I caught sight of a picture of 35-year-old Briton Moazzam Begg hugging his wife and children yesterday. Begg is one of six Camp Delta ‘detainees’ destined to be the recipients of Pentagon-style justice in the form of secret military tribunals. The picture was shocking. We have been led to believe that the detainees are monsters, wild men, biting and scratching beasts, killers who wouldn’t hesitate in going for the jugular of any innocent person.
So inherently "evil" were these prisoners, they had to be handcuffed, shackled, gagged, hooded and chained to their seats during the 17-hour flight from Afghanistan to Cuba. So heinous were they that they were not allowed any exercise at all for the first year of their incarceration, while the lights had to be left on in their tiny cells even at night.
Yet here was Begg looking like a middle-class pater familias, with ne’er a dripping fang in sight. One could even imagine him to be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher but never an Al Queda mastermind.
In reality, Begg was a charity worker and a translator who in June 2001 fulfilled his dream of opening a school in Kabul for underprivileged children. During the Anglo-American invasion of Afghanistan later that year, Begg wisely moved with his family to Pakistan to wait out the war when he was kidnapped by the CIA, shoved in the boot of a car and driven back to Afghanistan. There he was kept in a windowless cellar at the Bagram Airbase for a year, allegedly subjected to beatings and torture, before being flown to Camp Delta.
Today, Begg has been offered a Hobson’s choice. Either he admits to everything the Pentagon want him to when he will receive a jail term of 20 years, or he can fight the case with the death sentence looming large.
There are plans in the pipeline to build a Death Row and an Execution Chamber at Camp Delta, merely awaiting the go-ahead from George W. Bush, former governor of Texas, boasting the highest rate of executions in the U.S.
If we are expecting compassion from the American President then we should think again. This is the man who mocked an appeal for clemency made by convicted murderer Faye Tucker during an interview with Talk magazine. Bush pursed his lips, squinted his eyes and said in a high-pitched feminine voice, "please don’t kill me".
Bush has long said that he would bring the terrorists to justice but with such a lack of transparency how do we know that those 670 men and three children at Camp Delta are associates of Osama bin Laden?
How can we ever know the truth when the U.S. has set itself up as policeman, prosecutor, defense council, judge, jury and hangman?
The detention camp at Guantanamo Bay has come under worldwide attack yet the U.S. government is impervious to all criticisms, even those from its friends and close allies.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, backed by the Home Secretary David Blunkett, has urged U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to repatriate British nationals held at Camp Delta on the basis that Britain opposes the death penalty and wants the men to be tried "under normal judicial process".
Britons are left wondering why on earth did Blunkett recently sign a non-reciprocal treaty with the U.S., which removed the requirement for prima facie evidence against an accused? Blunkett has excused such lack of reciprocity as being due to the constraints of the American constitution. In other words, Blunkett puts the US constitution before the interests of his own people.
Travesties of justice
Amnesty International has described the forthcoming military tribunals as travesties of justice, basing this appraisal on the fact that the system discriminates on the basis of nationality. In other words secret tribunals are just for non-Americans, while US nationals, such as the American Taliban John Walker Lindh, are able to enjoy the protection of a civilian court and the expertise of a top lawyer.
Further, Amnesty is unhappy that the commissions would accept a lower standard of evidence than civilian courts, including hearsay, and would not rule out statements made by defendants in coercive circumstances.
Wire-tapping will be allowed of Pentagon-appointed attorney-client meetings and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has the ability to remove a judge at any time without giving any reason. Evidence given over the phone and by pseudonym will also be admitted.
The lawyers for Begg and Feroz Abassi, another British member of the six, maintain that any confessions extracted from the two while kept without access to lawyers, either in Afghanistan or Cuba, have no status in international law and are inadmissible in British courts. Legal representative for Australian detainee David Hicks has described the tribunals as "kangaroo courts".
Another objection is that such military commissions would not be independent from the U.S. government and, in contravention of international law, defendants would have no right of appeal.
Director of the British pressure organization Fair Trials Abroad has indicated that the tribunals are being "fixed" with one aim in mind–to secure a conviction. "If they were prepared to take these people to American soil and try them under normal U.S. prosecution, the evidence wouldn’t stand up," he said.
Appeals from the UN Special Representative for the Rights of Children in War have fallen on deaf ears too. Olara Otunnu has complained about the detention of three teenage boys–between 13 and 16–demanding that the UN expects America to fulfill its obligations under international law.
Donald Rumsfeld defended the boys’ incarceration saying, "They are enemy combatants".
General Richard Myers, Chairman of the US Military Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the boys were being held "for a very good reason–for our safety. They may be juveniles–but they are not on a Little League team anywhere."
Little League or no, it does sound strange to many of us that the mighty superpower with its nukes, fighter jets, bombs and missiles, should be terrified of three little boys.
Otunnu said that even if the teenagers were found to have been fighting as child soldiers, they should be demobilized, reintegrated and rehabilitated. The UN, he added, was concerned that the boys had no contact with their families or lawyers. "We do not sentence children to jail. We do not punish them. We give them healing and get them rehabilitated," he said.
Amnesty’s response was "that the U.S. sees nothing wrong with holding children at Guantanamo and interrogating them is a shocking indicator of how cavalier the Bush administration has become."
The human rights group and others have also bitterly complained that detainees in Camp Delta and Bagram have suffered severe abuse, including beatings, which probably led to the deaths of two men held at Bagram, whose cause of death was given by U.S. military officials as "homicide" and "blunt force injuries".
The U.S. has reluctantly admitted that suspected terrorists are "softened up" by beatings and it is an open secret that they are often blindfolded, kept in tiny spaces, tied up in painful positions, sleep-deprived and subjected to continuous loud noise or bright lights. Those who still resist are handed over to those foreign intelligence services whose mandate allows them to use sophisticated torture methods.
So eager is the Pentagon to keep its dirty secrets it didn’t hesitate in seizing audio recordings made by the BBC Panorama team in June and banishing its reporter Vivienne White to another part of the bay, far away from the detainees.
When during a press tour of the camp someone with a Pakistani accent shouted: "Are you journalists? Can we talk to you?" and White responded with "We’re from BBC television", a U.S. officer cut short the tour and ordered everyone out. It was later resumed once the BBC team had been isolated from their more compliant media colleagues.
The Pentagon says that the detainees are not allowed to speak to the media as this contravenes the Geneva Conventions, the very conventions, which the U.S. government has chosen to ignore when it comes to Guantanamo. In any event, the International Committee of the Red Cross hotly disputes this claim.
If the BBC had been allowed to speak to some of the inmates perhaps they would have discovered just why there have been so many suicide attempts and the reasons why the majority in that camp are suffering from severe depression. That would never do, now would it?
It seems that the Pentagon assumes there is one law for them and another for everyone else as we saw during the Iraqi invasion when it was quick to point out that the showing of America’s dead soldiers and prisoners of war on television contravened the Geneva Conventions, even while Western networks, including American, did not hesitate in airing graphic footage of Iraqi prisoners of war and Iraqi victims.
International Criminal Court
Indeed, the U.S. exerts every effort internationally to protect its own citizens going as far as to pressurize the UN Security Council to grant U.S. peacekeepers immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
At the same time, the American government has been busy bullying nations to sign up to bilateral agreements barring them from surrendering U.S. nationals to the ICC. Thus far, some 50 countries have refused to sign up to such exclusion contracts even in the face of being punished by a reduction of military aid.
Many of the former Yugoslavian states have called the U.S. demands to hand over their citizens for trial in the Hague–where Milosovich now languishes awaiting the outcome of his trial–as nothing short of hypocrisy while the U.S. insists that other countries should never attempt to extradite Americans.
Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the UN James Cunningham rejected the assertion that the U.S. was attempting to put itself above the law and said: "The ICC is not the law, describing the court as "a fatally flawed institution".
If the ICC is "fatally flawed" what does that make the Guantanamo secret military tribunals? Hardly hallowed halls of justice!
Equity for all
There may be Americans who believe that their government cannot put a foot wrong and trust in it implicitly. But, unfortunately, this reverence doesn’t wash for most of us.
I still recall Mohamed Higazy, an Egyptian student who was wrongly imprisoned after 9-11 when a hotel security guard tried to set him up by planting a ground to air wireless in his room safe. There was the Saudi pilot who was named as being one of the 19 hijackers when on September 11 he had been at home with his family in Saudi Arabia, and untrue reports that hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi security agent in Prague.
Just recently, the U.S. requested extradition of an Algerian pilot Lutfi Raissi in connection with 9-11. A British court, however, soon discovered that America could offer no single scrap of evidence against him, and so refused the extradition request before allowing Raissi to go free.
Recent reports of a man being jailed for life in the U.S. for spitting at a policeman and another being given a long sentence for making a joke about the president in a bar, hardly inspire non-Americans with confidence in US justice either.
What we need is transparency and equitable treatment for all. As Thomas Jefferson penned: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights…"
Today those rights are in jeopardy. They apply to a favored few. But they are not being enjoyed by "all", as the wretched 670, held at Guantanamo, and their worried families would, no doubt, attest.
LINDA S. HEARD is a specialist writer on Mid-East affairs and can be contacted at email@example.com