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Law school dean's conference on Bush, war crimes:
Publicity stunt or academic exercise?

By Brian Messenger
Staff writer, The Eagle Tribune

July 06, 2008

ANDOVER, MA A local law school dean will host a controversial conference of lawyers and academics this fall to draw up a prosecution against President Bush for war crimes crimes punishable by imprisonment or death.

Lawrence Velvel, dean and co-founder of the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, announced plans for the two-day conference, "Planning for the Prosecution of High Level American War Criminals," last month.

Now he is drawing the ire of some alumni, and one local graduate is calling for the school to review Velvel's standing as dean.

"I'd like to see the board of trustees convene a meeting for that very purpose," said lawyer Peter Cotch, a 2007 graduate of the law school. "I can't do anything beyond request, and now it's up to them."

Andover lawyer Arthur Broadhurst, also a member of the school's board of trustees, said any major concerns by law school graduates would be addressed by the board.

"That's something, obviously, that if it's brought to our attention, if people aren't happy, we'll have to address it," said Broadhurst, who added he was unaware of the letter sent by Cotch regarding Velvel.

Saying the conference is not an official Massachusetts School of Law event and will be moved to an off-campus location, Broadhurst also said he has not concerned himself with the dean's comments. Velvel won't say where the conference will be.

"He's taken on challenges like this his whole life, so this stuff doesn't surprise me," said Broadhurst. "It really doesn't concern me what he does on his private time unless it affects the school. At this point it hasn't."

Some alumni think differently.

"Clearly it's a publicity stunt," said state Sen. Steven Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who graduated from the law school in 1996. "The dean is really too smart to believe this unpatriotic rhetoric."

Richard D'Agostino is an assistant attorney for the city of Lawrence, a 1996 Massachusetts School of Law graduate, and the son of a World War II soldier who served under Gen. George Patton in the famed Battle of the Bulge.

"He's done many great things, Dean Velvel, but this isn't one of them," said D'Agostino. "As a son of a World War II combat veteran, I'm very disturbed by the comments. ... Something like this certainly defames my father's memory."

Velvel would not comment or elaborate on his motives behind the conference. He pointed to a June 24 release where he names Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, stating that the potential punishments of hanging or imprisonment "would be a powerful lesson to future American leaders."

Velvel writes that both Germany and Japan experienced significant changes in foreign policy after 1946, when World War II leaders from both countries were tried in Nuremburg and Tokyo and eventually hanged for war crimes.

"Because domestic politics are obviously useless for holding the guilty accountable, we must try to do what was done in the 1940s to the leaders of nations who committed evil," wrote Velvel.

"We must try to do what was done to the German and Japanese leaders from top Nazis and Tojo right down to lawyers and judges. ... Not unless leaders fear prison or the gallows for actions that violate law will there be anything to check the next headlong rush to war for allegedly good reasons that later prove false," Velvel wrote.

Numerous war crimes cases in foreign courts have been brought against top U.S. officials, the majority of which have made little headway in advancing charges against them, according to lawyer Peter Weiss, vice president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

Weiss, who will attend the September conference, said any war crimes charges put forward against Bush and others in his administration will likely revolve around the use of torture by the U.S. military, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and the use of stress positions. The destruction of religious or cultural sites could also be possible charges, both of which are prohibited by American and international law, Weiss said.

Weiss said it is unlikely top U.S. officials will ever be tried for war crimes, despite the topic being taken up by the U.S. Senate's Armed Services and Judiciary committees.

"I tend to agree with the 66 members of Congress who asked for an investigation into the possibility of war crimes having been committed," said Weiss. "Actually, as far as I'm concerned, it's basically a no-brainer."

Cotch, who wrote a letter requesting a review of Velvel on June 25 to A. Paul Victor, a New York attorney and chairman of the law school's board of trustees, called the relocation of the conference to an off-campus venue "a step in the right direction."

"I would certainly feel much better if this thing isn't held on campus, if for no other reason than a matter of safety," said Cotch. "This is likely to be a very controversial event."

D'Agostino said he still regarded Velvel as a "great legal mind" despite his comments related to the conference.

"I still do have high esteem for the school," said D'Agostino. "It's truly a blue-collar school. It gave a lot of opportunity for someone like me, and I have the dean to thank for that."

Baddour also said he still has respect for Velvel, but compared the conference to an academic exercise, something the dean wrote was not the case.

"It has no legs," said Baddour. "It's academia. Whether it's higher ed or grad school, they live in a different universe than the rest of the world. And that's not to say it's a bad thing."