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Human Rights

Monday, April 14, 2008

Torture as Permanent Exile

I'd been mulling over a couple points that I've yet to see mentioned in the debate about the use of physical coercion in terrorist interrogations, trying to figure out just how to illustrate them, when along comes The Moor Next Door with a post about Yal Menfi, a song about an Algerian rebel taken prisoner and beaten by the French colonial authorities. Literally "the Exile", Yal Menfi was written in the aftermath of the Algerian insurrection of 1871, then reprised in the 1950's in the context of the Algerian War of Independence. It has since been recorded by contemporary artists, including Cheb Mami, an Algerian-born rai singer who has enjoyed crossover success with Sting and Nile Rodgers among others (ie. hardly a hardcore radical), demonstrating how more than a hundred and thirty years after its composition, the song and the mistreatment it describes still haunts the collective consciousness of Algerians and resonates with their experience to this day.

The song illustrates in a poignant way something I'd noticed while going through Karim Sadjadpour's Carnegie Institution report, Reading Khamenei, namely that Khamenei, like Hashemi Rafsanjani and a good deal of the Iranian leadership from the time of the revolution to now, was tortured by the Shah's secret police. Similarly, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's strategic mastermind, was tortured in Egypt. And the list goes on. The point isn't that torture inevitably creates extremists or terrorists, so much as that torture has a longterm indelible impact not only on individuals but on societies at large. This longterm, multi-generational resentment is rarely included by proponents of physical coercion in the calculation of its usefulness.

Then there is the question of legality, which is what President Bush resorted to in defending the Principles' meetings at which the coercive techniques were discussed. What the legalistic defense ignores is that no regime that ever practiced physical coercion or torture was careless enough to leave it a crime. What's more, governments rarely engage in illegal behavior when they have the ability to render it legal without the consent of the people. The more abhorrent the behavior, the more that rule applies. What's shocking is that this administration has now joined their ranks, not only in its behavior, but also in its recourse to effectively changing the law without the knowledge or consent of the governed.

Which makes the last point so alarming. The use of cruel punishment for a convicted criminal flies in the face of the principles of American jurisprudence. And to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet suggested that terrorists, once they have revealed whatever information of value they might possess and have been convicted in a court of law, be subjected to cruel treatment as punishment for their crimes. Which only makes the use of cruel treatment in the fact-gathering phase of the investigation, before any proof of guilt has been established, even more of an aberration.

Anyone who wavers over the utilitarian defense of coercion (the ticking timebomb scenario) would do well to consider whether they would be willing to authorize these practices in the context of the American justice system. Because there are any number of reasonable scenarios whereby an American citizen, unassociated with any international terrorist organization and not motivated by any radical ideology, might be in possession of knowledge that could spare thousands of innocent lives. The ticking timebomb scenario, in other words, respects no borders, and has little regard for passports or citizenship. Which means that once it is invoked, it is essentially enshrined. And under this administration, that can happen whether we know about it or consent.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Chad, Europe & Darfur, Redux

I mentioned the other day that what was really at stake in the fighting in Chad, besides the survival of President Idriss Deby's regime, was the conditions on the ground for the roughly 400,000 refugees located in eastern Chad on the Sudanese border. Chad accused Sudan of supporting the rebels' assault in what was widely seen as an attempt to disrupt the deployment of a UN-mandated EU peacekeeping force. The EUFOR mission is to secure the area for the humanitarian NGO's that run the refugee camps for both Darfur refugees and internally displaced Chadians.

From all the latest reports I've read, the EU nations who comprise the mission have interpreted the rebel operation as an attempt to intimidate out of deploying, and they're determined not to back down in the face of that kind of pressure. So it looks like the mission will deploy as soon as it is logistically possible (ie. once the only land route from the capital to the eastern province has been re-secured).

But now, in an apparent retaliation for Sudan's support of the rebels, Chad says it will no longer accept any more refugees and is threatening to expel those that are already there. Just this weekend, 12,000 more Darfur refugees streamed across the border into Chad following bombing by the Sudanese military. In other words, this would have all the makings of a humanitarian catastrophe, if it weren't for the fact that it already is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Human Rights   

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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Chad, Europe & Darfur

A little heads up on the fighting going on in Chad's capital: there's actually quite a bit more at stake there than whether the rebels manage to replace Chad's thug ruler Idriss Deby or work out a power sharing arrangement with him. The real action in that story is the EUFOR Chad force which was scheduled to deploy yesterday to the Eastern part of the country, on the border across from Darfur. The area is a hotbed of Chadian insurgency groups, Sudanese militias, and organized bandits, all of whom target the over 200,000 refugees from Darfur and over 100,000 internally displaced Chadians that are gathered there in UNHCR refugee camps.

The EUFOR Chad mission, authorized by the UN Security Council, was designed to re-establish security in the area in order for humanitarian groups to provide assistance to the refugees, and eventually help them return to their homes. Needless to say, none of the border-hopping armed groups were particularly enthusiastic about the mission deploying, and the Sudanese government wasn't too keen on seeing a European contingent on the other side of the border from Darfur either. So the timing of the rebel offensive, which in cutting off the land route to the east has already delayed the mission's deployment, is highly suspect.

Should they seize power, which is looking more and more likely, it's very possible the rebels will revoke Chad's invitation to the EUFOR force altogether, effectively putting an end to the mission. The last time the rebels threatened Deby's hold on power in 2005, France provided him with intelligence and some air support which allowed him to turn them back. The move caused one rebel group to declare a "state of belligerence" with France, which had already raised some concerns about the largely French EUFOR contingent being targetted.

Now France must decide whether to intervene on Deby's behalf again to make sure the EUFOR mission (which it worked hard to put together) deploys, thereby impeaching the mission's multi-lateral veneer of impartiality; or stand by and let the rebels seize power, thereby watching the mission (and the months' worth of diplomatic maneuvering to get it off the ground) go down the drain.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Human Rights   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

The Image Of Torture

Like everyone with a conscience still intact after seven years of assaults on our basic conception of constitutional rights (to say nothing about human morals and dignity), I'm shocked, outraged and angered by the CIA's brazen hubris in destroying evidence of illegal acts of torture. Had we caught an enemy in such an attempt to erase the historical record of their crimes, we would be rightfully indignant. Those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent the law allows.

On the other hand, I can't say that I regret that the videos themselves were actually destroyed. Because we already know the crimes have been committed, and my sense of optimism leads me to be confident that the guilty parties will be brought to justice. But the actual footage itself would almost certainly have become the latest viral video, similar to the footage of Saddam Hussein's hanging, or the images from Abu Ghraib. Shock and horror would quickly give way to prurient curiosity, and the unthinkable -- American torturers -- would become not only mundane and trivialized, but reduced to the individuals on the screen.

In the same way that Abu Ghraib should not have been reduced to Lynndie England holding prisoners on a leash, but rather pursued up the chain of command, the American government's use of torture should not be reduced to several individuals caught on film. This is an American tragedy that should haunt us in the deepest reaches of our consciences in a way that concrete images can't.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Three Years, Ten Lashes

To follow up on a post from a few days back, Amnesty International and six other human rights groups have now called on Iran to set aside Delaram Ali's sentence of three years in prison and ten lashes. She's the young woman who was violently arrested last year, suffering a broken arm, during a protest for women's rights. According to the BBC, her sentence is part of a larger crackdown on dissent:

It comes as the Iranian Writers Association has talked of the increasing suppression of the press - with writers, journalists, academics, labour and social activists being arrested and newspapers closed down one after another.

One of Iran's most outspoken human rights activists, Emadeddin Baghi, was arrested last month and there has been no news of him since.

He was a man who tirelessly campaigned for the rights of political prisoners - only to become one himself, our correspondent says.

Courts have also recently upheld jail sentences for the leaders of Iran's bus drivers' union and teachers' organisations after protests over low pay.

I remember after the first student protest against Ahamdinejad earlier this year, when they burned him in effigy during one of his speeches, there was some suggestion that Iran is less totalitarian than it's portrayed to be. This seems to put that idea to rest.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Iran   

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Slow Motion Suffocation

Malcolm Nance is a SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) master instructor who has worked in counter-terrorism for 20 years. Here's his bio over at Small Wars Journal, which gives you an idea of his commitment to national security. And here's his long and forceful denunciation of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques". His conclusion is in the title: Waterboarding is torture... Period.

Nance is no softie. Unlike the guys talking tough from the comfort of Washington offices, television studios and campaign podiums, he's personally experienced every technique under discussion, interviewed survivors of torture, and studied all the taped and written debriefings available. And here's what he has to say about what he's witnessed:

Most people can not stand to watch a high intensity kinetic interrogation. One has to overcome basic human decency to endure watching or causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you to question the meaning of what it is to be an American.

If you can, read the whole thing. If not, keep this in mind the next time someone dismisses waterboarding as a little bit of water in the detainee's face:

Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again. (Emphasis in original.)

And here's a question for the GOP 'roid ragers. Would any one of them agree to be waterboarded? Not as part of a hypothetical scenario to prevent a terrorist attack. Just to know what they're talking about? If it's as benign as they say it is, their hands should go up as quickly as when they're asked if they'd authorize it.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   Politics   

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Spiritual Atrophy

Count me among those who read this Kevin Drum post, wanted to write something about it, and simply felt like I'd already said everything there is to say so many times in similar contexts that I just kind of let the whole thing pass. The collective silence led Kevin to wonder why the story's not getting any legs:

Long story short, the FBI screwed up, forced a confession out of an innocent man, and then the evidence of the forced confession was redacted from the court opinion on the case. That sure seems like a juicy story, but it's not getting much play today.

I get the feeling there's a certain amount of "outrage fatigue" that's gathered on some of these stories. We've reached the phase where the initial shock of finding out that we're torturing confessions out of prisoners, both innocent and guilty, has now worn off. The problem is that that initial shock mainly succeeded in changing our definition of, and not our fundamental policy towards, torture.

"America still tortures prisoners" just doesn't have the same impact as "America tortures prisoners". Worse still, it aggravates the sense of powerlessness that comes from being unable to stop our highest ideals from being trampled on in the name of protecting our highest ideals. But Kevin's right. It's worth a mention.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Casting Light Into The Shadows

When Gitanjali Gutierrez met with Majid Khan on Monday, it marked the first time a lawyer was able to visit one of the "high value detainees" transferred from the CIA "black sites" to Gitmo last September. Gutierrez is an attorney for The Center for Constitutional Rights who is representing Khan on a pro bono basis. I have no way of knowing whether Khan is innocent or guilty (he's been charged with researching attacks within the US on water supplies and gas stations). I do know that he deserves legal representation and the chance to defend himself against those charges. That's why I've put the CCR's banner at the top of the right sidebar. Click through and find out a bit more about them. And if you can, support what they're doing. Equal justice under the law applies to everyone, without exception. Otherwise it applies to no one.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, October 12, 2007

The Court Of Public Opinion

The latest military commission proceedings get to the heart of just how flawed the cost-to-benefit analysis that went into building Gitmo really was:

The U.S. military has filed an attempted murder charge against a Guantanamo Bay detainee who allegedly threw a hand grenade into a vehicle carrying two American soldiers and an interpreter in Afghanistan, according to documents released Thursday...

At a hearing last year at Guantanamo, Jawad said he falsely confessed to local Afghan police who had arrested him because they tortured him.

The fundamental question being, Who really wins this one in the global court of public opinion? Let's even assume for the sake of argument that the charges are true. What we've got is a guy who tossed a grenade at a couple of soldiers in a war zone. Was he an enemy? Yes. An unlawful combatant? Sure, why not. Was he a dangerous terrorist? Seems like a stretch. But most importantly, was he worth giving the entire world the impression that we're rounding up innocent goatherds and torturing them in a gulag under the Cuban sun? Decidedly not. 

I don't see how a good old-fashioned POW camp wouldn't have done the trick here. Unless it has something to do with this

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, October 12, 2007

The Age Of Torture

Before you take a look at this article about abuses at boot camps for "problem kids", be warned. It's very disturbing, particularly if you have or deeply care about children. The kinds of abuses described are typical of what I've come to think of as Absolute Power Zones: places where for whatever reason, those in charge wield their authority with no effective oversight and those in detention have no recourse to justice. It's a recipe for abuse, and for me is of a piece with Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, jihadi kidnappings/beheadings, and detainee/prisoner abuse and torture. The degree of violence certainly varies from one case to another, as does the justification. But the underlying dynamic -- the brutal and barbaric abuse of power -- remains the same.

It would be hyperbolic to suggest that this is a new problem. I'm not even sure it's worse now than it was 10, 100 or 1000 years ago. What is significantly different now is the existence and diffusion of photographic and video images of the abuse, a direct consequence of the internet revolution. In particular, the voyeuristic component of these abuse scandals perversely mirrors the explosion of internet pornography specializing in fetishized portrayals of violence and domination, and coincides with the appearance of S&M in mainstream pop culture (think Mel Gibson's Payback for the fetishized version, The Passion for the straight-up gore).

This is what I meant yesterday when I referred to ours as "an age where strength is increasingly fetishized as brutal dominance." And if this article is any indication, the indoctrination process begins early.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Weapons Of Mass Detection

Via Laura Rozen comes this Jeff Stein piece which describes how former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby once requested NSA intercepts and raw FBI files in order to target one of his political enemies. It's not a particularly earth-shattering revelation, but it goes to the heart of why unwarranted domestic wire-tapping poses such a threat to our notion of civil liberties.

The common argument in support of expanded surveillance powers is that if you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about. It's an argument that's based on an idealized vision of government whereby the State has only the interests of its citizens, and none of its own, at heart. By and large, the American government has proven comparatively deserving of such an indulgent view.

But there are two problems with the argument. First, the State does have particular interests, ranging from the banal tendency of bureaucracies to satisfy their appetite for expansion to the more threatening tendency of government to satisfy its appetite for power. Second, while the State in its abstract might indeed be a benign or even benevolent actor, the government in practice is comprised of people. Honest-to-goodness human beings, with moral weaknesses and character flaws like the rest of us.

Recent Congressional shenanigans have revealed a bevvy of them. Duke Cunningham had a weakness for money; for Larry Craig and John Vitter it was illegal or indiscrete sex. The first corrupts government; the second demeans it.

Richard Shelby, on the other hand, was willing to abuse the access his position afforded to stick it to one his political enemies, and that represents an existential threat to a free society. Because it doesn't take a lot of imagination to come up with scenarios where the target might not be a Washington insider, and the motive no longer political in the insitutional sense but political in the ideological sense. Shelby's not the first, and he surely won't be the last, which is why the NSA surveillance program is so ill-advised.

The logic of warfare is that when a weapon exists, it will be used. Data banks full of NSA intercepts on American citizens are the information equivalent of weapons stockpiles, just as the executive's claims to the right to detain and torture represent operational ones. Throughout America's relatively short history, men and women of character have filled the breach in each of its moments of constitutional peril. It would be a dangerous mistake, though, to confuse that good fortune with destiny or entitlement.

As the brokerage firms like to say, Past performance is no guarantee of future success. You don't need any broad conspiracy theories or a particularly pessimistic vision of government to recognize that once intelligence is gathered, there's no telling who might eventually get their hands on it nor what their motives might be.

Those who argue that the NSA program is justified by national security concerns have placed their bets on American exceptionalism. Me, I'll take human nature every time.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Politics   

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Annoying Isn't A Crime

Just a quick follow-up to the Univ. of Florida tasing incident. By now, the video has gone viral. Conspiracy theorists are pointing to the coming police-state apocalypse. Consensus seems to have coalesced around the hypothesis that the student in question, Andrew Myer, is a jerk who intended to provoke an incident. It also appears that the viral video doesn't include the incident's debut, in which Myer jumps to the front of the line of questioners and interrupts another student at the microphone. Finally, according to an eyewitness, Sen. John Kerry did try to defuse the situation, in general, and to get the police officers to stand down, in particular. In light of which, the officers were probably justified in removing Myer from the microphone and the gathering, and I was probably unjustified in condemning Sen. Kerry for inaction. 

Be all that as it may, my main point was that this was an inappropriate use of the taser, and that in light of other similar abuses, there ought to be some national discussion and/or regulation of what constitutes appropriate use of it. The fact that the taser is non-lethal force doesn't make it universally applicable. And while abuses might persist in the face of regulation, at least there will be laws on the books protecting citizens and allowing for effective legal oversight.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tortured By Taser

This is the second time in the past year that I've seen a video of police tasering someone for refusing to follow their orders to leave a building. The first occurred in a UCLA student library. This one occurred at a speech given by John Kerry.

The young man clearly disregards "protocol" by asking accusatory, conspiracy theory-driven questions. It's something that I find mildly irritating, along the lines of the Code Pink protesters who pop up in Congressional hearings. But far from breaking any law, he was engaged in a political act: Confronting power with discomforting questions. In fact, it's the fundamental political act of any democracy, as essential as the act of casting a ballot.

In the case of the UCLA student earlier this year, I wondered why no one intervened. That is, why no one stopped the police who repeatedly tasered the young man. But of course, the witnesses were all young students. It would have taken an unusual degree of courage to confront the authority of the police officers.

In this case, however, Mr. Kerry could have intervened at the moment it became clear that the police intended to remove the questioner. As a US Senator, he has at least the moral authority to do so. And as is demonstrated by the fact that he goes on to answer the man's questions, there was no justifiable reason to remove him from the audience. His silence as the scene unfolds becomes deafening.

On a broader level, it's time there was some national legislation addressing the police use of tasers. I know that the young man was in violation of the law the moment he refused to comply with the police officer's command, whether or not the command itself was justified. But from that to the use of what amounts to torture seems like a leap of barbaric proportions.

Until the use of tasers is regulated, in the age of cell-phone video and YouTube, we'll be witness to this kind of scene more and more frequently. We can't change what happened in this video. But maybe we can prevent it from happening in the next one.

Via The New York Nerd.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Monday, August 27, 2007

The More Things Change...

Hats off to an old high school classmate, Allan Tulchin, whose relatively arcane academic article on the history of Medieval "marriage-like" legal arrangements has ridden a wave of Perfect Storm proportions into a blog feeding frenzy and full-scale national media phenomenon.

I'm always skeptical of bringing difficult-to-interpret historical evidence to bear in any contemporary public policy debate. That said, the idea that the marriage arrangement as we know it today has survived unchanged through the ages has always struck me as being ripe for debunking. And articles like Allan's help popularize the ways in which marriage and its related arrangements have evolved over time.

The answer to the current debate, on the other hand, has always struck me as relatively simple. (If you believe in the separation of church and state, that is.) Eliminate marriage altogether as a legal category, and make civil unions the legal standard for everybody. Anyone who wants the church wedding can feel free to do so. But the state has no business sanctioning a religious ceremony to the detriment of a civil one.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Psychological Torture

The American Psychological Association has scrapped a blanket ban on psychologists taking part in military interrogations " which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights..." in favor of one that prohibits them from participating in interrogations that use any of more than a dozen specified practices. The reasoning was that psychologists served as a moderating influence on the interrogators' conduct:

"If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die," said Army Col. Larry James, who serves as a psychologist at Guantanamo Bay.

Which strikes me as pretty strong confirmation that whatever's going on in those interrogations is illegal. As one psychologist quoted in the article put it:

"If psychologists have to be there so detainees don't get killed, those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing is to leave."

And alert the media, the judiciary, or both.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The Insecurity Council

According to Le Monde, Dick Marty, the investigator for the Council of Europe who issued a report on the CIA's European black hole prisons this past June, is set to issue another one this autumn which is sure to grab some attention. This time he's shining the spotlight on the UN Security Council's anti-terrorism "blacklist", specifically:

...the "Kafka-esque" practices and "flagrant injustice" of a committee of the UN Security Council which manages a list of 362 people and 125 organizations, sanctioned for their alleged connections with al-Qaeda or the Taliban...

For someone to be added to the list, all it takes is just one of the fifteen members of the Council to request it and provide a summary of the acts in question, often based on classified intelligence. If none of the other members objects in the next five days, the name is added and published on the UN website.

The activities subject to sanction, such as "facilitating" activities related to al-Qaeda or "the support, in any other way" of the jihadist movement, remain vague. And when people are sanctioned, it's often based "on vague, even very vague, suspicions", according to Mr. Marty, without being informed of them, nor having access to incriminating evidence. (Translated from the French.)

Sanctions handed down by the committee have included everything from freezing of assets to house arrest, so the fact that there's really no judicial process involved is pretty significant. Changes have already been made in the list's administration, allowing those sanctioned to request their removal from it. But their request still needs unanimous consent from the Council (ie. the agreement of whichever country put them on it in the first place) to be approved. More recently, revisions proposed in 2006 included:

...the adoption of more precise definitions, re-examination every six months so that the sanctions remain temporary and preventative, as well as the introduction of judicial oversight and a right to appeal.

Something tells me the publicity surrounding Mr. Marty's report might turn the heat up enough to get them pushed through.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Drumroll, Please

I didn't see much coverage of this while I was on vacation, although I wasn't looking too hard either. But apparently the Dept. of Defense has officially concluded the Combatant Status Review Tribunals for the 14 high-value detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, whose transfer to Gitmo last fall officially confirmed the CIA's black-hole interrogation network. Surprise, surprise, they've all been determined to be enemy combatants. A finding that is still clouded in some legal confusion, since the Military Commissions Act requires they be found "unlawful" enemy combatants. The change in status will give them the right to civilian counsel, though, as well as to challenge the findings in court.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Brush-Off

A new report from the UK's security and intelligence committee indicates that the CIA was so gung ho about its extraordinary rendition program that it disregarded 20 years of precedent by ignoring British "caveats" placed on shared intelligence:

Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna were flown by the CIA first to Afghanistan and then Guantanamo Bay, where el-Banna is still being held.

The committee said the UK services "used caveats specifically prohibiting any action being taken" when they handed over the intelligence on the men.

It says the UK security services did not foresee that the US authorities would disregard the caveats, given that they had honoured the caveat system for the past 20 years.

Then there's this, which is so dryly British that it's hard to keep a straight face when reading it:

"Although the US may take note of UK protests and concerns, it does not appear materially to affect their strategy..." the report warned.

Less amusing are the report's conclusions, which recommend overseeing intelligence cooperation at the ministerial level as long as there is even the suspicion that it might result in rendition. Yet another way in which Bush's conduct of the War on Terror has damaged America's interests.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Black Hole Rules

As required by the Military Commissions Act, President Bush has just signed an Executive Order interpreting the Geneva Conventions prohibition of torture. A quick reading of the Order leaves me guardedly optimistic that the CIA interrogation program has now been officially prohibited from using torture as most sane people understand that term.

To begin with, it clearly locates the definition of torture in the context of the US Constitution, with all the rights and protections it guarantees:

"Cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" means the cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

Later, it prohibits torture as defined by the US Code, as well as a long list of other practices, including anything " serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency..."

There remain, however, a number of troubling aspects. While use of the detainee program is limited to members of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associates who are likely to have information about terrorist attacks or the whereabouts of terrorist leaders, the Order leaves it up to the Director of the CIA to identify just who that refers to. Also, nowhere does the Order extend habeas corpus rights to detainees.

And since it always pays to be somewhat skeptical of the Bush administration's sincerity, the actual Constitutional amendments it cites could conceivably provide some loophole wiggle room. The 8th Amendment very clearly prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments".

But the 5th Amendment, which guarantees due process, makes an exception for "... cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger..." And the 14th Amendment refers to equal protection under the law across State jurisdictions, which I can't imagine will apply to non-nationals held in a Soviet-era Polish dungeon.

On the whole, good news. But the Devil will be in the details of the codified instructions delivered to actual CIA interrogators in the field.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Psychic Demolition

It's widely known that the enhanced interrogation techniques used at Gitmo and in the CIA's black site prisons were reverse-engineered from the military's Cold War-era training programs for resisting torture at the hands of Communist interrogators. Now in a must-read article in Vanity Fair, Katherine Eban reveals that two CIA-contracted psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, have been central to the development of the techniques, which are likened to a "psychic demolition" designed to get a detainee "... to reveal everything by severing his sense of personality and scaring him almost to death":

According to a person familiar with the methods, the basic approach was to "break down [the detainees] through isolation, white noise, completely take away their ability to predict the future, create dependence on interrogators."

But the Communist interrogation tactics on which the new methods are based were designed to generate useful propaganda (ie. false confessions and anti-American declarations), not useful intelligence. Why, then, were the new methods adopted so wholeheartedly? Eban traces the explanation to the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the al-Qaeda lieutenant who under interrogation revealed the identities of Sheikh Khalid Mohammed and José Padilla, among others:

While it was the F.B.I.'s rapport-building that had prompted Zubaydah to talk, the C.I.A. would go on to claim credit for breaking Zubaydah, and celebrate Mitchell as a psychological wizard who held the key to getting hardened terrorists to talk. Word soon spread that Mitchell and Jessen had been awarded a medal by the C.I.A. for their advanced interrogation techniques. While the claim is impossible to confirm, what matters is that others believed it. The reputed success of the tactics was "absolutely in the ether," says one Pentagon civilian who worked on detainee policy.

Since then, Mitchell and Jessen have set up a series of private consultant companies that provide training for interrogators. And according to Eban, business ain't bad:

The principals of Mitchell, Jessen & Associates are raking in money. According to people familiar with their compensation, they get paid more than $1,000 per day plus expenses, tax free, for their overseas work. It beats military pay. Mitchell has built his dream house in Florida. He also purchased a BMW through one of his companies. "Taxpayers are paying at least half a million dollars a year for these two knuckleheads to do voodoo," says one of the people familiar with their pay arrangements.

The fact that psychologists are getting rich off of a method designed to demolish psyches is chilling. The fact that it's the United States government writing the checks is glacial.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Heads They Win, Tails We Lose

What exactly does this prove? According to the Dept. of Defense, at least 30 former Gitmo detainees have "returned to the fight" after their release:

These former detainees successfully lied to US officials, sometimes for over three years. Many detainees later identified as having returned to fight against the U.S. with terrorists falsely claimed to be farmers, truck drivers, cooks, small-scale merchants, or low-level combatants.

Other common cover stories include going to Afghanistan to buy medicines, to teach the Koran, or to find a wife. Many of these stories appear so often, and are subsequently proven false that we can only conclude they are part of their terrorist training.

Now it could be as the DoD says, and the former detainees did, in fact, lie their way out of Gitmo. Of course, another possible explanation is that the detainees were telling the truth in Gitmo, and their experiences there so embittered them that upon their release they went and joined the folks gunning for American GI's.

Either way, the implication is that the coercive interrogation techniques employed there don't actually work. And that it's a safe bet, given what we know about who's actually joining Al Qaeda in Iraq, that at least some of the sixteen Gitmo detainees transferred to Saudi Arabia today will soon be setting off IED's in Baghdad.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Detainee Abuse, Kurdish Edition

According to Human Rights Watch, detainees in Iraqi Kurdistan are held in overcrowded and unhygienic facilities, and are routinely subjected to torture, including electric shock and beatings with cables. Among the prisoners are suspected insurgents taken in US-Iraqi raids, which raises the question of whether these are outsourced interrogations.

To their credit, the Kurds cooperated with HR Watch, and have taken steps to address some of the abuses, although HR Watch qualifies the measures so far as inadequate. But I've long suspected that the myth of the Kurdish "good guys" is really just a cover for a little corner of stability that we desperately need in Iraq, both now and in the longterm. With time, we'll certainly find out more about just how much that stability has cost.

Update: Here's a link to the report

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Iraq   

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Friday, June 22, 2007

The Homefront

Given what we know about how Special Operations units have been used abroad in the War on Terror, the fact that they're being incorporated into domestic anti-terrorism planning is more than a little troubling. I said yesterday that the logic behind their extra-legal methods is expansive. Unless there's more transparency as to what these units are authorized to do, this is a very dangerous precedent.

Via Danger Room

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, June 15, 2007

The Gitmo Delusion

Jonathan Hafetz calls attention to a confusion of categories resulting from the nature of the war on terror, which calls into question the way in which we determine and deal with enemy combatants. Basically, it boils down to the difference between enemies and suspects:

...In World War II, for example, there was little question that captured German or Japanese soldiers were, in fact, enemies. At the same time, their detention was limited to the duration of a war that had a clear and definite end, and they were afforded the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

But neat divisions between detention and trial break down when applied to the administration's "war on terror," which has no identifiable enemy or battlefield. As a result, it is easy to mistakenly detain people based upon suspicion, innuendo, or mere association. At the same time, detention as an "enemy combatant" amounts to a potential life sentence, since the "war on terror," the administration says, may last generations...

Terrorism by definition presents an epistemological challenge that conventional warfare doesn't. The first hurdle is being sure we know who the enemy is. Not in the abstract, on the level of terrorist organizations that we can identify as threats. But in the concrete expression, on the level of individual operatives where, besides the most visible few, there remains a doubt.

A correlary effect of terrorism, therefore, is a form of justified paranoia. Doubt about who the actual enemy is leads to the perception of everyone as a potential threat. In aggravated cases of paranoia, of course, doubt gives way to a compensatory certainty, and everyone is perceived as an actual threat.

Now consider that the mere suspicion of being an enemy combatant routinely leads to secret detention and torture, and that any evidence obtained through that torture is permissible in the CSRT (the hearings that determine whether someone is an enemy combatant). Knowing what we know about the unreliability of tortured-induced self-incrimination, this means that the mere suspicion of being an enemy combatant will most likely result in actually being classified one.

It's a neat way to solve the problem of filling up our detention centers with people we call our enemies. It might even serve the useful function of providing enough "confirmed" terrorists to prevent a collective slide into full-scale, psychotic paranoia. But it does nothing to solve the problem actually presented by terrorism, that is, knowing for sure who our enemies are.

The problem with militarizing the response to terrorism is that war is not an effective tool for determining competing truth claims. The American legal system, on the other hand, whether criminal or military, is. Until the enemy combatant review procedures are brought into line with traditional American jurisprudence, they will continue to function as a placebo, when what's needed is real justice.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Full Circle

Today President Bush gave an address at the dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington D.C. Not surprisingly, after running through a list of communist atrocities, he made sure to mention this century's equivalent, terrorists:

Like the Communists, our new enemies are dismissive of free peoples, claiming that those of us who live in liberty are weak and lack the resolve to defend our free way of life...

Now it seems pretty clear to me that this is a reference to, among other things, "enhanced interrogation techniques". Maybe not explicitly, but in the sense that people who support their use would probably include them in any list of things that reflect our strength and resolve in the fight against terror. Maybe they formulate it like Bush's terrorists, that opponents of torture are weak and lack resolve, but the meaning is the same.

Either way, what's important to remember is that in order to put these techniques into practice, that is, in order to show the terrorist suspects we'd captured that we had the necessary resolve to torture them, we used the same Soviet-era prisons in Poland and Romania that created the victims Bush was memorializing today. Go figure.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Convenient Chaos

The US program of extraordinary renditions and coercive interrogations continues, this time in Ethiopia. According to Der Spiegel, "terror suspects" fleeing the chaos of Somalia were captured by American, Somali and Kenyan forces and later transferred to detention centers in Addis Abbaba. While the US government confirmed that some suspects were interrogated in Ethiopia, the centers are allegedly being run by Ethiopians in order to conceal American involvement.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Two Reports

Here's a description of the CIA's High Value Detainee (HVD) interrogation program from the Pentagon's website:

...Over the ensuing months, the CIA designed a new interrogation program that would be safe, effective, and legal.

  • The CIA sought and obtained legal guidance from the Department of Justice that none of the new procedures violated the US statues prohibiting torture. Policymakers were also briefed and approved of the use of the procedures.
  • The procedures proved highly effective...

CIA's interrogation program is designed to ensure that intelligence is collected in a manner that does not violate the US Constitution, any US statute, or US treaty obligations...

  • The Department of Justice has reviewed procedures proposed by the CIA on more than one occasion and determined them to be lawful...

Multiple safeguards have been built into the program to assure its professionalism. All those involved in the questioning of detainees are carefully chosen and screened for demonstrated professional judgment and maturity...

  • Specific senior CIA officers, and currently only the Director of the CIA, must approve -- prior to use -- each and every one of the mawful interrogation procedures to be used. No deviation from the approved procedures and methods is permitted.

Here's how the Council of Europe's Dick Marty described the program in a report based on interviews with former interrogators and detainees (pp. 52-53):

247. Detainees went through months of solitary confinement and extreme sensory deprivation in cramped cells, shackled and handcuffed at all times...

252. A common feature for many detainees was the four-month isolation regime. During this period of over 120 days, absolutely no human contact was granted with anyone but masked, silent guards...

254. The air in many cells emanated from a ventilation hole in the ceiling, which was often controlled to produce extremes of temperature: sometimes so hot one would gasp for breath, sometimes freezing cold...

257. Detainees never experienced natural light or natural darkness, although most were
blindfolded many times so they could see nothing...

266. There was a shackling ring in the wall of the cell, about half a metre up off the floor.
Detainees’ hands and feet were clamped in handcuffs and leg irons. Bodies were regularly forced into contorted shapes and chained to this ring for long, painful periods...

269. Detainees were subjected to relentless noise and disturbance were deprived of the chance to sleep (sic)...

271. The gradual escalation of applied physical and psychological exertion, combined in some cases with more concentrated pressure periods for the purposes of interrogation, is said to have caused many of those held by the CIA to develop enduring psychiatric and mental problems.

As Andrew Sullivan pointed out in a post detailing the origin of the term "enhanced interrogation techniques", even the Gestapo took care to codify, that is to legalize, torture. Are we the moral equivalent of the Gestapo? Of course not. Did we legalize and apply torture? Yes.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Saturday, June 9, 2007

Black Holes

When the CIA decided to "enhance" their interrogation techniques, they turned to the Soviet-era KGB for inspiration. When they needed locations for the secret detention centers where the techniques would be put to use, they turned to Soviet-era prisons in Poland and Romania. Coincidence?

Well, then, consider how Abu Ghraib has become a symbol of both Saddam Hussein's cruelty and America's. Or how Guantanamo has become an American miniature of Fidel Castro's island prison.

There's no better proof that what goes on in these places is un-American than the fact that under no circumstances could they be located in America. Not because a free society can't produce men and women willing to torture. But because a free society serves as a constant reminder that torture and liberty are incompatible.

It's no coincidence that our American torturers work out of lingering monuments to totalitarian cruelty. It's the only way to keep them isolated from anything that might jog their memories and their consciences.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Military Justice

One of the things that's struck me in monitoring the available transcripts of the Gitmo detainee review hearings has been the professionalism of the military men and women serving on the tribunals. Yes, the Military Commission system put in place by the Bush administration and a complicit Congress is a travesty of justice. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the individuals that serve in it aren't committed to seeing that justice is ultimately served.

Today the military judge in charge of the commission proceedings against Omar Khadr, Col. Peter E. Brownback III, threw out the charges against Khadr. His reasoning was procedural: Khadr was declared an "enemy combatant" by a review panel, and not an "unlawful enemy combatant" as the Military Commissions Act stipulates for the commission to have jurisdiction to try him for war crimes. But it's definitely another black eye for Bush's show trials.

Now I really don't know whether Col. Brownback is using the letter of the law to take a principled stand against the military commission system. And there's nothing preventing the military from having Khadr declared an unlawful enemy combatant and then re-instating the charges.

But it's reassuring to know that a corrupt system can't always count on the blind allegiance of the people serving under it.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Tale Of Two Countries


Turkey's first gay-lesbian hotel opens in July at a popular resort on the Mediterranean coast, its manager said Wednesday.

"There are several gay-friendly hotels in Turkey, but ours is the first to be 100 percent gay and lesbian. It will not accept guests outside this concept," Faruk Ok said by telephone. "Part of the personnel is also gay or lesbian," he added...

The gay movement has become increasingly outspoken in recent years, capitalizing in part on European Union pressure on Ankara to show full respect for human rights.


Some Israeli politicians have sharply criticized a campaign aimed at promoting gay and lesbian tourism in Jerusalem...

"I unequivocally reject the attempt to focus a state-sponsored campaign on a delusional minority that suffers from a normative defect," Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai said. "Jerusalem and Amsterdam are the same for these people. Therefore, those who fail to recognize Jerusalem's holiness had better stay away from it."

Yishai is the head of the ultra-orthodox, nutjob party Shas, so he obviously knows a thing or two about delusional minorities that suffer from normative defects. And yes, I'm obviously cherry-picking, but it's important to remember that religious fundamentalism unfortunately knows no national boundaries.  

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Odds & Ends   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Empty Audio

The DoD has just released a redacted audio recording of the Gitmo CSRT hearing for Abu Faraj al-Libi. The hearing was the first one held, back in March, and significantly, al-Libi elected not to participate. In the words of his "Personal Representative" (not to be confused with a lawyer):

Faraj al-Libi has decided that his freedom is far too important to be decided by an administrative process and is waiting for legal proceedings.

It will be interesting to see whether the more prominent hearings, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed will be releasedin audio as well.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Threat Of Being Disappeared

For anyone interested in the trial of Jose Padilla, I highly recommend keeping tabs on Warren Richey's reporting for the Christian Science Monitor. Everything I've read of his so far has gone beyond just the play-by-play of the legal procedure (although that's there too), to include some of the tensions the trial presents in terms of judicial handling of terrorism cases.

Today, he describes how the limitations placed on the permissible lines of questioning of a prosecution witness, one of the "Lackawanna Six" named Yahya Goba, has led to testimony more likely to further Padilla's defense than damage it. What I found more significant, though, was this background on Goba's testimony:

He is appearing at the trial under a plea agreement and is seeking to have the government reduce his 10-year prison sentence. Goba, who is married with a 4-year-old daughter, has a strong additional incentive to cooperate in every way with the government. He wants to avoid being designated an enemy combatant and diverted out of the criminal justice system into indefinite military detention. 

Now, to clarify, everything I've been able to find on Goba's plea deal suggests that he and his co-defendants indeed pleaded guilty in return for the government taking the threat of being declared an enemy combatant off the table. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to cooperate with subsequent government investigations of terrorist cases, which explains his presence at the Padillo trial. But I'm not sure if he can still be "diverted out of the criminal justice system", as Richey claims.

Still, the way in which enemy combatant status and the subsequent military tribunals have tainted even the limited number of criminal prosecutions of accused terrorists is clear. It establishes a dual track "justice" system that the government can arbitrarily manipulate, depending on the strength of its case and its public relations needs.

Another reason why American principles of justice demand that enemy combatant status be severely limited, clearly defined, and subject to the same legal guarantees the American legal system affords to criminal defendants.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

One Word


Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Not So Open Trial

The flaws with the military tribunals used to determine Gitmo detainees' guilt are pretty widely commented upon. But the alternative to Bush's Star Chamber courts, ie. trying the detainees in American courts, also poses some legal challenges.

Take the trial of Jose Padilla, now under way in Miami. According to the CSM's Warren Richey, a CIA agent was allowed to testify today using a pseudonym. In and of itself, that's neither unprecedented, nor unreasonable. More unusual though still not unprecedented, however, is that the jury wasn't informed at all about the pseudonym, and the defense attorneys were not told the agent's true name.

"Allowing [the CIA agent] to use a pseudonym is pretty uncontroversial, especially if it is someone who is an undercover agent," says Robert Chesney, a national-security law specialist and professor at Wake Forest School of Law. "The harder question is why is it OK for the defendants to be limited in their ability to impeach [the CIA agent's] credibility because they don't really know who the guy is."

Besides cases involving national security, mafia trials also sometimes feature pseudonymous witnesses whose identities are not revealed to the defendant. The reasons are obvious, if not necessarily unimpeachable.

As things stand, the Classified Information Procedures Act leaves a great deal of leeway to the trial judge to determine how to balance the defendant's right to a fair trial with the needs of national security, on a case by case basis. Which strikes me as somewhat arbitrary. One way to standardize the process would be to appoint a judiciary panel with the jurisdiction to review procedural issues surrounding classified information as they arise, similar to the FISA court used to authorize emergency wiretaps.

But while making the process more consistent is inherently desirable, even that won't make the issue go away. The tension between the right to an open trial and national security is an inherent one in terrorism cases. And if critics who call for the abolition of the military tribunals get their way, it will only become more prominent as trying accused terrorists in American courts becomes more prevalent.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Beyond Scraping Bottom

In case you thought you'd heard all there was to hear about how perverse the Gitmo CSRT hearings are, think again. Because according to the NY Times, on at least three occasions detainees who had been cleared by an initial tribunal were later classified as enemy combatants after Defense Dept officials in Washington ordered new hearings. On at least one occasion, a detainee was cleared by two "do-over" tribunals, only to be eventually classified as an enemy combatant by a third one. As the article puts it,

If Pentagon officials disagree with the result of a hearing, they order a second one, or even a third, until they approve of the finding.

A Pentagon spokesman justified the repeated hearings by saying that some detainees had actually been re-classified as "no longer enemy combatants" on second hearing, allowing them to go free. But it doesn't take a legal scholar to understand the difference between a judicial appeal and double jeopardy. The first allows a defendant to contest their conviction. The second amounts to repeated prosecution for the same offense until a conviction is produced.

Which is why the US constitution specifically prohibits the practice. And why, according to government briefs in the lawsuit brought on the detainees behalf,

“This is just one of many areas... where it is inappropriate to compare C.S.R.T. proceedings with background principles that stem from domestic criminal law.”

The 2005 law establishing the CSRT's limits judicial oversight to determining whether the military has followed its own established procedures. So it's unlikely that this case will achieve anything more than an appeal to the Supreme Court. Until then, justice delayed is justice denied.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Off On The Wrong Foot

Warren Richey's got a quiet piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the unusual press restrictions being imposed for the trial of Jose Padilla, which is set to open tomorrow:

In effect, newspaper, radio, and television reporters are being granted observer status – they may sit quietly, watch the trial, and take notes. But if during a court recess they approach a defense lawyer or prosecutor in the courtroom with a question, they risk being whisked away by security officials.

The ban on media questions also extends to the lobby outside US District Judge Marcia Cooke's courtroom and chambers.

If reporters need to ask questions for clarification or routine housekeeping matters during the trial, they must ask their questions somewhere else.

Judge Marcia Cooke's staff explained that it's a precaution against unintentionally tainting the jury with an overheard remark. Which seems like a valid enough concern to ensure that the rule falls far short of the "unreasonable restriction" litmus test needed to claim it hampers press freedom. What's odd, then, is that instead of actually issuing the rule, Judge Cooke is simply allowing the courtroom security officer to enforce an "unwritten rule" to that effect.

As Richey says, it's difficult for the press to fulfill its watchdog function in a case where so much of the evidence is classified and so much of the pre-trial litigation was off-limits to reporters. Throwing some "unwritten rules" into the equation wouldn't seem to help.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Theater Of The Absurd

If you're a regular reader, you know that I make it a point to read through the transcripts of the Gitmo CSRT hearings. And as a whole I find them oddly evocative portraits of what will certainly be looked back upon as the defining conflict of our times.

On the one hand, representing the foremost power of the modern world, you've got a military commission which, if imperfectly and even unjustly constituted, is made up of individual men and women who lack any apparent brutality, and seem committed to conducting the proceedings with whatever honor and justice is possible under the circumstances.

On the other, representing a ragtag militia movement that has dedicated itself to combatting not only America but modernity itself, you've got men of varying backgrounds, levels of sophistication, and scruples, expressing in broken English their dedication to a cause they consider just.

And lurking in the shadows, often conjured but appearing only in redacted glimpses, are al-Qaeda and its mimetic twin, the CIA black hole detention system, each with its own methodology of terror and brutality.

Probably none of the transcripts captures the unlikely protagonists more poignantly than that of Zayn Al Abidin Muhammad Husayn, a Palestinian who served as a conduit helping to funnel jihadi recruits from a safehouse in Pakistan to an independent training camp in Afghanistan...

Read the full post>>

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Aid And Comfort

You could see this one coming: The abducted Iranian diplomat who was just released in what some claim was part of a deal for the 15 British sailors claims he was tortured by the CIA while held captive at a base near Baghdad airport. The US denies any involvement in his abduction or detainment, and has dismissed his claims as "...the latest theatrics of a government trying to deflect attention away from its own unacceptable actions."

The significance of this story, of course, isn't whether or not it's true, which we'll never know for sure. It's whether or not it could be true. And while six years ago I think most of us would have, rightly or wrongly, dismissed it out of hand, that is simply no longer the case. Mainly because, unlike the the CIA official who "dismissed any claims of torture, saying 'the CIA does not conduct or condone torture'", most of us have been following the news for the past several years. And if in reading this story we experience some doubts, imagine what people feel who are pre-disposed towards believing it -- like the large swaths of the Arab and Muslim world we're trying to win over in the battle for hearts and minds.

Another reason why this administration's pig-headed resistance to renouncing, once and for all, coercive and inhumane interrogation and detention practices, ie. torture, is so short-sighted and counter-productive. Because in a battle of ideas, talking points are bullets. And the Bush administration has supplied the enemy with them by the truckload.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Iran   

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Who Do You Believe?

Amnesty International on Gitmo's new facility:

Built to accommodate around 178 detainees, the compound known as Camp 6 is surrounded by high concrete walls with no windows visible on the façade. Inside, detainees are confined for a minimum of 22 hours a day in individual steel cells with no windows to the outside. The only view from each cell is through strips of glass only a few inches wide in and adjacent to the cell door which looks onto an interior corridor patrolled by military police. There are no opening windows and detainees are completely cut-off from human contact while inside their cells...

Contrary to international standards, the cells have no access to natural light or air, and are lit by fluorescent lighting which is on 24 hours a day and controlled by guards. The lighting is reportedly dimmed at night, although it is unclear by how much. The only source of air in the cells is from air-conditioning controlled by guards. Lawyers who visited detainees in January 2007 reported that they consistently complained of being too cold in the steel cells, with the air-conditioning turned up too high.

The Defense Department on Gitmo's new facility:

Camp 6, which became operational in December and cost $38 million to build, now houses roughly 160 of the 395 or so detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, said in an interview here today.

The air-conditioned facility, modeled on the most modern and efficient prisons in the United States, is more comfortable for detainees. It allows them to have more room and privacy than earlier facilities used at Guantanamo and is similar to Camp 5, another modern facility built in 2004. “It’s much better across the board than the facilities from which they came,” Harris said of Camp 6.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Some Deal

David Kurtz did a real good rundown on some of the backchannel politicking that apparently went into making David Hicks' Gitmo plea deal go down. Among the striking coincidences? The length of the gag order imposed, which just happens to take Australian PM John Howard past his re-election bid later this year.

Here's the full transcript of the agreement. Among all the glaring assaults on veracity, this one stands out:

No person or persons have made any attempt to force or coerce me into making this offer or to plead guilty. This is a free and voluntary decision on my part made with full knowledge of its meaning and effect.

But what really adds insult to injury is this clause, which basically amounts to a lifetime sentence of watching your back:

I agree that for the remainder of my natural life, should the Government of the United States determine that I have engaged in conduct proscribed by Sections 950q through w. of Chapter 47A of title 10, United States Code, after the date of the signing of this Pretrial Agreement, the Government of the United States may immediately invoke any right it has at that time to capture and detain me, outside the nation of Australia and its territories, as an unlawful enemy combatant. (Emphasis added.)

The message is clear: Keep your mouth shut, don't cause us any trouble, and we'll leave you alone. But just in case you get any ideas, remember: We'll be keeping your orange jumpsuit ready.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Adel Hamad

When people call for closing Gitmo, what they're talking about isn't the physical location of the detention facility. They're referring to the "legal" underpinning of the entire terrorist detention system established by the Bush administration. Namely, that by keeping detainees out of American jurisdiction, we can a) submit them to interrogation practices and detention conditions that would be actionable otherwise, and b) deny them the recourse to independent judicial oversight that is the cornerstone of the American legal tradition.

No one's suggesting we shouldn't be detaining dangerous terrorists, or freeing the ones we've already captured. But without legitimate habeas corpus rights for all detainees, those who have been wrongfully detained have no legal safety mechanism to get their stories heard, and become dependent for reprieve on the very institution that detained them in the first place.

The problem isn't the prison. It's the process. Watch this video and you'll understand why.

Via Slate.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

10 Million Enemy Combatants

The latest transcript from the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings was just released today, and it's a bombshell. Here's the opening to the prepared statement that Abd Al Rahim Hussein Mohammed Al Nashiri presented to the tribunal:

The Detainee states that he was tortured into confession and once he made a confession his captors were happy and they stopped torturing him. Also, the Detainee states that he made up stories during the torture in order to get it to stop. The Detainee confessed under torture to the following events:

  1. The French Merchant Vessel Limburg incident.
  2. The USS Cole Bombing.
  3. The rockets in Saudi Arabia.
  4. The plan to bomb American ships in the Gulf.
  5. Relationship with people committing bombings in Saudi Arabia.
  6. Usama Bin Laden having a nclear bomb.
  7. A plan to hijack a plane and crash it into a ship.

He goes on to describe specific acts of torture under questioning, all of which were redacted out. Also under questioning, he specified that his torturers were American, and that the torture began at the time of his capture in 2002 and continued until his transfer last year to Gitmo.

But while the torture allegation will certainly get most of the attention, Al Nashiri said a couple other things under questioning that are worth a mention. Talking about his reasons for leaving Yemen in August 2000, he offered the following insight:

In Saudi Arabia and Yemen are not really a whole lot different from Saddam Hussein. If they catch you, they put into a prison you never leave again or they kill you... So best thing is for somebody to leave. (sic)

Then there was this:

Member: Just one more question. Do you consider yourself an enemy comatant against the United States or our coalition partners?

Translator: (Translation of above).

Detainee (through translator): ... I don't know. The term enemy combatant is wide... If you think that anybody who wants the Americans to get out of the Gulf as your enemy, then you will catch about 10 million peoples in Saudi Arabia, that have same opinion (sic). That will mean, that I am one of those people... We need to get rid of people who are like Saddam in the Gulf. And let the people live their lives. Your policy is wrong. You come and support these governments. So the people are very angry at you. I have no idea how you classify us as enemy combatants. I don't understand that. I do not think of myself as an enemy to anybody.

It's not really the kind of statement you'd expect from a jihadist sworn to the destruction of not only America, but the values of freedom and democracy. Which is why our treatment of detainees, combined with the rhetoric used by the Bush administration, is so counter-productive.

Here's a guy who by his own admission travelled to Chechnya, Pakistan and other places " go to the battle fields. And witness how the fights were taking place." A guy who bought the boat used to blow up the USS Cole with money he personally borrowed from Osama Bin Laden. (He claims it was for a fishing venture and that he severed ties with Bin Laden when the latter suggested using the boat for an attack.) A guy who, despite denying any involvement in terrorist activities, had close contacts with just about everyone who's blown up a bomb in the vicinity of an American target in the past 10 years.

Seems like the kind of solid case that's a pretty safe bet in a legitimate legal proceeding. Indeed, it's the kind of solid case that has already landed convictions for other terrorists, including one who's cited in the charges against Al Nashiri.

But put him in a closed-door military tribunal, without a lawyer or any non-military personnel present, after five years of coercive interrogation that most everyone in the world besides the Bush administration considers torture, and he comes off sounding pretty reasonable, even a little sympathetic.

It's all downside, with no upside. And what's worse, any future attempts to re-route these cases through the legal system will now be permanently tainted by the allegations of torture and the lack of due process.

That's the real legacy behind the tough-talking rhetoric of the Bush administration: An ill-conceived, counter-productive, inflammatory approach to terrorism that's done as much for the enemy as the combatants it's supposed to confront.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Out Of The Frying Pan, Into The Fire

Meanwhile, as this BBC article shows, sometimes releasing detainees from Gitmo is not the humane thing to do:

Seven Russians detained at Guantanamo Bay suffered torture or other abuse after they were repatriated by the US, human rights campaigners say...

The seven were repatriated with a guarantee that they would be treated humanely, the group said...

According to the report, all seven men had repeatedly asked the US authorities not to return them to Russia because they expected to be treated worse there...

"The Russian experience shows why 'diplomatic assurances' simply don't work," said the report's author, Carroll Bogert...

Human Rights Watch says it wants Guantanamo detainees to have the opportunity to challenge their transfer before an impartial body.

As much as it offends the American conscience, compared to many parts of the world Gitmo is a model prison. That doesn't by any means justify the abuses that go on there. But amidst our outrage, we should remember to be proud of just how high our standards in this country are.

Update: Here's another article on the Human Rights Watch report, from The Independent, which kind of knocks the wind out of that sense of pride I was talking about:

The Kremlin and the United States have been accused of flouting international law in a report which tells the little-known story of seven Russian men freed from Guantanamo Bay...

The New York-based rights organisation said Washington knew that the men would face torture at the hands of the Russian authorities but accepted the flimsy diplomatic assurances offered by Moscow.

"The US government knew that these men would likely be tortured, and sent them back to Russia anyway," the report said.

There's also this from the BBC, about a British resident/Iraqi national soon to be released from Gitmo. He's been there five years, and in isolation for the past year. None of which prevented British MP Edward Davey from stating categorically that,

...Everything he had learned from Mr al-Rawi's family, lawyers and government officials showed he was not and never had been a "threat to national or international security".

Oh, well. One out of three... ain't so good.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Making Torture Hurt... The Torturers

A US District Judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit brought by nine former prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan to hold Donald Rumsfeld and several military officers accountable for torture, abuse, and illegal interrogation practices they suffered while in American custody. According to this WaPo article, the judge maintained that "...Rumsfeld cannot be held personally responsible for actions taken in connection with his government job":

No matter how appealing it might seem to use the courts to correct allegations of severe abuses of power, Hogan wrote, government officials are immune from such lawsuits.

Now I understand the logic of not holding a government official accountable for actions taken by his staff that he was unaware of. After all, that would certainly have a chilling effect on people's willingness to serve in government. But this particular lawsuit makes the claim that, a) Rumsfeld was aware of the abuse, and ignored the warnings, and b) that he authorized illegal interrogation practices that violated the prisoners constitutional & human rights. I'm not a lawyer, but that strikes me as just the sort of thing that government officials are in fact held accountable for.

The lawsuit brings a factual claim that seems to my layperson's eye to meet the standard for government malfeasance. If Rumsfeld can rebut it, by all means, let him. But the lawsuit should proceed.

In a bitter irony, on the same day the suit was dismissed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak presented his annual report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva:

Mr Nowak said torture victims required long and costly treatment, and usually rich nations footed the bill rather than the offending states...

"Countries where torture is widespread or even systematic should be held accountable to pay," the UN rapporteur said.

Mr Nowak suggested that such states could then even pass the bill on to the individual torturers.

"If individual torturers would have to pay all the long-term costs, this would have a much stronger deterrent effect on torture than some kind of disciplinary or lenient criminal punishment..."

He also called for the application of a provision for universal jurisdiction within the UN convention against torture, which obliges countries to arrest alleged torturers who arrive on their territory.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sacrificing Certainty

When the Military Commisions Act was passed last October, it mandated a Presidential Executive Order to provide the legal framework for acceptable interrogation practices by the CIA in their network of black hole detention centers for terrorist detainees. According to the Times, that framework has still not yet been elaborated. One of the reasons for the delay are the new players at Defense, the CIA, and in the White House Counsel's office. But while there's reason to hope that the outcome will be more restrictive guidelines, there's also a good deal of skepticism that they will ultimately prohibit torture.

Reading through the detainee transcripts coming out of Gitmo these past few weeks has already triggered a lot of reflection about torture for me. This audio slide show from Slate about Gitmo, along with the Times article cited above, makes me want to share some of them, even if they're by no means fully developed. The fairly mechanical arguments stem from the fact that there are obviously persuasive limits to moral outrage, otherwise there would be no need to have this debate.

People who try to justify the use of torture generally focus on the "ticking bomb" scenario. But in reality this type of situation is so rare as to be meaningless as an argument. The most valuable data for a counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operation, and the goal of all interrogations, whether coercive or not, is network data: information that gives a clearer picture of the structure of the enemy organisation, and the identities of the people who comprise it. Confessions are only useful insomuch as they reveal operational mechanisms that were previously unknown.

But the "ticking bomb" argument does reveal at least one assumption in all apologias for torture: the idea that somehow we can be certain beyond any doubt that the detainee is guilty. No one, so far as I've read, advocates the use of torture to go fishing for information. Unfortunately, we already know of at least one case where an individual was unlawfully kidnapped, secreted off to a black hole detention center, tortured, and then released when it became obvious he was the victim of mistaken identity: Khaled el Masri.

The problem is that when you start with an absolute certainty that someone is guilty, as indeed you must in order to justify the use of torture, it makes it all but impossible to admit the possibility that they are telling the truth when they claim they're innocent. Now let's imagine that Khaled el Masri had not been able to maintain his innocence throughout his interrogation. When he finally cracked, offering up whatever name he could think of to simply bring his suffering to an end, what do you think would have happened next? Another detainee would have been kidnapped and secreted to a black hole detention center, guilty beyond any doubt and therefore eligible for torture. Except that like el Masri, they would just happen to be innocent.

It's not true that torture never produces actionable intelligence. There are circumstances under which a certain technique, used at a certain time, on a certain suspect, will cause a guilty detainee to divulge a piece of useful information. And there are others when an innocent detainee will resist until the error is recognized. But torture never produces reliable intelligence, because it's impossible to know when those circumstances arise. Guilty detainees might resist. And innocent detainees might not.

It's been pointed out that apart from the young men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families, the American people have been asked to sacrifice nothing for these wars. I propose that we start by sacrificing certainty: the certainty of guilt that permits torture to even be considered. And the certainty of security in whose name we've abandoned our most lofty principles. The statement we would make by fearlessly embracing our principles even though it might make us more vulnerable to attack would be more valuable in the fight against terror than anything we might learn from the use of torture against our enemies.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Good Point

Anne Applebaum, from a WaPo op-ed about the damage done to American credibility by its treatment of GWOT detainees:

This is concrete proof, as if more were needed, that it is not merely immoral to operate outside the rule of law; it is also ineffective and in fact profoundly counterproductive: There is no proof that it produces better information but plenty of evidence that it has discredited the United States. Indeed, there could be no more eloquent condemnation of the Bush administration's torture and detention policies than the deafening silence that followed [Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed's confession: Who could have imagined, in September of 2001, that one of the deadliest terrorists in history would admit to the destruction of the World Trade Center -- and that the world would shrug its shoulders?

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Something's Got To Give

The NY Times ran an article on the problematic legal implications of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's wide-ranging confession in particular, and the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings in general. Here's John Yoo, formerly the Bush administration's legal guru on torture and the Geneva Conventions, defending them both:

“K.S.M.’s statements show that he in fact was and is a treasure trove of intelligence information on Al Qaeda,” Professor Yoo said, referring to Mr. Mohammed by his initials. “He knew not just of past plots to attack the United States, but threats that were in motion at the time of his capture, threats that had to be stopped.

"The criminal justice system cannot handle the demand both for an open trial with the right to remain silent and the need to collect that intelligence and act on it swiftly and secretly."

In other words, we can't realistically hold a fair trial and deprive the suspects of their right to remain silent. So obviously, it's the fair trial that goes. Which in turn raises the question of just how you deprive someone of their right to remain silent without resorting to torture.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, March 16, 2007

De-Redacted Transcripts

I read through the redacted transcript of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing pretty closely when it was released two days ago, to write up this post, as well as this one. So I was surprised to read on ABC's The Blotter yesterday that he had confessed to beheading reporter Daniel Pearl:

"I decapitated with blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan," Mohammed said in a written declaration submitted to a military tribunal at Guantanamo last weekend.

Because in the version I'd read, while he'd mentioned Pearl in his rambling closing remarks, he had by no means taken responsibility for his murder. For a moment I wondered whether my memory was serving correctly, or if I could have possibly read past a quote like that. Until I found this in the NY Times article on his hearing:

Though Mr. Mohammed referred to Mr. Pearl in passing in the transcript, he did not confess to the killing.

The mystery was cleared up when I went to double check the transcript and found this notation next to the link: New - Transcript of CSRT (KSM) Hearing (Revised as of 3/15/2007). And sure enough, when I clicked through, the written statement Muhammad filed with the tribunal now read as quoted in The Blotter above.

Noah Shachtman's got a lengthy rundown of some of the debate surrounding the credibility of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's confession over on his Danger Room blog. After all, it's to be expected that an international terrorist might engage in misinformation, both to cover the tracks of the guilty parties, but also to inflate the impact of his image.

But when a heavily redacted transcript of a quasi-legal proceeding is later revised, it raises the question of potential abuse of the proceedings for purposes of misinformation by the US government. Which is the very reason that most critics of the tribunals have argued for more transparent proceedings based on the legal principles of the American judicial tradition.

I emphasize that I am not advancing a moral equivalency argument. There's no comparison between Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and the US government. It's apples and oranges.

But this is Public Relations 101. To try these guys in a Court of Star Chamber only provides propaganda fodder for our enemies by creating martyred heroes, and emboldens them as much if not more than domestic opposition to the Iraq War might. That we're repeating the same mistake mere months after the Saddam Hussein execution debacle is inexcusable.

Update: According to the NY Times, the military blamed the original redaction of the Pearl confession on the need to notify the family. I'm skeptical, if only for the fact that the hearing took place on Saturday, March 10th while the the original transcript wasn't released until Wednesday, March 14th.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Language Of War

The Pentagon just released the redacted, unclassified transcript of Khalid Sheik Muhammad's Enemy Combatant Status Review. It makes for some pretty fascinating reading, if only for how banal the whole thing comes across on paper. All the emotion of 9/11 and its aftermath, including two wars and the resulting national upheaval, reduced to the dry back and forth of a legal proceeding. (With the exception being that in most court transcripts, the names of the judge and officers aren't redacted.)

I could talk about the summary way in which the presiding JAG denied Muhammad's witnesses. Or the Kafka-esque effect of seeing the following in an American legal proceeding:


I certify the material contained in this transcript is a true and accurate verbatim rendering of the testimony and English language translation of Detainee's words given during the open session of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal of ISN 10024.

Tribunal President

But the upshot is that Muhammad confessed to being responsible for planning and organizing the 9/11 attacks, as well as a long list of other terrorist attacks and assassination attempts (Bill Clinton, Pakistani President Musharraf & Pope John Paul II). He called death "the language of war", and regretted killing innocents, but claimed it was no different from America targetting the homes of terrorist leaders while their families were present. He also claimed, in a written statement that was filed but only briefly mentioned, that he'd been tortured.

Muhammad was responsible for both military planning and media operations, and it's striking how capable he was in both regards. One of the targets he admitted to planning for was the Panama Canal, which is about as well-chosen a target as I can think of in terms of its combination of low profile and high impact.

And in his defense he pointed out that were George Washington to have been captured by the British, they would have labelled him an enemy combatant. Which doesn't stop us from calling him a hero.

We sometimes fall prey, I think, to picturing our enemies as a bunch of backwards guys in caves reciting verses from the Koran. But if we can learn anything from Khalid Sheik Muhammad, it's that these guys are pretty competent at what they do. More so, from the looks of things, than some of the guys who've been running gonzo operations out of the Pentagon and OVP for the past six years.

And like it or not, there are a lot of people throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and Southeast Asia who think of them as heros. We'd do well to start integrating that into our conception of how to defeat them, so that two hundred years from now no one's calling Khalid Sheik Muhammad a Muslim George Washington.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

That's A Dis

Last Thursday, the State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights, detailing the human rights practices of 196 countries around the world. In response, the Chinese Information Office of the State Council published its own report, titled The Human Rights Record of the US in 2006, which focuses on the human rights practices of, predictably enough, the United States.

Crime, poverty, racial discrimination, political corruption, judicial misconduct and malfeasance, prison conditions, and police brutality all figure prominently. But the coup de grace is undoubtedly the section that focuses on the human rights abuses involved with the Global War on Terror. The Chinese report concludes:

The United States has lorded it over other countries by condemning other countries' human rights practices while ignoring its own problems, which exposes its double standard and hegemonism on the human rights issue. We urge the U.S. government to acknowledge its own human rights problems and stop interfering in other countries' internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.

Remember when it was easy to write a reply like that off as wooden propaganda?

Posted by Judah in:  China   Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number

There's something chillingly Kafka-esque about this from McClatchy:

The Defense Department said Tuesday that hearings for 14 "high-value detainees," including the alleged mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, will start Friday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but that reporters would be barred from the procedures.

The 14 were held in secret CIA prisons for up to four years, and none is known to have appeared before a hearing of any sort before the group was transferred to Guantanamo in September. Questions have repeatedly been raised about whether the 14 were tortured while in CIA detention.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said at a news briefing that the hearings will be closed "based on national security concerns." He promised to release censored transcripts "as expeditiously as we can," but said officials had decided not to provide the names of the suspects, even after the transcripts have been released...

The hearings, which also exclude attorneys, are likely to be the prelude to a decision by President Bush to try the 14 men before military commissions that Congress established last year.

No reporters. No lawyers. No names. And, of course, no doubt as to the outcome. Really, if this is what it's finally come to, what's the point? Other than to intimidate and, yes, to terrorize, I mean. What purpose does this entire excercise serve anymore?

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

All The King's Daughters

From Fox News:

A 19-year-old Saudi woman who was kidnapped, beaten and gang raped by seven men who then took photos of their victim and threatened to kill her, was sentenced under the country's Islamic-based law to 90 lashes for the "crime" of being alone with a man not related to her.

The woman is appealing to Saudi King Abdullah to intervene in the controversial case.

"I ask the king to consider me as one of his own daughters and have mercy on me and set me free from the 90 lashes," the woman said in an emotional interview published Monday in the Saudi Gazette.

The day before International Women's Day, in the year 2007.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

US Attorney Hearings

Anyone following the US Attorneys story should definitely head over to TPM and TPMmuckraker for some great team coverage of today's hearings, including video highlights and updates. In case this story's flown under your radar, it's basically a methodology of how the GOP, through the Bush Department of Justice, fired eight US Attorneys for either not filing corruption indictments of local Democrats in advance of last November's election, or for pursuing corruption cases against Republicans.

Gitmo, Jose Padilla, the torture memos, the Iraq War, warrantless surveillance, the Libby conviction, the US Attorneys. The common thread that connects them all is an assault on the rule of law. Not surprising for an administration that was essentially installed by a rigged Supreme Court decision.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Media Coverage   Politics   

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Monday, March 5, 2007

Putin's Dead Critics

Not too long ago, reader RGM linked to this New Yorker article in the comments. It discusses the increasing frequency with which Russian journalists who are critical of Vladimir Putin or his policies wind up dead. Thirteen since 2000, to be exact, with the circumstances ranging from suspicious to contract-style.

Add another one to the suspicious category.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Russia   

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Absolute Power Zones

The Times has got this article describing the two years an Iraqi Sunni spent in an American detention facility. Needless to say, it ain't pretty: stun guns, exposure to cold and heat, 24 days in a pitch-black solitary confinement cell.

Now, this is the kind of story that, sadly, I think we've all grown somewhat accustomed to hearing about. Often it's used to condemn America's slow slide into a torture-sponsoring state, and rightly so. But I'd like to put it into a slightly different context.

Because as much as this kind of abuse has to do with official American policy, it also has to with the fundamental danger of creating environments where one or several individuals have absolute, unchecked power over the physical person of another. What I call in the title of this post, Absolute Power Zones.

Whether it's American soldiers abusing detainees in the GWOT, or Russian soldiers forcing younger recruits into male prostitution, or American prisoners raping other prisoners, the common thread is the existence of physical perimeters within which there is no oversight. Where society is either unable or unwilling to restrain the strong and protect the weak. With the result that there is nothing to limit the victimization of the latter by the former.

The abuses that take place within them might originate in the darker regions of human nature. But they are exacerbated by institutions that manipulate, encourage, or overlook them.

State-sponsored torture is just one example of a much wider phenomenon. A particularly egregious example, because of the state's singular responsibilities as holder of the "monopoly of legitimate violence". But as long as we countenance legal black holes of any kind, disavowing state-sanctioned torture won't be enough.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   Iraq   

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Friday, February 16, 2007

The Exorcist, M.D.

First it was the pharmacists who wouldn't fill certain prescriptions, in particular birth control and morning after pills, that they disagreed with on religious grounds. Then there was the Washington Post article last week that described how 8% of doctors surveyed said they weren't obligated to present medical options that they disapproved of to patients, while 18% said they weren't obligated to provide referrals for care they found objectionable:

Male doctors and those who described themselves as religious were the most likely to feel that doctors could tell patients about their objections and less likely to believe doctors must present all options or offer a referral.

Now along comes a story about a doctor in Bakersfield, CA who refused to treat a young girl's ear infection because her mother has tattoos:

The writing is on the wall—literally: “This is a private office. Appearance and behavior standards apply.”

For Dr. Gary Merrill of Christian Medical Services, that means no tattoos, body piercings, and a host of other requirements—all standards Merrill has set based upon his Christian faith...

He said if they don’t like his beliefs, they can find another doctor.

According to the American Medical Association, as things stand, he didn't do anything wrong. A doctor is only required to provide life-saving care. Besides that it's his or her call.

2007. Shocking.

Via The Sinner's Guide To The Evangelical Right

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   Odds & Ends   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Not Guilty By Reason Of Inhumanity

By all accounts, Jose Padilla was a man who excercised poor judgment in the company he kept. But was he in fact a dangerous terrorist when he was arrested in May 2002, as the Bush administration claims? A lot is riding on the answer to that question, not least of which is Padilla's liberty.

Unfortunately, we may never know, because according to his lawyers, three years and eight months in the Navy brig at Charleston, SC, have rendered him mentally incompetent to stand trial:

The prisoner lived in isolation in a cell with only a steel slab for a bed. At times chained to the floor, he was deprived of light, sleep, a clock and heat. His interrogators injected him with "truth serum" drugs to try to loosen his tongue and threatened him with execution.

The Bush administration's lawyers (normally I'd say "the government", but in this case I refuse to) disputes the claims, both of mistreatment and of Padilla's incompetence to stand trial. And given the very low bar set for mental incompetence in criminal law, the court's ruling may very well go their way. But it says alot about the steady erosion of their credibility, both in this case and others like it, that Padilla's claims could even be entertained as possible, or worse, likely.

This is not an episode of 24. This is the United States of America. At least it was. I'm not so sure, anymore.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Global War On Terror   

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Problem Solved

NY Times:

Russia's defense minister said Sunday that Russia had succeeded in its latest war in Chechnya, defeating separatists and what he called their “emissaries from 50 states.”

“We have scored a success in Chechnya,” said the defense minister, Sergei B. Ivanov. “The problem has been solved.”

Human Rights Watch:

Human Rights Watch also documented numerous cases in which personnel of the Second Operational Investigative Bureau (ORB-2) of the Russian Federal Ministry of Interior tortured detainees in official places of detention.

Detainees described being subjected to electric shocks and severely beaten with boots, sticks, plastic bottles filled with water or sand, and heavy rubber-coated cables; some also said that they were burned. In addition, a number of interviewees told Human Rights Watch about psychological pressure, such as threats or imitation of sexual abuse or execution, as well as threats to harm their relatives...

The climate of impunity is worsened by the authorities’ persistent efforts to close Chechnya to outside scrutiny and prevent documentation of abuses. Last month, Russia refused to allow the UN special rapporteur on torture to conduct unannounced visits and meet with detainees in private, forcing him to postpone his visit to Russia and Chechnya indefinitely. Such conditions are standard for the special rapporteur’s visits around the world.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Media Coverage   

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