Never Forget: The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

26.6.09

An anti-torture poster, by Octavia Roth, used by the UNEleven years ago, the United Nations designated June 26 as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Then-Secretary General Kofi Annan explained, “This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable. It is long overdue that a day be dedicated to remembering and supporting the many victims and survivors of torture around the world.” He added, “June 26 is not a date chosen at random. It was the day, 11 years ago, that the Convention against Torture came into force. It was also the day, 53 years ago, that the United Nations Charter was signed — the first international instrument to embody obligations for Member States to promote and encourage respect for human rights.”

As Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, explained in a speech reproduced in today’s Daily Star, Lebanon, “The prohibition of torture is one of the most absolute to be found anywhere in international law. Article 2 of the Convention against Torture is unequivocal: ‘No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.’”

She continued: “A total of 146 states have ratified the Convention against Torture (CAT) in the 25 years since it was adopted in 1984 — in other words, three-quarters of the world’s states.” However, as she also explained, “Many states that have ratified CAT continue to practice torture, some of them daily. Others, which do not practice it themselves, enable it to happen by sending people at risk back to states where they know torture is carried out. This, too, is clearly prohibited by CAT (Article 3),” which states that “No State Party shall expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

The High Commissioner proceeded to explain how “The acts of terrorism that shook the world on September 11, 2001 had a devastating impact on the fight to eliminate torture,” as “Some states that had previously been careful not to practice or condone torture became less scrupulous. State lawyers began to look for ingenious ways to get round CAT, or stretch its boundaries. The Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib prisons, in particular, became high-profile symbols of this regression, and new terms such as ‘water-boarding’ and ‘rendition’ entered the public discourse, as human rights lawyers and advocates looked on in dismay.”

According to Pillay, the worst excesses of the Bush years may now be coming to an end. “I believe we are finally starting to turn the page on this extremely unfortunate chapter of recent history,” she explained, “with counter-terrorism measures starting to move back in to line with international human rights standards.” However, she added that “Leadership is required to end this grotesque practice. In January, I welcomed the fact that Barack Obama’s very first actions as the new US president included decisions to close Guantánamo and ban methods of interrogation, such as water-boarding, which amount to torture or otherwise contravene international law. He has set an example of what a leader can do, in terms of policy and practice, to uphold the total prohibition on torture.”

“But,” she continued, “there is still much to do before the Guantánamo chapter is truly brought to a close. Its remaining inmates must either be tried before a court of law — like any other suspected criminal — or set free. Those at risk of torture or other ill-treatment in their countries of origin must be given a new home, where they can start to build a new life, in the US or elsewhere. I welcome the fact that in recent weeks a number of countries have agreed to take in a few people in this position, and urge others to follow suit, including first and foremost the United States itself.”

Addressing President Obama’s proposal to push for new legislation endorsing “preventive detention” — in other words, continuing to imprison people without charge or trial, on the basis that there is insufficient evidence to try them, or that the evidence is tainted by the use of torture — the High Commissioner was rightly indignant. “There should be no half-measures, or new creative ways to treat people as criminals when they have not been found guilty of any crime,” she said. “Guantánamo showed that torture and unlawful forms of detention can all too easily creep back into practice during times of stress, and there is still a long way to go before the moral high ground lost since September 11 can be fully reclaimed.”

Today, sadly, our celebrity-obsessed world is unlikely to pay much attention to the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, as the death of Michael Jackson dominates headlines around the world, and the public’s tendency to let the allure of celebrity erase concerns about the moral failings of stars, and what the cult of celebrity does to people, will be on full display instead.

Nevertheless, Navi Pillay is to be thanked for raising the issue of America’s moral leadership on this important day, and for congratulating Barack Obama on making a promising start, but warning that much more needs to be done. As well as highlighting the terrifying notion of endorsing “preventive detention,” she was, I believe, correct in stating that “first and foremost” the Obama administration should take responsibility for the injustices perpetrated by its predecessor, and should accept cleared prisoners into the United States.

Moreover, as recent events have shown, President Obama also needs to open up the prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan to some form of outside scrutiny — and, in a limited number of cases, to the US courts — and, as a recent court case revealed, he also needs to speed up plans to release prisoners, and would do well to accompany this with bold statements renouncing the failures of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” detention policies.

Inside BagramOn Bagram, the Obama administration has already lost credibility by refusing to accept, as Judge John D. Bates ruled three months ago, that foreign prisoners — seized outside Afghanistan and rendered to Bagram, where they have been held for up to seven years — have the same legal rights as the prisoners in Guantánamo. As Judge Bates explained in his ruling, the habeas rights granted by the Supreme Court to the Guantánamo prisoners last June in Boumediene v. Bush also extend to the foreign prisoners in Bagram, because “the detainees themselves as well as the rationale for detention are essentially the same.”

This is undoubtedly true, and it is, indeed, little more than an administrative accident that the foreign prisoners at Bagram — perhaps around 30 of the total population of 650 — did not end up in Guantánamo. However, although Judge Bates did not extend rights to Afghans held in a war zone — who should be treated as prisoners of war, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions — President Obama needs to make clear that this is, in fact, what is happening, and that the BBC’s recent report about the abuse suffered by several dozen Afghan prisoners, who were held at Bagram between 2002 and 2008, refers not to current conditions at the prison, but to the years when former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld sanctioned the use of torture by the US military. Without some form of transparency, the fear is that the abusive regime initiated by Rumsfeld is still in existence, and that Obama’s fine talk of banning torture and reinstating is nothing more than hot air.

On Guantánamo, Obama needs to move fast if he is to preserve any credibility, because the administration’s most recent court defeat — in the case of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, a Syrian prisoner — is demonstrably humiliating. On Monday, Judge Richard Leon (an appointee of George W. Bush) demolished the government’s case, and was clearly incredulous that the government thought it could establish that al-Ginco had some sort of ongoing relationship with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban when, having spent three weeks in a guest house and training camp in 2000, he was then suspected of spying, tortured by al-Qaeda for three months, and imprisoned by the Taliban for a further 18 months, until his “liberation” by US forces, and his transfer to Guantánamo.

Al-Ginco’s case is just the latest in a series of court humiliations which also revealed that, essentially, Eric Holder’s Justice Department was doing nothing more than attempting to defend the Bush administration’s idiotic detention policies on a case-by-case basis, pursuing worthless and unjust cases in which its only evidence, as Judge Gladys Kessler pointed out in another recent ruling, in the case of a Yemeni, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, consisted of “unreliable allegations made by other prisoners who were tortured, coerced, bribed or suffering from mental health issues, and a ‘mosaic’ of intelligence, purporting to rise to the level of evidence, which actually relied, to an intolerable degree, on second- or third-hand hearsay, guilt by association and unsupportable suppositions.”

These are not the only issues that President Obama needs to address urgently. He also needs to think hard about whether it is feasible to make a stand against torture while refusing to investigate those who authorized its use during the Bush years, and also needs to reflect on the significance of his opposition to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a Boeing subsidiary that acted as the CIA’s travel agent for torture.

To highlight this issue, I’ll shortly be cross-posting an interview with the wife of Abou Elkassim Britel, one of five prisoners represented by the ACLU in the Jeppesen case, who is currently languishing in a Moroccan jail, having been initially picked up in Pakistan and rendered to Morocco by the CIA.

The logo of the ACLU's "Accountability for Torture" projectThe interview is part of a two-week project, “Accountability for Torture,” that was initiated by the ACLU in the run-up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This has featured a podcast with Glenn Greenwald and Philippe Sands, and articles by several experts on torture including Dr. Stephen Soldz, who wrote about the American Psychological Association’s collusion in the use of torture. Later today I’ll also be posting my own contribution, an analysis of how the Bush administration’s torture regime included not only the waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on so-called “high-value detainees” and the reverse-engineered torture techniques taught in US military schools, which were implemented throughout the “War on Terror,” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo, but also the brutal force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners in Guantánamo, which continues to this day.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post. Also cross-posted on Common Dreams.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah? and CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prisonдивани (May 2009, and follow the links for further articles about al-Libi). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009) and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

15 Responses

  1. Salpha says...

    Today at 12H01 I have lighted a candle, as are many of my friends, for the many victims of torture around the world.

    Mr. Worthington, thanks to you for your special comment and reminding everybody of that special day.

    You are so right. Mr. Obama will own this if he does not change track. Bagram is another chilling reminder that the US is still in the torture business and I would not be surprised that there are still some renditions going on.

    Another thought: since the UN has mentioned 9/11 the world has gone down on human rights and torture. Specifically in the case of Mr. Arar there was so much pressure on Canada to give or find any terrorist and deliver them to the US. Maybe that was the case for Mr. Arar. The government of Canada just announced last week they would fight the Supreme Court recommendation that Canada must press the US on Mr. Khadr’s return. This is a disgrace for Canada.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Salpha,
    Thanks for the comments. I’m glad you were lighting a candle for the victims of torture. Everyone else seems to have been lighting candles for Michael Jackson instead.

    I’m also glad you mentioned Canada’s role in the “War on Terror.” Poor Maher was at least the only prisoner I know of who received compensation — although that cannot undo the horrors that were inflicted in him — but the other rendition victims received nothing, there is a horrible system of house arrest for “terror suspects” in place in Canada, and the indifference of the government to the plight of Omar Khadr is truly shocking. He is being made to pay for the perceived sins of his father, and yet he was a child when he was seized.

  3. Salpha says...

    Hello Mr. Worthington,
    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment. The cult of celebrity seems to take precedence over more important or equally important news.
    In my opinion, PM Harper is a mini-Bush. I hope he will be voted out in the next election. Canada is lost since 9/11; we used to be the champion of Human Rights. I know about the case of Omar Khadr. I followed it and still do. He is well covered, but the population of Canada does not seem to care. I have written several times to the government for his case. I rarely received an answer. I do not think the population of Canada realize how a dangerous man Mr. Harper is, I guess since he does not have a big majority he cannot go on with his agenda too quickly. But if ever he gets a big majority we will be in trouble.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    I also received the following message:

    Thank you so much for your excellent article “Never forget: The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture”.

    I thought you might be interested in some news from the Nobel Peace Prize “country” in that relation. Are you familiar with Inge Genefke’s work? The Danish “Florence Nightingale” for torture victims? She’s nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize once again, and this year the experts presume that the committee are leaning towards her due to the current debate on torture. A Nobel Peace Prize to her would be a definite NO to all forms of torture (again).

    My interview with her, and two torture victims, has been published here in Norway today. Apart from my ten pages in our main current affairs weekly magazine A-magasinet, and monthly Innsikt, I haven’t found any other articles in Norway in relation to the UN Day. So it was such a relief to find your article. Thank you!

    Yours sincerely
    Charlotte Berrefjord Bergløff
    Journalist
    Norway

    http://www.bergloff.org

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Just to provide some context, Inge Genefke is the founder of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), and I wrote an article about children in Guantanamo for the IRCT’s newsletter last November:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/11/24/trampling-the-rights-of-the-child-the-treatment-of-juveniles-in-guantanamo/

    The IRCT’s website is here:
    http://www.irct.org/

    And as we’ve been discussing Omar Khadr, this is a particularly damning article about his treatment in Guantanamo:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/10/20/omar-khadr-the-guantanamo-files/

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    And some comments from the Huffington Post:

    Research wrote:

    The American people MUST see those photos.

    I pray no soldier or American is hurt because of it, but it is more important than that risk.

    because of relentless media depiction of successful violence, done by our “heroes”, some half of American BELIEVE torture is necessary and works.

    We must Show the photos to understand how brutal and beneath us, torture is, as a nation, as one world.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    My reply:

    So many photos that we never see. No skeletal prisoners at Guantanamo, and nothing — ever — out of Bagram or Guantanamo showing the kind of “softening up” of prisoners for interrogation that went on at Abu Ghraib, even though both Bagram and Guantanamo established the template.

    I can understand why Obama chose not to release the Afghanistan and Iraq photos, as they would inflame anti-US sentiment and endanger soldiers — and if the President is to believed, this kind of abuse has been curtailed — but photos enable a vast number of people to comprehend, viscerally, what’s actually going on, and without them, Bagram remains a hidden secret, and the enthusiasts for arbitrary and indefinite detention without charge or trial get to maintain the illusion that Guantanamo is a “safe and humane” environment stuffed full of terrorists.

    When clearly, that is not the whole story:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/24/why-did-it-take-so-long-to-order-the-release-from-guantanamo-of-an-al-qaeda-torture-victim/
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/16/empty-evidence-the-stories-of-the-saudis-released-from-guantanamo/
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/15/the-last-iraqi-in-guantanamo-cleared-six-years-ago-returns-home/
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/11/who-are-the-four-guantanamo-uighurs-sent-to-bermuda/
    and more …

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    And this from arcticredriver:

    Thanks for another excellent article Andy. The list of objections to the Guantanamo “evidence” you quoted from Gladys Kessler is pretty comprehensive. But I think it is missing one important further objection. As you and Carlotta Gall pointed out in your investigative report on Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, there are many captives who, even after half a decade in detention, remain victims of mistaken identity.

    It’s shocking.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    My reply:

    Thanks for the reminder. In many ways, I think “mistaken identity” is covered by prisoners telling lies about other prisoners — i.e. being shown the “family album” of photos, and coming up with a story to secure favors or avoid punishment — but I’m delighted that you remember the story that Carlotta and I wrote for the New York Times:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/world/asia/05gitmo.html
    And the follow-up here:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/03/08/afghan-hero-who-died-in-guantanamo-the-background-to-the-story/

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    And this from GreatNews27:

    Our Unitary Executive has banned the ‘T-word’ from all media. You must not use the T-word or risk being T’d. The Corporate States of America does not T-word. Our Unitary Executive has spoken. Blessed by His name.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    My reply:

    My bad.
    “Enhanced interrogation”
    “Safe and humane”
    “Enhanced interrogation”
    “Safe and humane”

  12. khadija says...

    ciao!
    grazie a Andy per il suo fondamentale lavoro. Scrivo in italiano e spero che qualcuno gentilmente tradurrà.
    Vi racconto che nessun giornale italiano ha parlato finora dell’azione dell’American Civil Liberties all’ONU in favore di mio marito Abou Elkassim Britel (se ci uscirà qualcosa vi informerò). E’ facile parlare dei diritti umani di cittadini di altri stati e disconoscere quelli di un cittadino italiano musulmano.
    Il governo italiano continua nella sua indifferenza e nel suo silenzio nonostante l’ingiustizia evidente che Kassim subisce ogni giorno in carcere.
    La tortura anche per lui continua…
    Chiedo ai giornalisti che seguono questo blog un aiuto, di darci voce come ha fatto Andy e come altri hanno fatto (gli articoli sono sul mio sito).
    In questi anni l’uso della tortura non ha fatto altro che rendere meno civili le nostre società, la giustificazione della tortura ha avvelenato lentamente i rapporti tra le persone e seminato dubbi, …
    E non dimentichiamo le famiglie e ciò che soffrono, …
    In questi giorni ho rivissuto tutto quanto mentre rivedevo i documenti insieme agli amici dell’ACLU, sono stata male: mi sento assolutamente impotente di fronte alla sofferenza dei moltissimi che ogni giorno patiscono la tortura.
    Come Andy vi esorto a non dimenticare e a lavorare per sostenere chi di tortura è vittima, e sono innumerevoli nel mondo
    grazie! khadija

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Ciao, Khadija. Ho dimenticato dirti che parlo italiano (a bastanza):

    Khaija wrote (more or less):

    Thanks to Andy for his important work. It seems that no Italian newspaper has seen fit to report the ACLU’s actions on behalf of my husband, Abou Elkassim Britel. It’s easy to talk about the human rights of citizens in other countries and to pretend that those of an Italian Muslim don’t exist.
    The Italian government continues with its indifference and silence regarding the obvious injustice that Kassim suffers every day in prison.
    For him, the torture is also ongoing …
    I ask a favor from journalists who follow this blog, to speak out, as has Andy, and as have other journalists (their articles are on my site).
    In recent years, the use of torture has done nothing but make out societies less civilized. [Sorry, don’t understand the next section].
    And we mustn’t forget the families who also suffer …
    In recent days, looking over all the documents sent by my friends at the ACLU has made me feel ill. I feel absolutely impotent when confronted by the suffering of the many people who, everyday, endure torture.
    Like Andy, I urge you not to forget, and to work to help the numerous victims of torture around the world.
    Thanks!
    Khadija

    Website here:
    http://www.giustiziaperkassim.net/

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    And a couple more comments from the Huffington Post:

    Jigglypuff wrote:

    Again, I’m with you Andy — the all-day coverage of dead celebrities should be relegated to the Entertainment Network and the Tabloid Magazines. What a waste of time that could be used to discuss issues more paramount to moving our country out of the moral quicksand we are sinking deeper into.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    And John H. Kennedy wrote:

    It is curious that even though Torture is a US Federal Capital Crime, IT never seems to get much attention from the House Judiciary Committee chaired by Rep. John Conyers.

    I see elsewhere today in the Huffington Post that Monica Conyers has plead guilty to a Federal Corruption Charge in Detroit, Michigan Rep. John Conyers’ district. Conyers was for years the leading proponent of Impeachment in the House.

    One wonders what effect his wife’s corruption accusations will have on Rep. Conyers performance as Chairman.

    His Committee is where Impeachment would have started and he also oversees the US Justice Department which is currently ignoring Torture Prosecution.

    Conyers has been a big disappointment to Impeachment and Torture Accountability Advocates. Conyers portrayed himself as the the leading advocate of Impeachment in the House, but blocked it for 7 years & kept Kucinich’s Bush-Cheney Impeachment Bills from ever being voted on.

    Conyers accepted an IMPEACHMENT PETITION SIGNED BY 1.1 MILLION VOTERS but IGNORED IT AND HAD THOSE DELIVERING IT ARRESTED.

    Did Chairman Conyers single handedly keep Bush and Cheney in Office?

    Does he owe an apology to the over 34,000 US Soldiers who were killed or maimed for NOTHING in the unnecessary IRAQ WAR?

    SIGN THE PETITION
    To Prosecute Those who Tortured In Our Name at ANGRYVOTERS.ORG

    http://ANGRYVOTERS.ORG

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