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     Volume 6 Issue 23 | June 15, 2007 |

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Food for Thought

The War on Truth

Farah Ghuznavi

For a variety of reasons that I will spare the reader for from, I am not a great fan of the recent hit movie “Borat”. But I have to say that one scene in the film did have a degree of resonance for me it was the bit where Borat congratulates the Americans on their “War of Terror”. Truer words were indeed never spoken in jest…

Sadly, truth itself has been one of the earliest and most critical casualties in the so-called war on terror. The sweeping scale of the US's “anti-terrorism” activities has touched any number of lives already, not least those it has no business touching. Like my friend, Selim Rashid, an entrepreneur of Bangladeshi extraction, born and brought up in Europe. He travels a lot in countries not generally considered to be high risk in terms of links to terrorism. Unfortunately for Selim, his not-terribly-uncommon name has been placed on some list of terrorism suspects. As he found out to his horror when he was detained while in transit at Moscow airport...

After being incarcerated and questioned for several hours, it actually took the intervention of diplomats in Moscow to induce the Russian authorities to let him continue his journey! Apparently, a subsequent experience in one of the central Asian republics was even more bizarre, involving an encounter with the Head of National Security, who personally supervised his interrogation. The accusations made against him (apart from the obviously unforgivable crime of having the same name as a “known terrorist suspect” - note the contradictions inherent in that phrase!) included a very complicated story straight out of “Spy versus Spy”, of Mad Magazine fame where the authorities suspected him of planning to hand over a briefcase full of something (they wouldn't specify what documents, cash, enriched uranium??) to some shadowy figure whom they would also not name. Needless to say, they clearly knew more about Selim's “terrorist activities” than he himself did!

While Selim's experiences have been outrageous enough, many other innocent bystanders have been so-called “collateral damage” in this badly-run crusade against terrorism. Even those under-age have not been spared. In May 2006, lawyers in London estimated that more than 60 of the detainees held at the infamous prison camp in Guantanamo Bay were boys who had been aged under eighteen years at the time of their capture. This assertion directly contradicted the Bush administration's previous reassurances to the UK government, their closest ally in their “war on terror”, that no juveniles had ever been held alongside adult detainees at the camp. But evidence indicates that as recently as last year, the prison population of Guantanamo Bay contained under-age prisoners, including one suspected child soldier, who have been held in solitary confinement, repeatedly interrogated and allegedly tortured (UK Independent).

Along with adult prisoners at the camp, many of whom remain imprisoned without charge or trial for over five years now, these children were incarcerated on dubious grounds. One child prisoner, Mohamed el Gharani, is accused of involvement in a 1988 Al-Qaida plot in London, masterminded by the alleged leader of Al-Qaida in Europe, Abu Qatada. This despite the fact that Mohamed was 12 years old at the time, and living with his parents in Saudi Arabia! After being arrested in Karachi in 2001, at the age of 14, he has spent several years in the prison camp in solitary confinement, as it is claimed that he is an Al-Qaida trained fighter.

Lest opponents of the US approach to the treatment of juveniles be accused of excessive liberalism, I refer them to the comment by Clive Stafford Smith, affiliated with Reprieve (a London based legal rights group) and lawyer for a number of detainees, who states that “There is nothing wrong with trying minors for crimes, if they have committed crimes. The problem is when you either hold minors without trial in shocking conditions, or try them before a military commission that, in the words of a prosecutor who refused to take part, is rigged… Even if these kids were involved in fighting… there is a UN convention against the use of child soldiers. There is a general recognition in the civilised world that children should be treated differently from adults” (UK Independent).

Quite apart from the issue of holding under-age prisoners in inappropriate conditions on dubious grounds, it is worth remembering that independent reports based on the Pentagon's own documents estimate that fewer than 55% of the prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay are even accused of committing actions against the US! The same documents suggest that only 8% of prisoners are accused of fighting for a terrorist group and that 86% were captured by the Northern Alliance and Pakistani authorities “at a time when the US offered large bounties for suspected terrorists” (hmm, funny coincidence that…!)

Guantanamo Bay prison

By early 2006, the US authorities were facing demands by doctors from around the world including Europe, the US and Australia to abandon the barbaric method of force-feeding hunger strikers at the prison facility. Over 250 medical experts from seven countries launched a protest against the practice of strapping inmates to “restraint chairs” and pushing tubes into the stomach through the nose. This is an excruciatingly painful process that causes bleeding and nausea.

The doctors stated: “Fundamental to doctors' responsibilities in attending a hunger striker is the recognition that prisoners have a right to refuse treatment…The UK Government has respected this right even under very difficult circumstances and allowed Irish hunger strikers to die. Physicians do not have to agree with the prisoner, but they must respect their informed decision.” The World Medical Association has prohibited force-feeding and the American Medical Association backs the WMA's declaration (UK Independent).

The fact that the US authorities view prisoner protests somewhat differently from the UK government was made all too evident in military authorities' reaction to a triple suicide at Guantanmo Bay exactly one year ago. The bodies of three men two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen were found in their cells early one morning “unresponsive and not breathing”, after they had used nooses made of sheets and clothes to hang themselves. The prison commander Rear-Admiral Harry Harris offered as a motivation for the suicides the claim that the men were “committed Jihadists” who died in acts of “asymmetrical warfare against us”. Of course, “asymmetrical warfare” must to be the explanation; it couldn't just be that some people were driven to desperation by the prospect of indeterminate years of imprisonment without charge or trial!

The reaction of the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Colleen Graffy, while not pretty, was perhaps more honest in indicating how the US government views the prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay facility. Her blunt description of the suicides was that they were a “good PR move to draw attention”…

Not everyone sees things quite the same way. According to Ken Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, “These people are despairing because they are being held lawlessly. There's no end in sight. They're not being brought before any independent judges. They're not being charged and convicted for any crime.” So how much worse must it be for those prisoners who fall into the category identified in a report by New Jersey's Seton Hall University, based on US military documents (referred to earlier), according to which 55% of the prisoners are not alleged to have committed any hostile acts against the US and 40% are not even accused of affiliation with Al-Qaida?

Even those who have been released from US custody, such as the wrongly accused rendition victim Khaled al-Masri, have been unable to put the experiences of wrongful detention and/or torture behind them. Long after al-Masri's release, he continues to suffer from mental health problems, resulting in disturbed behaviour. Recently, the German authorities placed him in a mental institution after he was involved in an arson incident in a supermarket. Shockingly enough, it has been shown that al-Masri received minimal treatment to help him come to terms with his experiences, hence his subsequent mental breakdown should not be a surprise to anyone.

The last few years have seen a growing clamour about the methods employed by US authorities in their pursuance of the war on terror, which include not only the legal and humanitarian black hole of Guantanamo Bay and the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Bagram Airbase in Afganistan, but also the totally illegal practice of “extraordinary rendition” (whereby terror suspects including mistakenly identified ones like Khaled al-Masri are kidnapped and incarcerated in secret prisons in Europe and elsewhere, while information on their whereabouts is withheld from their families and friends).

In the midst of all this, another suicide has recently taken place at the prison facility in Cuba. Little is known about the death of the Saudi Arabian inmate at the centre of this incident, except that the man was being held in isolation in a maximum security cell for unknown reasons at the time of his death. The cause of death remains under investigation, and the US authorities have so far been tightlipped about the case.

The motives for suicide by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay should not be hard to understand for most civilised people. In the words of one US defence lawyer, Wells Dixon, who has met a number of the detainees, the prison camp is “hell on earth”. In a statement issued last year by Amnesty International: “The US administration can no longer turn a blind eye to the cruelty of the regime that it has created in Guantanamo, now in its fifth year. President George Bush has it within his power to order an end to this human rights scandal and to ensure that detainees are either brought to fair trial or released.” Sadly, a year has passed since then, and the world is still waiting …



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