Monday, May 5, 2008

Sami al-Hajj

On May 1, presumably not as a May day present, the Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj was released from 6 years of imprisonment in Guantanamo. Al-Hajj had been on a hunger strike for more than a year, and was reported to be 40 pounds under his normal weight, and looking far older than his 38 years. Partly this was due to the treatment he received at Guantanamo, America’s infamous torture prison, where he said he was interrogated hundreds of times, and subjected to beatings, extremes of temperature, sexual assault, and threats with military dogs—all the standard methods used by Americans against “terror war” captives in recent years. In addition, al-Hajj was reportedly force fed to keep him alive, a procedure which involved forcing a feeding tube up his nose and into his stomach twice a day, and which exacerbated the throat cancer he has suffered from. As is customary, no charges were offered to justify al-Hajj’s captivity. He was a Sudanese national working as a cameraman for Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news outlet which the United States has constantly attacked, both verbally and physically, since the beginning of its “war on terror.” Upon trying to enter Afghanistan in December 2001 to cover the war there, he was seized by Pakistani authorities and turned over to American forces. Held and abusively interrogated at Bagram Air Force Base and then at another prison facility in Kandahar until June 2002, he was then delivered, bound and gagged, to the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He remained there for 6 years.

In Sudan, where he was hospitalized following his release, Sami al-Hajj has made numerous statements about his imprisonment:
“Our human condition, our human dignity was violated, and the American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values. In Guantánamo...rats are treated with more humanity. But we have people from more than 50 countries that are completely deprived of all rights and privileges, and they will not give them the rights that they give to animals….For more than seven years, I did not get a chance to be brought before a civil court. To defend their just case and to get the freedom that we’re deprived of, they ignored every kind of law, every kind of religion….
He concluded by saying: “My last message to the US administration is that torture will not stop terrorism—torture is terrorism.”

The U.S. response to al-Hajj’s claims of mistreatment follows a familiar pattern. ABC News featured three unnamed Pentagon “officials” who said that there was nothing to “substantiate his allegations that he was mistreated at Guantanamo.” These same officials tried to dismiss al-Hajj as “a manipulator and a propagandist.” (see Naomi Spencer, “Journalist released from Guantanamo details abuse,” May 5 2008, But there are countless accounts corroborating the harsh conditions at Guantanamo, as NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reports in a May 4 piece called “A Prison of Shame, and It’s Ours.” Among them are memoirs, some already published, some due out soon, that confirm what Sami al-Hajj and others have described. Murat Kurnaz, a German citizen of Turkish descent, has a newly published memoir about his 5 years there, including long bouts of torture that “included interruptions by a doctor to ensure that he was well enough for torture to continue.” Other books are a memoir by an interpreter of Afghan descent, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, and an account, Kafka Comes to America, by American attorney Steven Wax. According to Kristof, these and other accounts reveal two essential truths about Gitmo: 1) “most of the inmates were probably innocent all along” but were turned over because of the huge cash rewards America offered; and 2) “torture was routine, especially early on. That’s why more than 100 prisoners have died in American custody in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo.”

Al-Hajj’s release thus leaves us with several disturbing conclusions. It is not just what we now know about the torture tactics at Guantanamo (as well as Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other American “interrogation” sites), though that is injurious enough. It is the attitude of American (usually Bush administration) officials about it, which compounds the injury, for the official response is always the same: these are the “worst of the worst,” and so any tactic that produces the information we need is legitimate. Or, these allegations are simply “propaganda” produced by the “bad guys,” those Arab/Muslim fanatics who seek to harm us. What is left unsaid is the logical conclusion that too many Americans have accepted: we are fighting an inhuman, or sub-human enemy who does not deserve the common decency normally accorded to prisoners. These are not people, like our previous enemies; they are “things” to be manipulated in whatever way we wish.

The truth, however, is that this age-old justification for torture crumbles under even the slightest scrutiny. And that is not only because torture violates all the treaties and laws we have signed over the years, including our own constitution outlawing cruel and inhuman treatment. It is also because we now know that this type of torture did not begin with Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, and has not been limited to the Arabs or Muslims we have been at such pains to dehumanize. As Alfred McCoy makes very clear in his A Question of Torture, there is a long history of this new kind of torture that began shortly after World War II, one that has been constantly perfected since then by the CIA among others. These methods were ready and waiting when the so-called “war on terror” was announced after 9/11, and were quickly and eagerly updated and implemented. My next post will go into that aspect of the story in detail. Suffice it to say here that even a cursory look at the methods McCoy lays out proves—even if we doubt the words of Arab/Muslims like Sami al-Hajj—that these torture techniques have been part of the American interrogator’s playbook for nearly a half century now, and have been used not only by American “interrogators” themselves, but spread like a new gospel to our “allies” around the world.

The only question for us who have now become revoltingly aware of such things is how do we, a complacent public, justify standing idly by and letting this happen, letting the perpetrators of this little shop of horrors operating in our name ride off not just unaccountable and unpunished, but richly rewarded for their crimes?

Lawrence DiStasi

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