18 January 2007 Edition
International: Criticism mounts over torture tactics at Guantánamo
It is now five years since the first images appeared of prisoners in orange boiler suits being carried on stretchers after their interrogation by the US military in Guantánamo, sparking a controversy about the prisoners’ fate and their rights in this no man’s land. Five years later, these prisoners are still in legal limbo: the US refuses to declare them prisoners of war, thereby denying them their rights and entitlements under the Geneva Convention.
These five years have not been a beach party for prisoners held at the infamous Camp Delta in Guantánamo, which still houses 470 men who have not been convicted of any crime. The inhumane treatment continues despite persistent criticisms from human rights organisations and even the United Nations General Assembly. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called it “an anomaly”. Obviously, the British establishment has difficulties dealing with a situation so similar to their own internment policies in the North.
More than 750 men have passed through the camp, and the testimonies of those who have been released have served to confirm what many have feared: that torture is a daily occurrence in Guantánamo.
There is the testimony of the British prisoners known as the Tipton Three, who are still trying to come to terms with the abuse they suffered during their time at the camp. They were repeatedly beaten, shackled in painful positions for long periods and subjected to strobe lighting, loud music and extremes of hot and cold. Others have spoken of beatings, sexual assaults and death threats. The Red Cross has reported that psychological abuse at Guantánamo has driven inmates mad, resulting in a significant number of suicide attempts – at least three of which were successful last year.
The aim of all this suffering is to obtain, in the words of the US military, information that will help prevent action by Islamic militants against US interests as well as sufficient evidence to bring the detainees to trial before an army court. But not even the FBI sees any merits in the confessions gained by the army interrogators in Guantánamo. For example, one of the Tipton Three “confessed” to having appeared alongside Osama bin Laden in a video shot at an Afghan camp. In fact, at the time he was working in the British midlands.
A UN report has confirmed evidence of torture and Amnesty International has declared Guantánamo “the gulag of our times”. And Guantánamo is not the only US torture camp. Bagram, in Afghanistan, has been dogged by stories of abuse, and there are secret US prisons around the world where prisoners are completely unprotected by any law. The question being asked is whether it is right for the US to fight “terror” with this terror.
At the launch of its World Report 2007, New York-based Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading human rights organisations, said that the “land of the free” cannot provide credible leadership on human rights and so “European countries must pick up the slack”.
The situation must be desperate if human rights organisations are turning to European governments in spite of clear evidence that many of them – including Ireland – have allowed the US airspace to transport prisoners to secret locations where they may have been tortured. Certainly, as HRW said, “the European Union is punching well below its weight”.
The authors of the 556-page report, which documents worldwide human rights violations, said that the abuses against detainees in Washington’s so-called “war on terror” remain a major concern, as the Bush administration continues to defend torture by referring to it as “an alternative set of [interrogation] procedures”.
Last October, when the international community demanded fair trials for the prisoners, the Republican-led US Congress flatly refused to entertain such requests.
But with the change of congressional leadership, organisations like Human Rights Watch may find some reason for hope.
New UN chief Ban Ki-moon, like his predecessor Kofi Annan, has refused to accept the Bush administration’s position on indefinite detentions. At his first-ever formal news conference, he told reporters that “the prison at Guantánamo should be closed”. Ban is due to meet Bush at the White House this week.
International News In Brief
Nicaragua and Venezuela
On 10 January 2007, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was inaugurated as the Nicaraguan President. Ortega won the election in November of last year with 38 percent of the vote. This is Ortega’s second time leading the Central American country. He was a member of the Sandinista party, which governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, and served as president for the final five years of Sandinista rule.
The ceremony was delayed for an hour to await the arrival of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who had been attending his own inauguration following on from his election victory last December. However, Chavez brought with him the best possible present for Ortega, cancelling all Nicaraguan debt to Venezuela.
Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki has sent delegates to seven African countries in an effort to put together an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force for Somalia. This force would replace the Ethiopian troops that helped Somalia’s weak interim government oust rival Islamist forces but whose presence, analysts say, may hinder lasting peace. A delegation from the African Union has arrived in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, with deployment of peacekeepers also high on its agenda. So far only Uganda has offered troops – 1,500 – although this proposal awaits parliamentary approval.