disbelief experienced by many of the people on whose behalf I have advocated. This irony has not been lost on the torture treatment professionals working with me nor on other Guatemalan or human rights specialists. If A.I. insisted that other victims of threats and assaults meet the standards demanded of me—that to be supported they must prove they did not fabricate the incidents themselves— A.I.’s work in Guatemala and elsewhere would grind to a halt.”She then challenged the board to share any doubts it had about the Wilson Road attack. Rosa Brooks reminded her of Amnesty’s confidentiality agreement, then asked Bocek if she would object to having the report made generally available to members. Bocek answered angrily that it would be painful to have such personal information shared with so many others. After a number of board members expressed their regret for Bocek’s suffering, Linda Hartke, the chair, thanked her for coming and for her courage in speaking to them. Bocek replied, “I don’t need your admiration and concern. I need you to believe me.”
Bocek’s supporters saw the Washington meeting as a turning point, and the number of irate phone calls and e-mails to the board increased. At times, the board’s pro-Bocek wing, led by Diego Zavala, a researcher at the Ponce School of Medicine, in Puerto Rico, was barely speaking to the skeptic wing, which included Hartke, Brooks, and Ruth Barrett Rendler, the deputy director of the Center for Victims of Torture, a counseling facility in Minneapolis. In early February, a young man approached Rendler at her office, “saying he was involved in work to change the position of the A.I.U.S.A. board on a certain matter,” as she later wrote to her colleagues. “He explained that if the A.I.U.S.A. board did not change its position, he would contact clients of the Center and tell them that ‘they shouldn’t count on being believed or assisted’ by the Center.” Rendler announced her resignation from the board the following week. The man was never identified, and Bocek’s supporters have denied any association with him.
On February 12th, the demands of the Friends of Barbara Bocek were laid out for the board in a letter signed by Barbara Sproul; Govind Acharya, the chair of the country-specialist steering committee; and about forty others. The letter proposed a six-point “internal solution.” First, it called for pro-Bocek advertisements, approved by Bocek, to be placed in the two newspapers that had questioned her story. Second, it requested that Hartke resign from the board. In four further points, the board was asked to consider the roles of Charles Brown and William Schulz (who was in frequent discussions with the board) in the Bocek affair, to appoint a “Lessons Learned Task Force” (whose report is expected to be released shortly), and to respond to questions already posed by a committee of country specialists. “This proposal for an internal solution calls for specific action on or before March 10, 2003. If the Board has not implemented this solution by March 11, 2003, this proposal shall be considered ‘off the table.’” The letter carried the threat of a vote of no confidence at the A.I.U.S.A. annual general meeting in April.
In the months after Rohman’s report was submitted, it became apparent that the board was made up of three groups: there were those who accepted Bocek’s version of events, those who thought that the report raised significant doubts about her version, and a third group that had voted with the doubters to pass the January statement and now floated the other way, apparently driven less by conviction than by the desire to bring the activists back into the fold.
Between February 16th and February 24th, the board passed all the demands, except the request for Hartke’s removal from the board. Brooks resigned soon after. Hartke decided to resign the chair but remained on the board. Other board members considered leaving but were persuaded not to. On March 10th, the first anniversary of the Wilson Road incident, an advertisement appeared on page A7 of the Times, under the heading “Amnesty International USA Supports Human Rights Activist Barbara Bocek and Others Fighting for Justice in Guatemala.”
Barbara Bocek was vindicated, but the events “ended my life as I knew it,” she told me. She still consults with Judy Okawa, and for a while she saw a local therapist, although, she says, “a therapist can know about trauma and chronic anxiety disorder, but it’s not the same as people who have dealt with a lot of survivors of political violence.” Amnesty provides her with financial support—according to an informal internal estimate, by the start of last year it had spent thirty thousand dollars on Bocek’s living and health expenses and on security. Since then, there have been further costs, and a contribution toward her tuition payments. (Bocek is currently enrolled in the University of Connecticut’s online master’s program in humanitarian services.) She has been reinstated as a Guatemala country specialist, and contributes to the extent that she can. “It’s very hard for me to respond to information about threats,” she told me. Last year, she helped prepare materials about the torture methods employed by Guatemala’s Military Intelligence Unit, but she could not watch the resulting online flash-movie that, by e-mail, she urged other Amnesty members to view.
Although the Bocek case diverted A.I.U.S.A.’s attention away from other issues related to Guatemala, Amnesty’s work around the world has continued unaffected. (For example, the organization helped secure the release of six reform activists in Malaysia, a Mexican general imprisoned for criticizing Army abuses, and the Guinean opposition leader Alpha Conde.) In a brief statement that was the organization’s only official response to questions about the case, Morton Winston, then the A.I. honorary chair, wrote, “At no time did this internal matter detract from A.I.U.S.A.’s human-rights campaigning or its financial and organizational strength.” But the tensions underlying the case remain. Kathy Bachman, an A.I.U.S.A. board member who supported Bocek, is now the chair, and the Bocek case has helped galvanize a group called Internal Reform Now!, six of whose members are standing for election to the board on a platform that includes support for A.I.U.S.A. “as a grassroots organization that shares leadership between staff and volunteers.”
A.I.U.S.A.’s most recent annual general meeting opened on Friday, April 4, 2003, at the Omni William Penn Hotel, in Pittsburgh. The theme was “Imagine,” following Yoko Ono’s gift to Amnesty of the rights to use John Lennon’s song of that title for a two-year campaign. On Sunday, in a red-and-gold ballroom on the seventeenth floor of the hotel, about five hundred members met to vote on questions of governance, membership, and Amnesty’s future program. After a number of resolutions, they came to one that began, “A.I.U.S.A. applauds Barbara Bocek for her extraordinary and heroic dedication to human rights and extends to her our deepest gratitude.” There were no questions or amendments. The chairman called a vote: half a dozen or so voted against, and there were perhaps the same number of abstentions. Everyone else voted in favor, and for the only time that session the members whooped and applauded.
©2004 The New Yorker.