Archive for June, 2011

In the US, on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, A Glimmer of Hope Amidst the Hypocrisy

At the weekend, to mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which takes place on June 26 each year, President Obama issued an extraordinary statement, declaring support for those working to eradicate the use of torture, and explaining that “[t]orture and abusive treatment violate our most deeply held values,” that they “do not enhance our national security,” that they “serv[e] as a recruiting tool for terrorists and further endanger[] the lives of American personnel,” and that they “are ineffective at developing useful, accurate information.”

The President was absolutely correct in his assessment of the problems with torture, and was also correct to point out how “President Reagan signed, and a bipartisan Senate coalition ratified” the UN Convention Against Torture, which came to force on June 26, 1987, and whose anniversary has been marked, since 1998, as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

However, when President Obama wrote of “paying tribute to all those who are courageously working to eradicate these inhuman practices from our world, and reaffirming the commitment of the United States to achieving this important goal,” and of remaining “dedicated to supporting the efforts of other nations, as well as international and nongovernmental organizations, to eradicate torture through human rights training for security forces, improving prison and detention conditions, and encouraging the development and enforcement of strong laws that outlaw this abhorrent practice,” it was difficult not to ignore the stench of hypocrisy. Read the rest of this entry »

US Supreme Court Refuses to Allow Abu Ghraib Torture Victims to Sue Military Contractors

With what can only come across as cynical timing, the US Supreme Court on Monday, the day after the UN International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, declined without comment to take up a lawsuit filed on behalf of 250 Iraqis — formerly prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, home of the most significant scandal in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” which surfaced in April 2004 with the publication of photos showing the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners in US custody at the prison. The prisoners were seeking to hold Titan Corporation, which provided Arabic translation services, and CACI International, which provided interrogators, accountable  for their role in the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and 2004.

Although a handful of serving US military personnel — eleven in total, referred to by President Bush as “a few bad apples” — were prosecuted for the abuse at Abu Ghraib, they were, in fact, scapegoated for implementing a policy that came from the highest levels of government, and which was designed to ensure that all aspects of the detention regime were dependant upon the whims of interrogators — as at Guantánamo, from where the system was exported by its commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who was sent to “Gitmoize” Abu Ghraib with the results that the world saw to its horror in April 2004.

The case that was shunned by the Supreme Court on Monday, Saleh v. Titan Corporation, was an important attempt to extend accountability from the military to the contractors who make up such a huge part of America’s post-9/11 war machine, and who, unlike their official military counterparts, appear to be as much beyond the law as the senior administration officials — and their lawyers — who implemented, approved and oversaw every aspect of the “War on Terror” that should have shocked the conscience — involving torture, “extraordinary rendition,” secret prisons and the miseries of arbitrary detention at Guantánamo. As Human Rights First explained, “Army investigations implicated at least five private contractors in similar crimes,” although “no contractor was ever charged.” Read the rest of this entry »

WikiLeaks and the Guantánamo Prisoners Released from 2002 to 2004 (Part One of Ten)

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Freelance investigative journalist Andy Worthington continues his 70-part, million-word series telling, for the first time, the stories of 776 of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo since the prison opened on January 11, 2002. Adding information released by WikiLeaks in April 2011 to the existing documentation about the prisoners, much of which was already covered in Andy’s book The Guantánamo Files and in the archive of articles on his website, the project will be completed in time for the 10th anniversary of the prison’s opening on January 11, 2012.

This is Part 6 of the 70-part series.

In late April, WikiLeaks released its latest treasure trove of classified US documents, a set of 765 Detainee Assessment Briefs (DABs) from the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Compiled between 2002 and January 2009 by the Joint Task Force that has primary responsibility for the detention and interrogation of the prisoners, these detailed military assessments therefore provided new information relating to the majority of the 779 prisoners held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba throughout its long and inglorious history, including, for the first time, information about 84 of the first 201 prisoners released, which had never been made available before.

The release of the documents prompted international interest for a week, until it was arranged by President Obama (whether coincidentally or not) for US Special Forces to fly into Pakistan to assassinate Osama bin Laden. At this point an unprincipled narrative emerged in the mainstream media in the US, in which, for sales and ratings if nothing else, unindicted criminals from the Bush administration — and their vociferous supporters in Congress, in newspaper columns and on the airwaves — were allowed to suggest that the use of torture had led to locating bin Laden (it hadn’t, although some information had apparently come from “high-value detainees” held in secret CIA prisons, but not as a result of torture), and that the existence of Guantánamo had also proved invaluable in tracking down the al-Qaeda chief.

This latter point was particularly galling for those who had championed WikiLeaks’ important release of the Detainee Assessment Briefs, as they contributed significantly to establishing that, in fact, the opposite was true, and that the kind of targeted and precise information that was necessary to track down bin Laden was almost impossible to secure in Guantánamo. On the face of it, the Detainee Assessment Briefs were stuffed with allegations against numerous prisoners which purported to prove how dangerous they were, but in reality the majority of these statements were made by the prisoners’ fellow prisoners, in Kandahar or Bagram in Afghanistan prior to their arrival at Guantánamo, in Guantánamo itself, or in the CIA’s secret prisons. In all three environments, torture and abuse had been rife. Read the rest of this entry »

Video: Sarah Gillespie Plays Her Song About Shaker Aamer, “How the West Was Won,” Live in London (with Gilad Atzmon)

So I count myself fortunate to live in the same neighbourhood as Sarah Gillespie, a wonderful singer/songwriter whose latest album, “In the Current Climate,” features a song about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident held in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Sarah and I met a few years ago, when she let me know that she wanted to write a song about Guantánamo, and last February she came to see a screening at the BFI of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the film I co-directed with Polly Nash, which tells the story of Shaker Aamer (as well as Binyam Mohamed and Omar Deghayes, two other British residents released from Guantánamo), and which contributed to the creation of “How the West Was Won,” Sarah’s song about Shaker Aamer. Sarah’s review of the film is here.

Unlike far too many musicians, Sarah is not afraid to be politically aware. She is also articulate, as can be seen from her material, her political writings, her gigs for Palestine, and her choice of musical partners — she works with the Israeli-born British saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, who is one of the most sustained critics of Zionism in the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Judges Keep Guantánamo Open Forever

Seven years ago, on June 28, 2004, the Supreme Court issued a historically important ruling in Rasul v. Bush, establishing that foreign nationals held at the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right, under the “Great Writ,” first established in England in 1215, to ask an impartial judge to rule on whether there were grounds for their detention.

A bulwark against arbitrary imprisonment, habeas corpus was essential for the prisoners at Guantánamo, who, for the previous two and a half years, had been held in what Lord Steyn, a British law lord, described as a “legal black hole” in a speech in November 2003, unable to seek any redress whatsoever if, as many of them claimed, they had been seized by mistake.

With breathtaking arrogance, the Bush administration had refused to screen those it captured through Article 5 competent tribunals. Also known as battlefield tribunals, these are part of the Geneva Conventions, designed to screen prisoners who, like those in the “War on terror,” were not part of a regular army. The US military had used them since Vietnam, and in the first Gulf War, for example, had held 1196 tribunals, and, in 886 cases (74 percent), found it had detained civilians instead of combatants, and released them (PDF, p.663). Read the rest of this entry »

The Revolution Reaches Europe: Tens of Thousands Protest in Greece and Spain

The revolutionary movement that began in Tunisia at the end of last year has now sparked mass movements in Europe; principally, to date, in Greece and Spain. On the surface, these movements have little in common. In Tunisia and Egypt, the people came out in vast numbers to overthrow the hated dictators who, for decades, had strangled their economies and presided over police states, whereas in Greece and Spain, the protestors are not seeking the overthrow of dictators, and are not rebelling against a police state (although both countries can draw on their relatively recent experience of dictatorship).

Beneath the surface discrepancies, however, the revolutionary movements of 2011 share noticeable similarities — not just because they are all, to some extent, popular uprisings involving word-of-mouth and social networking, without the kind of fixed organisational leadership that has been behind previous revolutionary movements, but also because they are all, fundamentally, attacking the malevolent impact of unfettered 21st century capitalism on entire populations, whether these involve dictators enriching themselves by facilitating Western exploitation at the expense of their people, or the populations of European countries being told that they have to pay for the excesses of their leaders and the banks. Everywhere, bankers, corporations and major shareholders continue to make profits, while everyone else loses, and is supposed to go quietly to the abattoir of their hopes and dreams.

In Spain, where the unemployment rate is over 20 percent — and the youth unemployment rate is a staggering 45 percent — protestors, identifying themselves as “los indignados” (the indignant), first followed the lead established in Tunisia and Egypt on May 15, when tens of thousands of people undertook what the BBC described as “a spontaneous sit-in” in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square. Tens of thousands more protestors then occupied public spaces in Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and Bilbao ahead of local elections, despite a pre-election ban on political protest. Read the rest of this entry »

June 30: A National Day of Action Against the Incompetent Tory-Led Coalition and Its Savage Ideological Cuts

Next Thursday, June 30, is the first big day of action involving widespread strikes since the coalition government began its miserable assault on the state after the General Election last May. 750,000 public sector workers from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the University and College Union (UCU) will take part in a one-day walkout, primarily over the government’s planned pension reforms, which will almost certainly be the trigger for further strikes in the autumn. As the Guardian explained, the day of action “is expected to bring schools, colleges, universities, courts, ports and jobcentres to a standstill, and comes as millions of staff face pay freezes, job losses and pension reforms.”

Speaking to the Guardian last week, Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, the largest public sector union, with 1.4 million members, was already discussing a possible follow-up. Although he is hoping for a negotiated settlement with the government over pension reforms and other pressing issues of concern to Unison members, and is not taking part in the action on June 30, he “described plans for waves of strike action, with public services shut down on a daily basis, rolling from one region to the next and from sector to sector,” fuelled by “growing anger over a public sector pay freeze that could trigger more disputes further down the line,” and “changes [which] would unfairly penalise women, who form the majority of low-paid public sector workers.” He told the Guardian, “It will be the biggest since the general strike. It won’t be the miners’ strike. We are going to win.”

Prentis’ warning to the government has not yet materialised, of course, but, crucially, the striking union workers who are committed to action on June 30 will be joined by many other people who will be using the day to campaign more broadly against the bitter fallout from the government’s largely indiscriminate austerity programme, which has prompted a steep decline in the government’s popularity over the last 12 months. Read the rest of this entry »

Write to the Forgotten Prisoners in Guantánamo (Summer 2011)

A year ago, two Facebook friends, Shahrina J. Ahmed and Mahfuja Bint Ammu, drew on my research about Guantánamo for a letter-writing campaign, in which they asked their friends and others on Facebook to volunteer to write to each of the remaining prisoners in Guantánamo. Shahrina announced the letter-writing campaign via a Facebook note entitled, “What if YOU were tortured … and no one knew about it??!” and I then publicized it via an article entitled, Write to the Forgotten Prisoners in Guantánamo.

Mahfuja revived that campaign two weeks ago, with a new Facebook note entitled, “Ramadhan and Eid spent tortured,” and a fresh appeal for people to write to the remaining 171 prisoners in Guantanamo — that’s just ten less than a year ago, and two of those ten left in coffins, having died at the prison.

This is how Mahfuja introduced the latest campaign:

Ever been tortured? Ever been held in a detention camp with “secret” evidence against you? Ever been kept away from your family for up to 9 years? Ever felt what it is like to be innocent yet treated like a criminal?

These brothers have — and one letter can bring them happiness beyond that which you can ever comprehend. One letter can give them the hope they need. One, just one letter can brighten their gloomy lives. All it will take from you is a half an hour of your time. We have timed this campaign in correlation with Ramadhan, so we can give them a lovely Ramadhan and Eid wish, insha’Allah, which they will receive in time. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Summer Solstice to the Revellers at Stonehenge — Is it Really 27 Years Since the Last Free Festival?

This is a bleak summer solstice as far as the weather goes, but no doubt for many of the thousands of revellers at Stonehenge last night (an estimated 18,000 people in total), it was, nevertheless, a memorable occasion, as it remains essentially unprecedented for tens of thousands of people to gather in a field at night, mingling amongst the stones of one of the world’s most famous prehistoric monuments, without some famous rock star or other strutting their stuff on a floodlit stage.

I haven’t been to the solstice for six years, having visited every year from 2001 to 2005 — after the wilderness years, from 1985 to 1999, when a military-style exclusion zone was declared, to keep out those who had not learned that they were unwelcome after the dreadful events of what is known as the Battle of the Beanfield — but every year I think about those converging on the ancient stones, and wait for the first reports and photos, to find out whether the sun shone at dawn, and to hear from those who were there.

My interest, as some of you will know, stems from the visits I made to the Stonehenge Free Festival, an annual riot of anarchy and alternative lifestyles that occupied the fields around Stonehenge for 11 years, from 1974 to 1984, until it was suppressed with unprecedented violence in 1985, when an advance convoy, heading to the stones to set up the festival, was ambushed by the massed forces of Margaret Thatcher’s militarized police, and decommissioned with savage violence at the Battle of the Beanfield. Read the rest of this entry »

Rights Groups Tell Obama: Reward Those Who Opposed America’s Use of Torture in the “War on Terror”

In a significant gesture in the run-up to the UN International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, which takes place on June 26, and was inaugurated in 1998, on the 11th anniversary of the ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture, ten human rights groups in the US, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch and the PEN American Center, have sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to honor the overlooked lawyers, officials and soldiers who, under the Bush administration, took a stand against torture, often at great risk to their careers.

As the groups point out, these individuals — who include Sgt. Joe Darby, former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora, Col. Morris Davis, Lt. Col. V. Stuart Couch, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld and former CIA Inspector General John Helgersen — upheld America’s values and its laws when the Bush administration had moved over to the “dark side” embraced by former Vice President Dick Cheney, and their contributions deserve to be officially acknowledged, especially as others who actively contributed to the illegal and immoral torture program were rewarded by President Bush.

Obviously, the elephant in the room, when it comes to asking President Obama to honor those who publicly opposed the Bush administration’s torture program, is that this should also be accompanied by a call for the officials who authorized the program (up to and including President Bush, who boasted about authorizing waterboarding — a crime — in his autobiography last year) or attempted to justify the torture program (like John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who wrote and approved what are now known as the “torture memos”) to be prosecuted according to the US federal anti-torture statute. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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The Guantánamo Files book cover

The Guantánamo Files

The Battle of the Beanfield book cover

The Battle of the Beanfield

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion book cover

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion

Outside The Law DVD cover

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo

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