The Forgotten and the Damned

They've been labeled the dregs of humanity, monsters, and wild beasts, which would go for the jugular or gouge your eyes out given half a chance. They've been driven to the edges of insanity in windowless cellars, stifling in summer, freezing in winter, taken out from time to time so as to be beaten, kicked or subjected to deafening noise or blinding light.

Two have died as a result of beatings, while other stubborn survivors have been handed over to, less squeamish, foreign interrogators, experts in brutal methods of torture. Yet others have been flown handcuffed, hooded, gagged, shackled and chained to an aircraft seat, forced to use a receptacle to relieve themselves during the 17-hour journey to America's Caribbean bay from Hell ' Guantanamo.

These 670 wretched men, and three children under 16, represent America's badge of shame. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that all men are created equal, must be turning in his grave. These are Afghans, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Yemenis, Saudis, British and Australian but no American citizen. Americans, as we have seen in the case of the American Taliban John Walker Lindh get comfortable mainland prisons, civilian courts, expensive attorneys and cosy plea bargains.

The unwilling inhabitants of Camp Delta, instead, suffer tiny cells, a marginal improvement upon the open-to-the-elements chicken coops they previously had to endure, where lights blaze all night. The forgotten are rarely allowed to hobble out of their miniscule living spaces, have no access to lawyers or their families and the media is kept far away from their plight as a BBC crew recently discovered.

Determined to keep its dirty secrets, a U.S. official seized audio recordings made by the BBC's Panorama team last month before banishing reporter Vivienne White to another part of the bay, far away from the detainees. Her crime? She dared to answer the plaintive calls of a Pakistani prisoner who called out: "Are you journalists? Can we talk to you?"

The Pentagon's excuse is that talking to the detainees would contravene the Geneva Conventions, those very conventions it has studiously ignored when it comes to Camp Delta inmates, denied prisoner of war status.

Perhaps if White had been given access to the prisoners, she would have heard why there are so many cases of depression in the camp and more than 30 attempted suicides.

Two of the detainees, an Afghan and a Pakistani, recently freed after months of agony and anguish, spoke to The New York Times about their ordeal. They explained how they were forced to eat, pray and go to the toilet in a 6' x 8-foot space from which they were taken once a week for a one-minute shower.

One of them described his suicide attempts in spite of the fact he knew Islam forbids the taking of one's own life. Most of all they complained that there was no light at the end of the tunnel, an absence of hope and the nagging thought that they would be destined to spend the rest of their lives imprisoned without charge.

In reality that may not be the case and the lives of the remaining detainees could be curtailed. A courthouse, set to hold secret military tribunals, has already been constructed. There are plans in the Pentagon's pipeline to build a Death Row at Camp Delta along with an execution chamber merely waiting the go ahead from the Chief Executive George W. Bush, former governor of Texas where Death Row burgers are on sale and where witnesses to an execution enjoy coffee and sandwiches before the "show."

If we are expecting compassion from the American President then we should think again. This is the man who mocked an appeal for clemency made by convicted murderer Faye Tucker during an interview with Talk magazine. Bush pursed his lips, squinted his eyes, put his hands together and parodied Tucker in a high-pitched feminine voice, "please don't kill me."

Inmates of Camp Delta will get no chance to beg for clemency. Six are being offered a stark choice: 20 years if they admit their guilt or their day in a secret military tribunal with death their likely reward.

Such military courts will not be the same as those attended by two American pilots recently, charged with killing Canadians during a friendly fire incident. The Guantanamo tribunals will require a much lower threshold of proof; allow hearsay to be submitted into evidence and witnesses to use pseudonyms.

Further, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will have the power to remove any judge without having to explain why, defense lawyers will be appointed by the Pentagon, which will be permitted to listen-in to attorney-client conversations.

In other words, the U.S. is setting itself up as policeman, jailer, prosecutor, defense council, judge, jury and hangman.

Three of the first six to be charged are Westerners. Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abassi are British nationals, while David Hicks is an Australian. Begg, a 36-year-old charity worker is the most high profile member of the initial group.

In June 2001, Begg flew with his wife and three small children to Kabul to fulfill his ambition of opening a school for the under privileged. Everything went as planned until the Anglo-American invasion of Afghanistan when Begg and his family fled to safety, or so they thought, in Pakistan to wait out the war.

Instead, Begg was grabbed by the CIA, stuffed into the boot of a car and driven back to Afghanistan where he spent a year incarcerated at Bagram Airbase. Rumor has it that the U.S. found his name on a financial transaction belonging to the 9-11 hijackers. Begg's family insists that he is a victim of mistaken identity.

Begg could, indeed, be a ruthless Al Queda head honcho, or, on the other hand, he could be a kind family man who wanted to contribute to the world and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong name. Given the Pentagon's lack of transparency, its kangaroo courts and its prospective execution chamber, we may never learn the truth.

Yet even as Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw makes half-hearted appeals to his American counterpart for the repatriation of the two Britons, saying that they deserve the benefit of a normal system of justice, the British Home Secretary David Blunkett has signed a non-reciprocal extradition treaty with the U.S. This, in effect, means that Britons can be picked up and packed off to either Guantanamo or the mainland at any time without the need for proof of their alleged crime.

Britain is a vehement critic of the death penalty, yet the British government has sold out its own people so as to pander to its American allies.

In the meantime, the U.S. is doing all it can to gain immunity from prosecution for its peacekeepers even going as far as to coerce UN Security Council members to grant such immunity for a further year. At the same time it is busy leaning on third world countries to sign up to agreements which disallow such states from handing over Americans to the newly-formed International Criminal Court. Thus far, some 50 have refused and face a cut in U.S. military aid as a consequence.

Countries which once belonged to the former Yugoslavia are particularly scathing about America's perceived double standards when they have had to hand over their own war criminals to the Hague, including their former president.

Although cases against Bush, Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks have been lodged by Iraqis in Belgian courts, that plucky little country has been forced to water down its laws so as not to embarrass the Superpower, and put itself in political jeopardy.

Amid a background of burgeoning anti-Americanism, it would behoove the U.S. administration to take a long hard look at itself in the mirror. Like the portrait of Dorian Grey, the picture it is showing to the world is becoming more ugly each day. Any attempts it may make to claim the moral high ground in future are likely to be met with derision as long as it uses kidnap, torture, secrecy, human rights abuses and execution as its tools of trade.

Amnesty International has recently said: "The selection of 'the six' was another retrograde step for human rights in the U.S.-led 'war against terrorism' and will further undermine America's claims to be a country that champions the rule of law." And so say all of us.

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Linda S. Heard's picture
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