Land of the Free

There are some happenings that are surreal to the point of engendering total astonishment, and a recent official US pronouncement concerning human rights violations is a prime example. The statement about Uzbekistan by the State Department that “We are deeply disappointed about the serious deficiencies of due process . . . and about the allegations of torture” would be extremely serious was it not so bizarrely in line with what the entire world is saying about American torture in Guantanamo Bay and other hideous persecution parlors around the world.

The preposterous Sean McCormack of State had the brass neck, the amazing nerve, the chilling chutzpah, to announce that “Credible allegations have been raised that [a prisoner in Uzbekistan] was tortured with boiling water in pre-trial detention, resulting in serious injury.”

Uzbekistan is a wacky dictatorship run by a nutcase only marginally more weird than the present inhabitant of the White House, but it is absurd for the US to criticize him for human rights abuses for so long as Washington indulges in illegal imprisonment and torture of innocent people. Let’s hope that Mr Obama will act swiftly to ban these gross violations of human rights.

The brilliant writer Johann Hari noted the other day that “Colonel Allen West, commanding a US unit in Baghdad, heard a rumor that one of the Iraqi policeman he was working with was a secret insurgent. He ordered his officers to go and seize Yehiya Hamoodi, a thin, bespectacled 31-year-old, from his home. They dragged him into a Humvee, beat him, and then handcuffed, shackled and blindfolded him. In a dank interrogation room, they told him he had better start talking.”

Of course they only “beat him.” Nothing serious like Uzbekistan’s use of boiling water. Well, for a while, anyway, until “Perplexed and terrified, Yehiya explained he didn’t know what they were talking about: why was he here? So West was called in. He told Yehiya he was going to be killed. While his men beat him again, he explained he had one last chance to save his life – by talking. Yehiya protested: I am innocent! What are you talking about? So West took him outside, had him pinned down, and began to shoot. First he fired into the air. Then he ordered his men to ram Yehiya’s head into a barrel used for cleaning weapons – and fired right next to his head. Then he began to count down from five. Finally Yehiya began to scream out names – any name he could think of, just to make it stop. The men he named were seized and roughed up in turn. No evidence was found of any plot, and after another 45 days of terror, Yehiya was released. Today, he is severely traumatized.”

But the repulsive Colonel West isn’t traumatized. He’s reveling in the approval of redneck crowds who fall about laughing at his squalid “joke” that what he did “wasn’t torture. Seeing Rosie O’Donnell naked would be torture.” This man isn’t human. Intellectually and morally he is on a level with the lowest forms of manically aggressive sewer-life. And he is far from being alone, because there are many thousands of Americans who are involved in designing and practicing torture. Sadly, there are even more who cheer them on.

Seventeen of the hundreds of innocent people caged in dire conditions in the US gulag at Guantanamo Bay are Chinese. In September a federal judge ruled that they should be freed, because they are – surprise, surprise – innocent. Not only that, but they have never been charged with any crime. They were seized in Afghanistan, subjected to horrible treatment, and transported like cattle to Guantanamo. There, they can meet with their lawyer only if they are chained to the floor. They are forbidden to return to China because they belong to a minority ethnic group in Western China which wants autonomy. They have, however, been offered homes and the opportunity to start their lives afresh in America. Various Christian (real Christian; not Palin-style fanatics) and other charity organizations are prepared to look after them. But no, this can’t be allowed. In a typically spiteful and malevolent reaction to having been proved wrong “the US justice department has now blocked moves for them to be allowed to go to the US mainland.”

“According to the justice department, the men ‘are linked to an organization that the state department has labeled to be a terrorist entity, and it is beside the point that the organization is not “a threat to us” because the law excluding members of such groups does not require such proof’.” Heads I win; tails you lose. Even if it is proved without doubt that someone is innocent, that person must be guilty when the Bush “Justice” Department declares him to be so. This is straight out of Alice in Wonderland, when the Queen screams “sentence first – verdict afterwards!” The new President is going to have a lot of work on his hands, but one major priority must be that he gets a grip of this Department, fast.

Then there is the case of the six innocent Algerians who have been in Guantanamo for over six years. The bogus charges brought against them have been dropped, but they are likely to remain prisoners of the Land of the Free forever. This may have something to do with the pronouncement by Bush in his 2002 State of the Union Address that “our soldiers, working with the Bosnian government, seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy [in Sarajevo].” In spite of a Bosnian court ruling that the six men were not involved in any such plot, it is essential for Washington that they be regarded as dangerous terrorists because . . . well, because the president said they are. It is still maintained that the men are “enemy combatants”, so they must remain in hell.

There are more forms of torture than using boiling water or water-boarding, as refined by Hitler’s Gestapo. The very act of keeping these innocent men in prison without charge, without trial, and with no indication of what there future might be – after almost seven years of humiliation and torment – is of itself an act of torture. And when an interrogator, a particularly disgusting piece of filth, told one of them that “I am going back to my wife and children, and you are going back to your cell like a dog,” one worries deeply about what has happened to America.

The Washington Post recorded that “tribunal sessions in December 2005 show the US military is no longer accusing the Algerians of conspiring to attack the US Embassy in Sarajevo. No explanation for the change is given. The military has listed other factors in its decision to label the men a security threat. One detainee was judged a threat in part because he was a karate expert and had taught martial arts to Bosnian orphans . . . He was also classified as potentially dangerous because he was familiar with computers. Another detainee was flagged because he had performed mandatory service in the Algerian army more than a decade ago, as a cook. Boudella was accused by the U.S. military of joining bin Laden and Taliban fighters at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, the mountain hideout where the al-Qaeda leadership escaped from US forces in December 2001. In fact, at the time, Boudella was locked up thousands of miles away in Sarajevo, after his arrest in the later-discredited embassy plot.”

The case against these men is a concoction of fabricated nonsense. But their illegal imprisonment continues.

Practitioners and supporters of torture and captivity without trial are sick perverts, and deserve our pity. It is pointless to regard them with anger or contempt, because they are mentally retarded. But it is essential that the system of American legal practice and international justice be revitalized so that people who order and indulge in torture can be brought to justice. It is unlikely that these pitiable warped people could ever be drawn to morality, integrity and compassion, but at least they might be made accountable for their evil, and deterred from continuing it. Will this happen under President Obama?

The foundations of American justice have been almost destroyed in the past eight years, and it will take a long time to rebuild them. We must hope that President Obama and the elected representatives in the Land of the Free will enact legislation to forbid torture and detention without trial. That would be a start to restoring America to dignity and decency.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY’s book about the army of Pakistan, War, Coups and Terror, has just been published by Pen & Sword Books (UK)






Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.