Starting by Stopping Torture and Illegal Detention
When Barack Obama emphasized the need for America to get to work in his inaugural address, I couldn’t help but wish for some specifics about what kind of work he was talking about. Did he mean we should all volunteer for our local charities? That students should study harder? That we should all get out and shovel the sidewalks (a subject of some importance this past winter in Seattle)?
While I’m still not sure what he meant for the rest of us, I am heartened by the fact that he seems to have prioritized his own chores wisely, making some practical and some symbolic but still crucially important decisions in his first two days in office.
Obama has said before that he planned to close Guantanamo Bay Prison and suspend the military commission trials of detainees there, and his immediate executive orders on these matters was a signal that they were among the chores at the top of his list.
In case you haven’t been following the issue, the military commissions were set up by the Bush administration when it became clear to them that a) they could not continue to hold prisoners indefinitely without charges in violation of U.S. law, and b) many if not most of the prisoners at Guantanamo could not be convicted in either a civilian or military U.S. court because there was insufficient evidence against them and what evidence there was had been obtained through coercion and was thus unreliable and inadmissible. So the Bush administration set up a new judicial process whereby confessions and other information obtained through torture or other forms of coercion would be permitted as evidence.
But, just as setting up a U.S.-run prison in Cuba doesn’t mean it’s outside of U.S. jurisdiction, setting up a separate court outside of established civilian and military justice systems doesn’t eliminate the requirement that it adhere to U.S. law. As a constitutional scholar, President Obama made the obvious decision to put a stop to these unconstitutional proceedings.
So why is this important? It means that prisoners like Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad – both taken to Guantanamo as teenagers – will have their “trials”, in which the things that they said while being tortured were to be used as evidence against them, suspended.
Omar Khadr, a Canadian taken to Guantanamo at the age of 15, has now lived there approximately one third of his life. Wikipedia has this information about Khadr’s treatment at Guantanamo.
Khadr was told “Your life is in my hands” by a military interrogator, who spat on him, tore out some of his hair and threatened to send him to a country that would torture him more thoroughly, making specific reference to an Egyptian Askri raqm tisa (“Soldier Number Nine”) who enjoyed raping prisoners. The interrogation ended with Khadr being told he would spend the rest of his life in Guantanamo. A few weeks later, an interrogator giving his name as Izmarai spoke to Khadr in Pashto, threatening to send him to a “new prison” at Bagram Airbase where “they like small boys”.
In all, Khadr has been reported to have been kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time; to have been denied adequate medical treatment; to have been subjected to short shackling, and left bound, in uncomfortable stress positions until he soiled himself. Khadr’s lawyers allege that his interrogators “dragged [him] back and forth in a mixture of his urine and pine oil” and did not provide a change of clothes for two days in March.
At the end of March 2003, Omar was upgraded to “Level Four” security, and transferred to solitary confinement in a windowless and empty cell for the month of April.
According to the testimony of lawyers from the ACLU, while in U.S. custody, Jawad, who was 15 or 16 years old at the time
was told that he would be killed if he did not confess to the grenade attack. He was also told that his family members would be arrested and killed if he did not confess. Both the police and the other high- level officials conducting the interrogation were armed, and Mohammed had a credible fear that they were capable of carrying out their threats. During the interrogation, Mohammed allegedly made incriminating statements and a document, purporting to be a confession, was prepared for him to “sign” with his thumbprint… Mohammed did not know what the document was, did not read it, and was told he needed to put his thumb print on it to be released…
…The written statement allegedly containing Mohammed’s confession and thumbprint is in Farsi. Mohammed does not read, write, or speak Farsi. There are several factual assertions in the statement that are false, including Mohammed’s name, his father’s name, his grandfather’s name, his uncle’s name, his residence, his current residence, his age, and an assertion that he speaks English…
…U.S. personnel subjected Mohammed to beatings, forced him into so-called “stress positions,” forcibly hooded him, placed him in physical and linguistic isolation, pushed him down stairs, chained him to a wall for prolonged periods, and subjected him to threats, including threats to kill him, and other intimidation… interrogators’ notes indicate that Mohammed was so disoriented at one point that he did not know whether it was day or night. Mohammed was also intimidated, frightened and deeply disturbed by the sounds of screams from other prisoners and rumors of other prisoners being beaten to death…
…Before he was transported to Guantánamo, Mohammed was intentionally starved for three days, and given only sips of water. Upon information and belief, this treatment was standard operating procedure at the time to ensure detainees would not soil themselves during the 17-hour flight from Bagram to Guantánamo…
…Military records from throughout 2003 indicate that Mohammed repeatedly cried and asked for his mother during interrogation…
The suspension of trials that would accept as evidence confessions and accusations provided by children and other human beings treated in this manner is hopefully only the first step in a complete repudiation of illegal and immoral treatment of prisoners in U.S. jurisdiction. The fact that Obama has acted quickly to indicate such an intention is a better sign than I and many others had hoped for, but recent news leaks have implied that the new administration is considering setting up yet another judicial process separate from established U.S. courts in order to ensure successful prosecutions of Guantanamo prisoners with evidence obtained illegally under U.S. law.
Contact the Obama administration to express opposition to such a plan.
For a thorough discussion of the importance of trying U.S. prisoners in real U.S. courts, see Glenn Greenwald’s excellent recent post on the subject.
More about Guantanamo detainees in previous posts.