Tag Archives: torture

Crime without punishment

A moment of great rejoicing for human rights activists and champions of the rule of law came at the beginning of this month as former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in jail for “crimes against humanity”, having authorized murders, kidnappings, and torture as part of a severe anti-terrorist campaign in the 1990s. Fujimori’s sentencing, one must hope, will send a powerful message to government leaders around the world that maintaining public security is an insufficient excuse for violating fundamental human rights, and that even presidents will be held to account for the crimes they commit in office.

But not in America.

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The worst of the worst: a memorandum

In researching an upcoming post relating to Soviet language policy (oh stop rubbing your hands with such anticipation — it’s distracting), I came across a memo that casts a sadly familiar light on the current U.S. administration’s justifications of the use of torture. I’ll let the memo — and the identity of its author — speak for themselves:

To the Secretaries of oblast and regional party committees,
To the CCs of national Communist parties,
To the people’s commissars of internal affairs, and to the heads of NKVD directorates

It has become known to the VKP CC that the secretaries of oblast and regional party committees, in checking up on employees of NKVD directorates, have laid blame on them for the use of physical pressure against those who have been arrested, treating it as something criminal. The VKP CC affirms that the use of physical pressure in the work of the NKVD has been permitted since 1937 in accordance with a resolution of the VKP CC. This directive indicated that physical pressure was to be used in exceptional cases and only against blatant enemies of the people who, when interrogated by humane methods, defiantly refuse to turn over the names of co-conspirators, and who refuse for months on end to provide any evidence, and who try to thwart the unmasking of co-conspirators who are still at large, and who thereby continue even from prison to wage a struggle against the Soviet regime. Experience has shown that such an arrangement has produced good results and has greatly expedited the unmasking of enemies of the people. True, subsequently in practice the method of physical pressure was abused by Zakovsky, Litvin, Uspensky, and other scoundrels, converting it from an exception into a rule and beginning to apply it against honest people who had been arrested accidentally. For these abuses, they [the scoundrels] have been given due punishment. But this in no way detracts from the value of the method itself when it is properly used. It is known that all bourgeois secret services use physical pressure against representatives of the socialist proletariat and rely on especially savage methods of it. We might therefore ask why a socialist secret service should be any more more humane in relation to inveterate agent of the bourgeoisie and sworn enemies of the working class and collectivized farmers. The VKP CC believes that the use of physical pressure must absolutely be continued from here on in exceptional cases and against blatant and invidious enemies of the people, and that this is a perfectly appropriate and desirable method. The VKP CC demands that the secretaries of oblast and regional party committees and the CCs of national party committees bear in mind this explanation when they check up on the employees of NKVD directorates.

Secretary of the VKP CC
J. Stalin
10.1.1939

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Stop.

Section cover, Washington Monthly (Jan/Feb/Mar 2008)

The title sums it up, and in the world we once thought we lived in, nothing more would need to be said. But such is not our world any longer, and a great deal needs to be said, as often as possible. In this cause, the Washington Monthly has performed a great service by devoting a 26-page section (pdf version here) of its latest issue to a simple proposition: that the use of torture by the United States must stop. Its contributors include former congressman Bob Barr, former NSC advisor Rand Beers, terrorism expert Peter Bergen, former president Jimmy Carter, Marine Corps Brig. General (ret.) Steve Cheney, National Association of Evangelicals VP Richard Cizik, former supreme commander of NATO General Wesley Clark, senators Chris Dodd, Carl Levin, Dick Lugar, and Chuck Hagel, former U.S. Navy judge advocate general John Hutson, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former presidential special counsel Ted Sorensen. From the introduction:

In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishingly-despite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib-we remain one. As we go to press, President George W. Bush stands poised to veto a measure that would end all use of torture by the United States. His move, we suspect, will provoke only limited outcry. What once was shocking is now ordinary.

On paper, the list of practices declared legal by the Department of Justice for use on detainees in Guantanamo Bay and other locations has a somewhat bloodless quality-sleep deprivation, stress positions, forced standing, sensory deprivation, nudity, extremes of heat or cold. But such bland terms mask great suffering. Sleep deprivation eventually leads to hallucinations and psychosis. (Menachem Begin, former prime minister of Israel, experienced sleep deprivation at the hands of the KGB and would later assert that “anyone who has experienced this desire [to sleep] knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.”) Stress positions entail ordeals such as being shackled by the wrists, suspended from the ceiling, with arms spread out and feet barely touching the ground. Forced standing, a technique often used in North Korean prisons, involves remaining erect and completely still, producing an excruciating combination of physical and psychological pain, as ankles swell, blisters erupt on the skin, and, in time, kidneys break down. Sensory deprivation-being deprived of sight, sound, and touch-can produce psychotic symptoms in as little as twenty-four hours. The agony of severe and prolonged exposure to temperature extremes and the humiliation of forced nudity speak for themselves.

And yes, President George Bush did veto the measure, as predicted.

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Canada’s special relationship

What are friends for, if not to politely ignore the fact that you’ve become an alcoholic and started beating your children? In such a spirit, Canada proved itself once again a faithful and utterly harmless pal of the United States yesterday when our government fell all over itself to retract a “torture awareness” manual given to its diplomats which listed the United States and Israel as states where prisoners are at risk of torture. Declared foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, “It contains a list that wrongly includes some of our closest allies. I have directed that the manual be reviewed and rewritten.” Even Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, after admitting that torture might indeed be “a live question” in American politics, finally threw his support behind the United States: “The idea that you would equate the government of the United States with the government of Iran with respect to the treatment of prisoners is a little hard to fathom,” he told the Canadian Press.

The reason why our government wrote such a manual in the first place? Because in 2002 the United States arrested and shipped an innocent Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, off to Syria to be tortured for ten months. According to CTV, it was felt during the inquiry into Arar’s case that Canadian diplomats should be taught to notice signs that prisoners had been tortured, as well to be made aware of countries in which such signs were more likely to appear. Quite rightly, the United States was placed on this list. But now we are expected to accept the Canadian government’s declaration that the United States — despite all of the evidence, all of the memos, despite even the Bush administration’s own clear intention that it be allowed to waterboard and otherwise abuse prisoners — is not such a country.

If friendship means the willingness to allow a powerful neighbouring country to take your people, torture them, hand them back to you grudgingly without apology (or simply detain them indefinitely), and then expect you to pretend that such things do not happen, well then, we are fast friends indeed. Of course, in international politics, we call such a situation “Finlandization”. In prison they’ve got another term for this kind of friendship, and it’s not a polite one.

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“The victim is drowning”

Water boarding instructional painting, Cambodia

Go read this important posting at Small Wars Journal, by Malcolm Nance, a former Master Instructor and Chief of Training at the US Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego. “I know the waterboard personally and intimately,” he writes. “SERE staff were required undergo the waterboard at its fullest. I was no exception. I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people.” Nance demolishes the media myth that water boarding is merely “simulated drowning”:

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.

Nance is outraged at America’s loss of honour in condoning the use of such torture, and warns that President Bush’s policies have validated and legitimized this torture technique for foreign governments and terrorist groups:

There may never again be a chance that Americans will benefit from the shield of outrage and public opinion when our future enemy uses torture. Brutal interrogation, flash murder and extreme humiliation of American citizens, agents and members of the armed forces may now be guaranteed because we have mindlessly, but happily, broken the seal on the Pandora’s box of indignity, cruelty and hatred in the name of protecting America. To defeat Bin Laden many in this administration have openly embraced the methods of Hitler, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Galtieri and Saddam Hussein.

His is a powerful and disturbing article.

Another voice. In an article based in part on Nance’s posting, The Independent quotes journalist Henri Alleg, who was subjected to water boarding by French forces in Algeria in 1957:

Soldiers strapped him over a plank, wrapped his head in cloth and positioned it beneath a running tap. He recalled: “The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save me from suffocation. In spite of myself, the fingers of both my hands shook uncontrollably. ‘That’s it! He’s going to talk,’ said a voice.

The water stopped running and they took away the rag. I was able to breathe. In the gloom, I saw the lieutenants and the captain, who, with a cigarette between his lips, was hitting my stomach with his fist to make me throw out the water I had swallowed.”

CIA director Michael Hayden has claimed that interrogation methods inducing the fear of imminent death have been used on only 30 suspects held by the United States. If that is true, then there are, at minimum, 30 war crimes charges waiting to be lodged against the director of the CIA and other high officials of the United States government, including the president himself. America should brook no delay; she has her honour to save.

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The honeymoon is over

Waterboarding a prisoner 

Apparently U.S. attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey is having trouble figuring out if water boarding is a form of torture. As he recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee:

I don’t think that I can responsibly talk about any technique here because — (pause) — of the very — I’m not going to discuss and I should not — I’m sorry I can’t discuss, and I think it would be irresponsible of me to discuss particular techniques with which I am not familiar when there are people who are using coercive techniques and who are being authorized to use coercive techniques. And for me to say something that is going to put their careers or freedom at risk simply because I want to be congenial, I don’t think it would be responsible of me to do that.

Like the nominee, are you “not familiar with” water boarding as a coercive technique? It’s the sixth of a set of “enhanced interrogation techniques” instituted by the CIA in early 2002. As described to ABC News in 2005 by current and former intelligence officers, these are:

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

To clarify his thinking, Mukasey should read Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman at Balkinization, who writes:

Waterboarding is a paradigmatic example of torture. It is inconceivable that anyone involved in drafting, negotiating, signing, ratifying or enacting the Torture Act or Common Article 3 would have thought otherwise. Naturally, then, the U.S. itself has long considered waterboarding to be torture and a war crime — there was no dispute about this from at least 1901 until 2002 — and if our enemies used such a technique on U.S. military personnel, no one would, in public debate, deny that such a technique is a form of unlawful torture.

As the U.S. administration and its cabinet nominees retreat into the most hair-splitting forms of legalism and moral relativism in order to preserve the use of these techniques, and thus too the country’s growing international profile as a torture state, both the American news media and consumer television are starting to acknowledge that there is a serious issue to be dealt with here. To focus on TV, the most recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,Harm“, grapples with the issue of U.S. military torture in Iraq, including the long-term psychological and physiological damage caused by “enhanced interrogation” techniques like hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and hypothermia. A remarkably timely bonus is that the plot also revolves around an ethically-challenged private military company (that’s “mercenary outfit” to you).

For its part, ER last season (in “The Honeymoon is Over“) introduced a patient who suffers badly from post-traumatic stress disorder and is addicted to codeine. It emerges that he was a translator for Army intelligence in Iraq, and that he has witnessed countless acts of torture; he is now haunted by the detainees’ cries of innocence which he was required to translate.

Kyle: “‘Please don’t hurt me. I’ve done nothing wrong. God have mercy.’ I must have translated that a million times in Iraq, man. It didn’t matter. They didn’t listen to me any more than they listened to prisoners.”

There’s something good, something hopeful, in this as yet small trend — an expression of the civilized part of the American soul, perhaps, stirring itself after a long and fevered sleep. I desperately hope it continues to grow, because the more the American public is confronted with the reality of government-administered torture, the less it will be able to avoid choosing sides in the debate.

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