15 July 2004 Edition
The Anglo-American 'War on Terror' has facilitated gross escalations in human rights violations of detainees worldwide, writes MICHAEL PIERSE
"Human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are essential tools in the effort to combat terrorism - not privileges to be sacrificed at a time of tension."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to the UN "Counter-Terrorism Committee", March 2003
"Terrorism", "counter-terrorism": So many of us feel irked when we hear these words, not out of any sympathy with Islamic fundamentalist militaries, or because we disagree with the basically sound thrust of what Kofi Annan is saying, but because of the word's sheer elasticity. Boil it down and the word terrorism can mean anything you like. It can be used, justifiably, to describe the kind of state-terrorism employed by the likes of Ariel Sharon or the Turkish regime - but more often than not it isn't. It has been used, unjustifiably, to criminalise liberation struggles, including our own, worldwide, and to heap together disparate movements, from the PLO, to Al-Qaeda to FARC, under the one tent. Since the 11 September attacks in the US, this malleable word has been bandied about to justify a great many injustices worldwide.
While public fears have allowed military agencies carte blanche to detain "terrorist" suspects without record of their location or numbers, it is now estimated that up to 15,000 people are being held in detention worldwide because of the "war against terror". Most haven't been charged or tried, many are deprived of the right to defend themselves. Some are in solitary confinement and, according to reports from former captives in the most publicised detention centres of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, torture and degrading treatment have been rife. And, while other detention centres, such as the American Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, are now the subject of increasing speculation regarding human rights abuses, the permutations of Anglo-American foreign policy in the last three years have led to an increased toleration of similar abuses worldwide.
While Egypt has been governed by state of emergency legislation almost continuously since 1958, the 11 September attacks have intensified its use. The emergency law gives the Egyptian Government extensive powers to suspend basic liberties, including powers to arrest suspects at will and detain them without trial for prolonged periods, and to refer civilians to military or exceptional state security courts. These tribunals allow no appeal to a higher judicial body.
Reports of torture being used against those in detention are increasing: 17 are suspected of dying because of it in just two years. Formerly, Egyptian security forces reserved such torture for political dissidents, but today "ordinary Egyptians who find themselves in police custody for any reason whatsoever risk being tortured", according to Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch. When the Egyptian Government arrested hundreds of anti-war activists, demonstrators, journalists, and passers-by during anti-war demonstrations in March 2003, dozens were held for extended periods and told Human Rights Watch of beatings by security officials during interrogations. Both male and female detainees reported sexual violence and abuse, including threats of rape, groping, and beatings on the genitals.
Dubbed by Le Monde Diplomatique (France) as Israel's Guantánamo Bay, Facility 1391 is a secret military prison housed in northern Israel, which is thought to contain up to 660 prisoners. It has been airbrushed from Israeli aerial photographs and purged from modern maps. Where once a police station was marked, there is now a blank space. No independent organisation has been given permission to inspect the facility, so what happens there is a mystery.
"Our main conclusion is that it exists to make torture possible - a particular kind of torture that creates progressive states of dread, dependency, debility," says Manal Hazzan, a human rights lawyer who helped expose the prison's existence. "The law gives the army enough authority already to hide prisoners, so why do they need a secret facility?"
However, according to the New Internationalist, testimonies from former detainees have painted an horrific picture of prisoners being confined in (often solitary) dirty, dark cells with little idea of their exact location, no access to legal services and no knowledge of why they are there. The Guardian (14 November 2003) reported that one former inmate has filed a lawsuit alleging that he was sodomised twice by interrogators during questioning. In its response to the lawsuit, the Israeli Government denied the man was raped, but confirmed that prisoners were routinely stripped naked for interrogation. However, the state attorney's office later went further and said that "within the framework of a military police investigation the suspicion arose that an interrogator who questioned the complainant threatened to perform a sexual act on the complainant".
The interrogator was sacked, but dozens of other interrogators signed a petition objecting to his punishment for using methods they said were sanctioned by the authorities.
The Israeli Government refuses to disclose any information about the prison to "prevent harm to the country's security". One Israeli MP, Zahava Gal-On, has described Facility 1391 as "one of the signs of totalitarian regimes".
New Zealand isn't a country one would normally expect to stand co-accused with a host of brutal regimes, but the actions of New Zealand in regard to the case of one political refugee illustrate just how pervasive the "terror" syndrome has become worldwide.
The case of exiled Algerian politician, Ahmed Zaoui, who sought asylum in New Zealand in December 2002, conveys how the country is prepared to ride roughshod over individual rights. Prior to his arrival, Zaoui had given speeches across Europe urging a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Algeria, which has seen an estimated 200,000 lives lost or disappeared. Algerian authorities have tried him in absentia, and, as is their custom, sentenced him to death. After a six-month inquiry, New Zealand's Refugee Status Appeals Authority - which found him to be "a passionate advocate of peace through democracy in Algeria" - granted him refugee status.
Nevertheless, New Zealand's government continued to hold him on the basis of a Security Risk Certificate issued by its Security Intelligence Service (SIS). The reasons justifying the issuing of this certificate have not been released to Zaoui, his lawyers or the public. While the authorities initially accused him of terrorist connections, alleging him to be a member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Refugee Status Appeals Authority was scathing about the material presented by the SIS to justify their assessment.
Now imprisoned for over 500 days - 10 months of which have been in solitary confinement - Zaoui awaits a review of this Certificate through his only avenue of appeal: behind the closed office door of New Zealand's Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.
Amnesty International has called on the New Zealand Government to meet its international human rights obligations, either freeing Ahmed Zaoui, or subjecting him to "a fair trial".
However, as is becoming increasingly apparent, fair trials are no longer a prerequisite for many countries as the rhetoric for "war on terror" becomes a staple of the lexicon of political and media pundits worldwide. The media itself is increasingly becoming, in the words of John Pilger, "little more than propaganda for great power", and it seems that few questions are being asked about the 15,000 held in detention worldwide, because the tolerance for state terrorism is growing.
Countries where Electric Shock Torture/Ill-treatment has been reported by Amnesty International since 1990
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- El Salvador
- Indonesia/ East Timor
- Morocco / Western Sahara
- Netherlands Antilles
- Russian Federation
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- South Korea
- Sri Lanka