Feb. 7, 2011— -- Former President George W. Bush was forced to cancel a planned trip to Switzerland this week over concerns of protests linked to the Bush adminstration's treatment of detainees.
International human rights groups had threatened large-scale demonstrations at the United Israel Appeal fundraiser, where Bush was scheduled as a guest speaker, and called for legal action against Bush for his role in the alleged torture of U.S.-held detainees. The organization called off the event on Friday.
Organizers of the protests wanted participants to rally outside the Geneva hotel where Bush would have appeared and each bring a shoe -- a symbol of disapproval in some parts of the world sometimes thrown at opponents, as Bush experienced at a 2008 press conference in Baghdad.
Activists also planned to file an official criminal complaint against Bush with Swiss prosecutors, nine years after he ordered that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to "enemy combatants" arrested by the U.S. military in Afghanistan or elsewhere around the world.
"Waterboarding is torture, and Bush has admitted, without any sign of remorse, that he approved its use," said Katherine Gallagher, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is party to the complaint.
"The reach of the Convention Against Torture is wide -- this case is prepared and will be waiting for him wherever he travels next," she said. "Torturers -- even if they are former presidents of the United States -- must be held to account and prosecuted. Impunity for Bush must end."
Bush spokesman David Sherzer expressed regret that the Feb. 12 event was scrapped, but declined to comment on the reasons for the cancellation. Bush has traveled to Canada, Asia, South America and the Middle East since leaving office two years ago.
A lawyer for the Jewish nonprofit that had invited Bush, Robert Equey, said that the looming protests, including the potential for violence, were the primary factors for cancelling the event, not the threat of legal action against Bush.
"The calls to demonstrate were sliding into dangerous terrain," Equey told the Swiss daily newspaper Tribune de Geneve. "The organizers claimed to be able to maintain order, but warned they could not be held responsible for any outbursts."
U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Donald Beyer said it was unlikely Swiss authorities would have tried to detain Bush had he travelled to Switzerland after a criminal complaint was filed, and he said the embassy had no official exchange with the Swiss government about the visit.
"I very much respect the right of the Swiss who objected to him coming, who were using this opportunity to object to many of the policies of the Bush administration," Beyer said Monday in an interview on World Radio Switzerland. "On the other hand, I'm disappointed that he chose not to come because I think more dialogue is better than less."
A Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman told the AP that Bush would have enjoyed immunity from prosecution for any actions taken while in office based on an initial assessment of international law.
Human rights groups, however, believe the threat of legal action did ultimately force Bush to alter his travel plans, and they say they will continue to press for prosecution of Bush if he travels to other countries who are signatories to the Geneva Conventions.
"Whatever Bush or his hosts say, we have no doubt he cancelled his trip to avoid our case," said Gallagher. "The message from civil society is clear -- if you're a torturer, be careful in your travel plans."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.