America’s treatment of prisoners from Afghanistan has embarrassed even its closest allies. France and Germany have officially urged Washington to ensure that the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are treated lawfully, and the European Union has called for their rights to be protected. The British and Canadian governments have sided publicly with the US, but the British media and members of parliament have been blunt in their criticism.
Washington, however, remains adamant; flushed with military success, it feels it is above the law. On January 22 US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called allegations of mistreatment “just plain false” and the result of “uninformed, misinformed or poorly informed” media reports. The following day US president George Bush also said that Americans should be “proud” of the way the prisoners were being treated.
The prisoners’ beards and heads have been shaved, in a deliberate insult to Muslim tradition; their feet are shackled, they are handcuffed and blindfolded. During their transfer to Cuba, they were chained to seats in transport planes for the 17-hour journey from Qandahar. Refusing to declare them prisoners of war, which would necessitate treating them according to the Geneva Convention, Washington insists on classifying the detainees as “illegal combatants.” Yet Bush is on record as having declared “war” on terrorism.
In justifying the horrible treatment of prisoners, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on January 23 that they were very dangerous people, “the worst of the worst.” Even if this were true, it does not justify their treatment as animals.
The Geneva Convention applies to all detainees regardless of their nationality, ethnic origin or circumstances in which they engaged in warfare. The only exceptions are spies and those who wage war secretly. The Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are not spies, nor did they fight secretly. They declared openly that they would fight the US if it attacked Afghanistan.
Photographs of some prisoners kneeling, with their hands tied behind their backs, forced to wear dark goggles, earmuffs, mittens and bright orange jumpsuits in barbed-wire cages, have aroused much anger globally. The US has tried to hide behind its own declaration that these are “illegal combatants”, so that it does not have to treat them any better.
Even legal experts in the US, however, have dismissed this argument. In fact, a US federal judge in Los Angeles was presented with a petition by civil-rights advocates, among them Ramsey Clark, the former US attorney general, on behalf of 110 detainees, claiming that they were being held in violation of the US Constitution and Geneva Conventions. Judge Howard Matz said that he did not feel he had the authority to deal with the petition, but he asked that the applicants present arguments on February 14 about why he should hear the case.
The fact that the US is not on firm ground in its dealings with its prisoners is also evident from the fact that they have been tranferred illegally from Afghanistan — where the combat took place (even if some of the detainees are non-Afghans) — to Guantanamo Bay, an US naval base at the tip of Cuba that America has occupied since 1903. (The Cuban government refuses to accept the U$4,085 annual rent offered by the US.)
By not taking the prisoners to the US mainland, the need to accord them legal protection — access to lawyers, opportunity to challenge their detention in a US court, and so on — is also circumvented. It is clear that the US government is not confident of its position even in its own courts of law, where the atmosphere can hardly be favourable to people who have been denigrated incessantly for more than five months as “the enemy” , “terrorists” and out to cause harm to America.
The prisoners’ mistreatment is part of a deliberate attempt to disorient them and “soften them up” for interrogation. The barbed-wire cages in which they are kept leave them exposed to the elements. They are isolated from each other and shackled in painful positions for prolonged periods. Were such treatment meted out to animals and the news become public knowledge, there would be vociferous protests all over the world.
There are an another 475 or so prisoners still held in Afghanistan; by January 25 the US had not decided when they might be moved to Cuba. The International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed to visit the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay on January 18. Amnesty International has also requested permission to visit them. The Red Cross objected to the release of prisoners’ photographs, but said nothing about their mistreatment.
Washington was also criticised on January 22, when a senior UN official accused the Bosnian and US governments of acting illegally when Sarajevo handed over six Arab suspects to US authorities the week before. “The rule of law was clearly circumvented in this process,” said Madeleine Rees, from the UN human-rights agency, adding that there was “no legal basis”for their handover.
The six were held by the Bosnian government at the behest of the US but released when Washington refused to divulge the source and nature of the charges against them. No sooner had they been released than the Bosnian authorities pounced on them and handed them over to the US. There were angry protests in Sarajevo against this piracy, with Bosnian police firing at their own people.
Criticism of America’s mistreatment of prisoners in not based on moral principles; western governments are afraid that, if their own soldiers fell into Muslims’ hands, they could also be mistreated. Many of these same governments felt no moral compunction about attacking Afghanistan without demanding proof of Usama bin Ladin’s involvement in the attacks on America on September 11; nor did they urge the US not to attack civilian targets once the war had begun. American government spokesmen and journalists continue to boast about “minimal casualties” (their own, of course: the other side does not matter) in Afghanistan. The fact that thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by the US bombing is casually ignored.
The US media have continued to peddle Pentagon propaganda, and one paper — the New York Post — has been quite scathing in its attack on the “liberal European press” for butchering the truth about the prisoners’ treatment, giving the British Daily Mail as an example. The American media — television, radio and newspapers — have repeated the line given by Rumsfeld: “The treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it’s humane, it’s appropriate, and it is fully consistent with international conventions.” Putting prisoners in shackles, handcuffs and blindfolding them is routine in America, where detainees are considered guilty because they are under arrest. Only whites are exempted from such treatment: Johnny Walker Lindh, the American Talib, appeared in a Virginia court on January 24 shaved of hair and beard, but he had not been shackled, handcuffed or blindfolded.
On October 11 Bush expressed surprise about why people around the world hate America so much when Americans are “such good people.” It is obviously unlikely that Bush will ever understand the reasons, or at least admit it in public.