30+ torture memos remain sealed while thousands of torture photos will eventually be released. Be prepared: Learn the deep history of US torture in SERE, Vietnam, Latin America, GMTO, Black Sites and beyond in American Torture.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Tipping Point

Posted by Michael Otterman at 12:58 AM |

The Mukasey waterboard controversy has turned now to a full fledged tsunami-- his nomination is now in question. Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats asked in a letter to Mukasey a simple question: "is waterboarding torture?" In a four-page response, he deflected again. Mukasey wrote that he could not answer because it may put interrogators previously authorized or currently using coercive techniques in "legal jeopardy" and would "provide our enemies with a window into the limits or contours of any interrogation program we may have in place". He even repeated his claim that he doesn't even know what the method entails, given he "has not been made aware of the details of any interrogation program". The transformation is complete: Mukasey has now fully working "the dark side".
To their credit, leading Democrats are now dropping support of Mukasey one by one. By why is this still a partisan issue? This is an issue about who we are-- about the core character of America.
Former SERE trainer Malcolm W. Nance has just penned what I believe to be the most informed, insightful, and empasioned account of the waterboarding controversy to date. He writes:
Now American use of the waterboard as an interrogation tool has assuredly guaranteed that our service members and agents who are captured or detained by future enemies will be subject to it as part of the most routine interrogations. Forget threats, poor food, the occasional face slap and sexual assaults. This was not a dignified ‘taking off the gloves’; this was descending to the level of our opposition in an equally brutish and ugly way. Waterboarding will be one our future enemy’s go-to techniques because we took the gloves off to brutal interrogation. Now our enemies will take the gloves off and thank us for it.

There may never again be a chance that Americans will benefit from the shield of outrage and public opinion when our future enemy uses of torture. Brutal interrogation, flash murder and extreme humiliation of American citizens, agents and members of the armed forces may now be guaranteed because we have mindlessly, but happily, broken the seal on the Pandora’s box of indignity, cruelty and hatred in the name of protecting America. To defeat Bin Laden many in this administration have openly embraced the methods of by Hitler, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Galtieri and Saddam Hussein.

Read the whole piece, and read it again. We are now at the tipping point. Which path will we choose to take?

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Waterboard Effect: More Victims Claimed

Posted by Michael Otterman at 12:41 AM |

The ripple effect of Michael Mukasey's evasive, Alberto Gonzales-esque views on waterboarding continue to spread. Last week, Rudy Giuliani applauded Mukasey's semantic view that waterboarding is only torture "if it is unconstitutional". Giuliani blamed the "liberal media" for giving waterboarding a bad name [funny, I though the Inquisition would have done the trick] and claimed: "It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it." I have to hand it to Rudy-- There's never before been such a frank declaration of current US torture policy. Simply stated: If it's done to us, it's torture. If we do it, it's an "enhanced" technique.
As Marty Lederman expertly explains here, Mukasey has good reason to publicly swear off waterboarding. Plus, his nomination may depend on it. Several ranking Democrats--Biden, Durbin, and Leahey-- have pledged to vote "no" on Mukasey unless he states waterboarding is clear-cut torture under US law. Apart from some "concern" by Arlen Specter, the only Republican to break ranks on this issue is Viet Cong torture-victim John McCain. Well, sort of break ranks.
On ABC’s This Week, McCain said: "Anybody who does not know if waterboarding is torture or not has no experience in the conduct warfare and national security." In Iowa, he added: "People who have worn the uniform and had the experience know that this is a terrible and odious practice and should never be condoned in the U.S. We are a better nation than that... It is a horrible torture technique used by Pol Pot and being used on Buddhist monks as we speak.”
McCain is spot-on, almost inspiring. So then, will he vote to confirm an Attorney General that will approve waterboarding?

McCain: I can't be that absolute. But I want to know his answer. I want to know his answer. Obviously, you judge a candidate for office or nominee for office on the entire record.

McCain is truly a tragic figure. He knows what's right-- but must pander to the Torture Right in the race for '08.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth?

Posted by Andy Worthington at 11:20 AM |

As published on the website of Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.

The grim story of the Guantánamo suicides – the deaths of three men, Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani in June 2006, and another, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, in May this year – took another turn last week, when, in the absence of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s long-awaited report into the deaths, Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the senior lawyer on Guantánamo’s management team, spoke out in an interview, declaring that all four men had killed themselves with “craftily fashioned nooses.”

Speaking as the ridiculous saga of smuggled underwear continued to make waves in the media, McCarthy attempted to highlight the seriousness of the administration’s response to ludicrous claims that underwear had been surreptitiously delivered to two detainees, saying, “There was a Speedo in the camp and someone can hang himself with it. The Speedo also has a drawstring on it. The drawstring can be used to tie the Speedo, the noose apparatus up onto a vent.'”

Breaking with protocol, McCarthy also spoke about the deaths in Guantánamo, claiming that he had personally seen “all four men dead – each one hanging – and that the first three men had used sling-style nooses.” This is the first time that a representative of the US military has spoken openly about the death of al-Amri, who, McCarthy said, had fashioned “a string type of noose” to kill himself, although Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, who reported the story, added that “he did not elaborate.”

The circumstances of the men’s deaths have long been contentious. After the 2006 suicides, many former detainees who had known the men spoke of their shock and incredulity at the news. Tarek Dergoul, a British detainee released in 2004, spent three weeks in a cell beside al-Utaybi. He recalled “his indefatigable spirit and defiance,” and pointed out that he was “always on the forefront of trying to get our rights.” He had similar recollections of al-Zahrani, describing him as ”always optimistic” and “defiant,” and adding that he “was always there to stand up for his brothers when he saw injustices being carried out.”

In a press release shortly after the deaths were announced, former detainees, including the nine released British nationals, “poured scorn” on allegations that the deaths were suicides, and claimed that they were “almost certainly accidental killings caused by excessive force” on the part of the guards. A note of caution, however, was provided by British resident Shaker Aamer, who was told by a guard in Camp Echo, an isolation block where they were held for some of the time (and where Aamer himself has now spent two years and two months without any meaningful human company), “They have lost hope in life. They have no hope in their eyes. They are ghosts, and they want to die. No food will keep them alive now. Even with four feeds a day, these men get diarrhea from any protein which goes right through them.”

As the NCIS has, inexplicably, yet to conclude its investigation, it’s impossible to know at this point what the official conclusion will be. Clearly, the military has stepped back from its initial response, when the prison’s commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, attracted worldwide condemnation for claiming that the men’s deaths were “an act of asymmetric warfare.” As was revealed in documents released by the Pentagon earlier this year, however, which described, in minute and numbing detail, the weights of all the detainees in Guantánamo throughout their detention, all three men had been long-term hunger strikers, and two had been strapped into restraint chairs and force-fed until days before their deaths. This deliberately painful process, designed to “break” the strikers, is, it should be noted, illegal according to internationally recognized rules regarding the rights of competent prisoners to undertake hunger strikes, but in this, as with almost everything else at Guantánamo, the administration regards itself as above the law.

Al-Zahrani was force-fed several times a week from the start of October 2005, and daily from November 14 to January 18, 2006, during which time his weight fluctuated between 87.5 lbs and 98.5 lbs. Al-Utaybi, who weighed just 89 lbs at various times in September and October 2005, was force-fed several times a week from July to September 2005, and daily from December 24 to February 7, 2006. Crucially, his force-feeding began again on May 30, 2006, and continued until the records ended on June 6, just three days before his death.

Even more disturbing is the chronicle of al-Salami’s hunger strike. Although his weight loss did not appear as dramatic – he weighed a healthy 172 lbs on arrival in Guantánamo – he lost nearly a third of his body weight at the most severe point of his hunger strike, when his weight dropped to 120 lbs. What was particularly disturbing about his weight report, however, was the revelation that he was force-fed daily from January 11, 2006 until, as with al-Utaybi, the records ended on June 6, just three days before his death.

Given this information, it’s unsurprising that those who are suspicious of the administration – and of Capt. McCarthy’s supposed frontline recollections – might conclude, as the former detainees suggested, that it would not have taken much on the part of the authorities to finish off three men who had persistently aroused the wrath of the administration through their lack of cooperation and their hunger strikes, and who were all critically weak at the time of their deaths.

As for al-Amri’s death, Carol Rosenberg noted that suspicions over the circumstances of his death have been exacerbated by the fact that he died in Camp Five, one of the prison’s maximum security blocks. She explained that “prison camp tours for media and distinguished visitors emphasize that Camp Five is designed with suicide proofing such as towel hooks that won't bear the weight of a detainee, to prevent him from hanging himself,” and that, moreover, “the tours emphasize that each captive, housed in a single-occupancy cell, is under constant Military Police and electronic monitoring, which means a guard is supposed to look in on him at least every three minutes.”

An even more critical approach to al-Amri’s death was presented by lawyer Candace Gorman, who reported last week on a visit in July to one of her clients, Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi. A Libyan shopkeeper, who is married to an Afghan woman and has a child that he has not seen for six years, al-Ghizzawi was “visibly shaken” on meeting Gorman, and immediately told her of his “despair” over al-Amri’s death. As Gorman described it, “Al-Ghizzawi knew that Amri had been suffering from Hepatitis B and tuberculosis, the same two conditions from which he himself suffers. Like al-Ghizzawi, Amri had not been treated for his illnesses. Al-Ghizzawi, now so sick he can barely walk, told me that Amri, too, had been ill and then, suddenly, he was dead.” Al-Ghizzawi’s conclusion, as described on Gorman’s website, was that al-Amri had actually died of “medical neglect,” although she also noted that al-Ghizzawi “had mentioned that Amri had engaged in hunger strikes in the past but had stopped a long time ago because of his health.”

While this was correct, one can only wonder what the effect on al-Amri’s health had been of his participation in the mass hunger strike in the fall of 2005, when his weight, which had been 150 lbs when he arrived in Guantánamo in February 2002, dropped at one point to just 88.5 lbs, and he was force-fed, often several times a week, from October 2005 to January 2006. Like the three men who died in June 2006, al-Amri was a non-cooperative detainee, who had refused to take part in any of the sham tribunals and administrative reviews at Guantánamo, and it does not take much imagination to conclude that, with his severe and untreated illnesses, he, like the three men the year before, could actually have died not through medical neglect, but as another “accidental killing caused by excessive force” on the part of the guards.

I do not profess to know the truth of the matter one way or the other, but in revisiting the stories of these men’s deaths I hope to have demonstrated that, far from clearing the air, Capt. McCarthy’s comments have, ironically, served only to revive Guantánamo’s most tragic stories, which, presumably, the rest of the administration hoped had been forgotten. Sixteen months after the first deaths, and four months after the additional death that caused such distress to Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, it is surely time for the investigators of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to deliver their verdict.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mukasey Torture Fallout

Posted by Michael Otterman at 7:52 PM |

Last weeks pro-torture performance of Michael Mukasey before the Senate Judiciary Committee is still creating waves. Slate's Phillip Carter and Dahlia Lithwick have written an excellent commentary touching on the history of waterboarding and why the act should be formally disavowed by Mukasey and the Bush Administration. Yesterday, the LA Times rightly devoted an op-ed to the issue. The piece, penned by George Washington University's Jonathan Turley, concludes:
This confirmation vote should be about torture. It is truly a defining issue, not just of the meaning of torture but of the very character of our country. It is the issue that distinguishes a nation fighting for the rule of law from a nation that is a threat to it. If members of the Senate consider torture to be immoral, they must vote against Mukasey.

If the administration is unable to find a nominee who will denounce torture, then it should be left with an acting attorney general who will lead the department without the consent of the Senate. After all, there are worse things than being denied confirmation. You could be water-boarded, for example.
Experts and commentators aren't the only ones disturbed by Mukasey's stance on torture. Democrates on the Senate Judiciary Committee have woken up as well. On Tuesday, they penned a letter to Mukasey demanding he clarify his views on waterboarding. "Please respond to the following question," they wrote. "Is the use of waterboarding, or inducing the misperception of drowning, as an interrogation technique illegal under US law, including treaty obligations?"
Simple question... but will it elicit an equally simple "Yes" response? I'll believe it when I see it-- all the indications so far reveal that Mukasey will defend the illegal programs of the Administration if he wants continued White House backing. Mukasey, it appears, is no different from his disgraced predecessor after all.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mukasey and the Banality of Evil

Posted by Michael Otterman at 11:26 PM |

This Mukasey exchange-- in addition to highlighting his express approval of CIA torture-- reveals one thing: Torture corrupts not only those who use it, but all those in the bureaucracies that support and insulate it. In this small one-minute clip the banality of evil is revealed.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Economist bravely explains why we must fight terrorism with one hand tied behind our backs

Posted by Andy Worthington at 3:38 PM |

As published on the website of Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files.

Over in the Economist, a detailed three-part series on terrorism and civil liberties has just come to close – and very impressive it is, too. It began with an editorial pointing out that “the past six years have seen a steady erosion of civil liberties even in countries that regard themselves as liberty's champions. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention without trial, ‘rendition,’ suspension of habeas corpus, even torture – who would have thought such things possible? Governments argue that desperate times demand such remedies. They face a murderous new enemy who lurks in the shadows, will stop at nothing and seeks chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. This renders the old rules and freedoms out of date. Besides, does not international humanitarian law provide for the suspension of certain liberties ‘in times of a public emergency that threatens the life of the nation’?”

The article continues, “There is great force in this argument. There is, alas, always force in such arguments. This is how governments through the ages have justified grabbing repressive new powers.” After briefly commenting on procedures undertaken in World War II – when “the democracies spied on their own citizens, imposed censorship and used torture to extract information,” and the US “interned its entire Japanese-American population,” which is described as “a decision now seen to have been a cruel mistake” – the article proceeds to point out:

There are those who see the fight against al-Qaeda as a war like the second world war or the cold war. But the first analogy is wrong and the moral of the second is not the one intended.

A hot, total war like the second world war could not last for decades, so the curtailment of domestic liberties was short-lived. But because nobody knew whether the cold war would ever end (it lasted some 40 years), the democracies chose by and large not to let it change the sort of societies they wanted to be. This was a wise choice not only because of the freedom it bestowed on people in the West during those decades, but also because the West's freedoms became one of the most potent weapons in its struggle against its totalitarian foes.

If the war against terrorism is a war at all, it is like the cold war – one that will last for decades. Although a real threat exists, to let security trump liberty in every case would corrode the civilized world's sense of what it is and wants to be.
There then follows the most extraordinary defense of what the decision not to let security always trump liberty actually means. Initially, this appears confusing. The article states, “When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots.” When I first read this passage, I assumed that it was leading to the kind of authoritarian nonsense that many former “liberals” – ageing malignantly, and bizarrely attempting to equate the “War on Terror” with the Nazis – come up with, but in fact the Economist was taking a completely different viewpoint, accepting that “obnoxious measures” might well help to foil terrorism, but, crucially, refusing to endorse them because they are morally self-defeating, tending, as described above, to “corrode the civilized world’s sense of what it is and what it wants to be.” Here’s the key passage: “To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that – with one hand tied behind their back – is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.”

I read on, wondering if I had misinterpreted this radical conclusion, but there followed a suitably scathing dismissal of the “ticking time-bomb” rationale for torture: “A famous thought experiment asks what you would do with a terrorist who knew the location of a ticking nuclear bomb. Logic says you would torture one man to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and so you would. But this is a fictional dilemma. In the real world, policemen are seldom sure whether the many (not one) suspects they want to torture know of any plot, or how many lives might be at stake. All that is certain is that the logic of the ticking bomb leads down a slippery slope where the state is licensed in the name of the greater good to trample on the hard-won rights of any one and therefore all of its citizens.”

A slippery slope? I had read it correctly, and now awaited the final reiteration of the Economist’s advocacy of inviolable legal and moral principles, which went even further than I had anticipated. Here’s the final paragraph: “Human rights are part of what it means to be civilized. Locking up suspected terrorists – and why not potential murderers, rapists and paedophiles, too? – before they commit crimes would probably make society safer. Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.”

Yes, you read it correctly. The conduct of the “War on Terror” – with “arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention without trial, ‘rendition,’ suspension of habeas corpus, [and] even torture” – is so harmful that, if we are not to lose our values, which, as in the cold war, are what distinguishes us from our enemies, then we must work within the law, and not jettison rights that took 800 years to develop.

This is, I believe, an incredibly bold stance to take, and the Economist’s writers are clearly aware of its impact, choosing to refer to the possible loss of “thousands of lives,” as a risk worth taking – or even a price worth paying – to ensure that we do not sink to the level of the tyrants and terrorists whom we profess to despise. Bravely, it takes the argument against torture, “extraordinary rendition,” and indefinite detention without charge or trial to its armchair supporters, forcing them to confront the dark truth that underpins their casually repressive claims that all means are justified in the attempt to eradicate terrorism. Without even touching on the failure of fighting terror with terror – and creating, as in Iraq, recruiting grounds for would-be terrorists that are far more fertile now than they were before 9/11 – the Economist has asserted the supremacy of decency over fear, and is to be congratulated for saying out loud what few dare even to acknowledge privately.

[Note: See here, here and here for the Economist’s three-part series. The first looks at torture, the second at the surveillance society, and the third at the judges and parliamentarians who are “restraining the zeal of governments who want a free hand to fight terror.” All are well worth reading].

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Posted by Michael Otterman at 12:29 AM |

Since last weeks NYT revelations about two 2005 torture memos authorizing waterboarding and hypothermia-- even after the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act-- there has been a flurry of torture-related news and commentary. I've spend the last few days penning op-eds for national newspapers-- I'm hoping a few will get picked up.
The best new commentary I've seen thusfar on the new revelations comes from David Luban. In this post on Balkinization, he explains how tortures like hypothermia and waterboarding are not legally "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" in the eyes of the Bush Administration.
Another terrific item is by Milt Bearden, a former CIA officer. In this piece for the Huffington Post, he writes how people in the Bush Administration may face a future akin to the life of Pinochet. He writes that:

But below the noise level of the politics of torture and attacks on a discredited Justice Department, a new and important reality is working its way through the legal communities of the "civilized" world. It is this: the Bush administration, in its effort to immunize itself against future prosecution by changing the definition of war crimes for which U.S. government defendants may be prosecuted, has opened the door for such prosecutions outside the United States. Like a hacker at golf who blasts from fairway sand traps to knee-high rough, the administration is getting farther and farther "out of bounds."

The Military Commissions Act of 2006, railroaded through a rubber stamp Congress in September, 2006, and signed into law by the president in October, in effect, establishes that several categories of what were war crimes in the past, under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, can no longer be punished under U.S. law. This may have given some comfort to those who felt exposed to prosecution under existing U.S. law, but they should be wary of getting too complacent, particularly if they ever travel beyond the 12-mile limit of America's continental shelf.

The politicians may be marginally protected, as usual. But the men and women of the C.I.A. will be dangerously exposed and will have once again been left holding the bag.

The Defense Department has properly opted out of the torture business -- the military has declared it will operate under the Geneva Conventions, and the discussion ended there. But the CIA, according to press reports, has been exempted from such "quaint" rulings as Common Article 3 by a series of secret memos and judgments promulgated by the Department of Justice under Alberto Gonzales.

Under the current rules, according to press reports, the CIA may use "enhanced interrogation techniques" against detainees in the War on Terror. (This is a term, itself obviously tortured, that sounds only marginally better in the original 1940s German, "Verschärfte Vernehmung".) Reportedly, enhanced interrogation techniques include many measures forbidden under the War Crimes Act of 1996 and Common Article 3.

The administration denies this, but will not say what the enhanced techniques are. Against that opaque backdrop, it does not really matter whether CIA is torturing detainees at this point (or even if it has at any point); most of the member governments of such bodies as the International Court of Justice believe CIA engages in torture and there will be no lack of former detainees of the CIA making claims fueling those suspicions. Whether such claims are real or embellished will not matter.

Here is the crunch for the CIA: as eminent British lawyer Philippe Sands writes in his coming book, The Torture Team, "the simple fact of establishing immunity under the 2006 (Military Commissions) Act opens the door to investigations and possible prosecutions abroad. So long as the U.S. is able to investigate and prosecute grave breaches of Geneva (Conventions, Common Article 3), the courts of other countries would be likely to decline to exercise jurisdiction. With that possibility gone, the prospects for foreign investigation increase considerably, as Senator Pinochet found to his cost in 1999."

There are already more than two dozen CIA officers under indictment by an Italian court for the extraordinary rendition of Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr (known as Abu Omar). Though the trial has been stayed, pending a ruling on Italian secrecy issues, this is still a very big deal. Just imagine the historical irony of the en masse indictment of 26 U.S. Government employees by a NATO ally!

Regardless of how the Italian court case plays out, it is only the beginning. One can expect a torrent of cases to be filed against the men and women of the CIA in the coming months and years. They'll have to get used to either staying pretty close to home, or taking their ski holidays in North Korea. Stepping off a plane anywhere in Europe will become a little dicey.

Truly perceptive insight-- here's hoping it proves true.
In other news, rendition victim al-Masri's case was thrown out of the Supreme Court, Guantanamo detainee Mohammed Abdul Rahman will not be sent back to Tunisia for medieval torture, Jimmy Carter calls it like it is about US torture policy, more revelations are made about the sham CSRTs, top GTMO prosecutor Col. Moe Davis quits, and the government declares that Guantanamo inmates “enjoy more procedural protections than any other captured enemy combatants in the history of warfare.” Talk about a busy week-- I'm exhausted just keeping up.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two New Torture Memos-- Surprises, No Surprises

Posted by Michael Otterman at 11:56 PM |

This mornings NYT revelations about two previously undisclosed Department of Justice torture memos authorizing "combinations" of techniques involving waterboarding, hypothermia, and head-slaps have lit up the net in ways I haven't seen since the Military Commissions Act was passed last year. Am I truly surprised about the revelations? Not really-- we knew already that the CIA black site/rendition/torture program was officially sanctioned and still in effect due to Bush's July 2007 Executive Order affirming all said programs. The CIA follows guidance from the Department of Justice. Unless memos existed authorizing these programs by finding them not to violate torture law, none could continue.
That said, I was still horrified to hear that the OLC authorized "combinations" of enhanced torture techniques-- a small but chilling detail not previously disclosed. As this crucial Physicians for Human Rights report makes clear, even by themselves each "enhanced" CIA method clearly constitutes torture. When used in combination, the effects are multiplied exponentially.
As usual, Scott Horton's analysis rises above the rest. Horton is the voice of conscience on the issue of torture, surpassing that of even the always lucid Andrew Sullivan. Although they've been cited elsewhere-- namely by Soldz and Valtin-- Horton's comments must be cited here:

As the Times piece tells us, [Office of Legal Counsel chief Steven G.] Bradbury was hired on a probationary basis and was given a mission—reassure the CIA that it can torture all it likes. So Mr. Bradbury crafted the third in the Bush Justice Department Torture Memos, saying just that. And after Congress enacted more legislation making clear that torture was not permitted, and its authors took to the floor announcing that the CIA’s specific menu of techniques was unlawful, Mr. Bradbury crafted Torture Memo IV saying that the law didn’t mean what its authors said it meant. In fact, it turns out, the law didn’t mean anything at all. Of course, in the minds of all the loyal Bushies only the President is the source of Law, so none of them would have any difficulty tracking Mr. Bradbury’s thinking to its natural conclusions.

The Bush Administration has opined that torture is not torture. So what tricks remain? To say that murder is not murder? That rape is not rape? That there isn’t any extortion or kidnapping, either? Ah, but I neglected the hearings down the hall concerning the contractors in Iraq. It turns out those opinions have been given as well.

Under Alberto Gonzales, the transformation is now complete. The nation’s Justice Department, once renowned as a guardian of the nation’s freedoms and liberties as well as a swift enforcer of justice, now emerges in a new guise. It is a criminal syndicate committed to empowering the most horrendous crimes. It is a Justice Department in the fully Orwellian sense.

But considering the long track record of political prosecutions, evidence of which mounts with each passing day, and the strenuous efforts to suppress voters and corrupt the basis of democracy, why should any of this come as a surprise? It is indeed all of one piece.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo

Posted by Andy Worthington at 7:03 AM |

As published on the website of Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files.

For over five and a half years, as I explain in depth in my newly released book, The Guantánamo Files, the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has held hundreds of completely innocent men. Humanitarian aid workers, teachers or students of the Koran, businessmen, economic migrants, and refugees from persecution – all were swept up for bounty payments, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, at a time when the US military was offering $5000 a head for al-Qaeda suspects.

While many of these innocent men were Afghans, who were sold to the US military by rivals, secure in the knowledge that the Americans had neither the will nor the curiosity to investigate the veracity of the stories with which their futures were swept away, many others were foreigners – Arabs mainly, from Saudi Arabia, the Yemen and other Gulf countries, and from the North African countries bordering the Mediterranean. Some were seized in Afghanistan, either by soldiers of the Northern Alliance or by opportunistic villagers, others were captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where their flight from the chaos precipitated by the US-led invasion and the collapse of the Taliban was construed as a sign that they were fleeing from combat, and many others were picked out randomly on the streets of Pakistan’s cities, far from any battlefield.

One of these innocent men, Mohammed al-Amin, who hails from an even more distant location – the western Saharan country of Mauritania – has just been released from Guantánamo, and his story, though brutal, is typical of the suffering that these men have been forced to endure for five and a half years. While reading it, remember that his is not a unique case, that hundreds of other innocent men have been treated in a similar manner, and that many of them still remain in Guantánamo. It is one thing to tout the 778 men who have been held in Guantánamo as “the worst of the worst,” as the administration did when the prison was set up in January 2002, but it is quite another to realize that 431 of these men have now been released, and that a large number of them, like Mohammed al-Amin, were completely innocent of any wrong-doing.

Mohammed al-Amin’s accidental odyssey to torture, and to his long years of illegal imprisonment without charge or trial, began when, at the age of 17, he left his parents and his five sisters, and traveled to Saudi Arabia to study the Koran, with the intention of becoming a teacher. He then traveled to Pakistan to continue his studies, but was arrested in Peshawar in April 2002, and held for two months in a Pakistani jail, where he was “subjected to beatings, held for prolonged periods in solitary confinement and denied adequate food,” in an attempt to force him to confess that he was a Saudi Arabian national, because, presumably, Saudis were valued more highly than Mauritanians.

He was then transferred to Bagram, where, like many other prisoners, he was suspended by his wrists for long periods of time. He explained to his lawyers in Guantánamo that he was tied by his hands to the ceiling “for days on end,” and that “whenever he lost consciousness a guard would forcefully pull him up to wake him.” He also said that he was sexually abused and subjected to sleep deprivation, and was threatened with being sent to Egypt to face further torture. After two months of this treatment, he explained, “They wanted me to say I had come to join the jihad. Eventually I told them what they wanted to hear and the torture stopped.” What they wanted to hear eventually surfaced in Guantánamo, where it was alleged that he traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Americans, having decided to “go on jihad after being angered over the US air attacks in Afghanistan,” and that he trained with the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.

These were all lies, coerced out of him by his own captors, but it took another five years before the administration was prepared to acknowledge that he was actually an innocent men – or, as those involved insist on describing it, being unable to acknowledge that they have made mistakes, that he was “No Longer an Enemy Combatant.” Transferred to Guantánamo in August 2002, he said that his first year in Guantánamo was “terrible” and “worse than Bagram,” and explained that, in addition to the sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation that he had experienced in Afghanistan, he was also exposed to loud music, as part of a program to “break” the detainees, which was masterminded by the Pentagon and introduced by Guantánamo’s commander, Major General Geoffrey Miller. As in Bagram, he was eventually forced to make false confessions, telling his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear.

In protest at his indefinite detention without charge or trial, al-Amin joined a widespread hunger strike in August 2005, when his weight, which had been a meager 121 pounds on arrival (8 stone 9 pounds), plunged, at one point, to just 103 pounds (7 stone 5 pounds). By January 2006, when he was one of 84 detainees who were still maintaining their hunger strike, the authorities responded by drafting in a new team of doctors, armed with restraint chairs and feeding tubes. Al-Amin said that he was removed from the camp hospital and placed in solitary confinement in a windowless black cell, which he called the “freezer,” because the air conditioning was turned up to the maximum. He also explained that the guards would “throw water on him to exacerbate the freezing conditions, and would wake him up if he fell asleep.”

Describing his force-feeding, he – like others who have spoken about the experience – said he was fastened so tightly in the restraint chair that he was unable to move at all, and that a large feeding tube was then forced into his stomach, which was, of course, extremely painful. He added that, whether by accident or design, the doctors regularly “stated that they could not find the correct position and forcefully pulled the feeding tube from him,” repeating the process two or three times, which caused his nose to bleed. He also stated that he was “deliberately overfed until he vomited, and when he vomited the force feeding would start again,” that he was “strapped in the restraint chair for periods of two to three hours at a time, which, coupled with being overfed, led him to urinate and defecate on himself,” and that he was then “dumped, covered in his own vomit, blood and faeces, back in his isolation cell.” Although he attempted to maintain his hunger strike, he admitted that he gave up after 21 days. With some accuracy, he told his lawyers that the authorities “used physicians to commit crimes,” and explained that doctors supervised the force-feeding, watching him while he was forced to vomit, and that on one occasion a doctor asked him, “Are you going to quit the hunger strike or stay in this situation?”

Despite all this violence, he was cleared for release sometime in 2006, after an Administrative Review Board concluded that he was no longer a threat to the United States and no longer had any intelligence value, but he was apparently not released until now because of confusion about his nationality: though living in Mauritania before losing five and a half years of his life, he had actually been born in Niger.

Since his return to Mauritania on Wednesday, al-Amin has been held for questioning by his homeland’s national security services, but human rights activist Hamad Ould Nebagha insisted that it is a “mere formality,” designed to show Washington that the government is committed to fighting terrorism. Anticipating that he will soon be released without charge, Nebagha pointed out that his “US accusers have failed to link him to the alleged terrorist activities” for which he was held.

In Denver, his lawyers – John Holland and his daughter Anna Cayton-Holland – have also spoken about their former client, and about what his case – and that of all the other innocent men held in Guantánamo – should mean to the American public. “No one wants to see terrorists set free,” Anna Cayton-Holland explained. “We believe in our system, that you can’t torture people and use the fruits of that to convict them. We’re tired of people saying we are coddling terrorists. We’re not. We’re saying you can try and convict, separate the terrorist wheat from the innocent chaff in the true light of the legal system.” John Holland added, “I didn’t get into law to make a lot of money. It’s like my mom said, do good and the world will be good to you. Mostly we do this work because we are Americans, and we believe America is struggling to hold onto its moral soul.”

As the Supreme Court prepares to consider once more whether the Guantánamo detainees should have the right to challenge the basis of their detention, the cases of Mohammed al-Amin, and of the hundreds of other innocent men who have been held in Guantánamo, should stand as a cautionary example of why it is unwise, unjust and immoral to deprive habeas corpus rights to prisoners held in US custody, and to hand unfettered power to an executive that, despite its blustering, clearly does not know what it is doing.