The release of the four British citizens detained without trial by the US government at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is not a sign of a new-found respect for human rights in the Bush regime. According to a senior official quoted in the New York Times, three-quarters of the 550 remaining prisoners in Guantanamo Bay have no intelligence to provide, but are being kept in prison “to keep them off the battlefield”. But there would appear to be no evidence that they were ever on the battlefield in the first place.
The Bush administration has undoubtedly been frightened by the uproar at home and abroad that the abuses at Guantanamo Bay have caused, and they plan to do something about it. What they plan to do is move future unconvicted and uncharged prisoners to countries with atrocious human rights records, under secret agreements, so they can be tortured and detained out of sight of the world’s media.
According to the Washington Post, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have been discussed, and detainees will be in the hands, not of the Department of Defence as at Guantanamo Bay, but of the CIA, which is more opaque to scrutiny and allows no Red Cross access. Indeed, such treatment is already being meted out to those unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the world’s corrupt policeman: it was revealed last year that Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, had approved keeping some detainees off the registers that must, under the Geneva Convention, be shown to the Red Cross. These prisoners therefore lost the chance of being visited or having other rights.
These measures were taken with the advice of the White House legal adviser, Alberto Gonzales, now nominated by Bush as Attorney General, or chief law officer of the American state. He not only refuses to rule out torture, but in his last job he chaired several meetings at which specific interrogation techniques were discussed. These included the threat of burial alive and water-boarding, under which the detainee is strapped to a board, forcibly pushed under water, wrapped in a wet towel, and made to believe he could drown.
A White House memorandum approved by Gonzales stated that torture was not torture if the intention was to extract information — it was only torture if the intention was simply to inflict pain for its own sake. Even then, it was only torture if it led to the victim “dying under torment”. If you’re still alive to complain, you haven’t been tortured!
Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Jamal al-Harith has been giving testimony before a Council of Europe panel. Al-Harith described his two-year detention at Guantanamo Bay as a period of continual mistreatment that ranged from humiliation and 15-hour interrogations to physical abuse that left scars.
Al-Harith was chained up and attacked by five men wearing helmets, body armour and shields; kept mostly in a wire cage and given food marked “10 to 12 years beyond their usable date” as well as “black and rotten” fruit. He and three other prisoners released in March were never charged with any crime and are now suing the US government in an American court.
Britain is by no means innocent of abuses of human rights in connection with the “war on terror”. Shocking photographs released this week in connection with an ongoing court-martial of three soldiers show torture of Iraqis at a British base. One soldier has already been convicted, but the military court banned reporting of the details of that case. Now it is admitted that a senior officer, Major Daniel Taylor, gave the soldiers involved illegal orders to subject Iraqis to forced labour, but he has not been charged.
The government is still to reveal how it plans to respond to the recent court ruling that the detention of terrorism suspects indefinitely without charge or trial in Belmarsh prison is illegal. Two of the “special advocates” appointed by the Attorney General to represent these prisoners’ interests, Ian Macdonald QC and Rick Scannell, have already resigned in disgust at the government’s continued refusal to release the twelve prisoners.
Shami Chakrabarti of the human rights organisation Liberty said, “The government has had long enough to respond to the House of Lords’ unequivocal ruling. The detained men must be released or charged with a criminal offence immediately.”
NATIONAL LOBBY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES
Houses of Parliament, London
Friday 11th March to Saturday 12th March 2005