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`Anti-terror' outrages

Print edition : Jun 17, 2005 T+T-
A Muslim preacher holds a copy of the Koran, at an anti-U.S. demonstration in the West Bank town of Nablus.-NASSER ISHTAYEH/AP

A Muslim preacher holds a copy of the Koran, at an anti-U.S. demonstration in the West Bank town of Nablus.-NASSER ISHTAYEH/AP

Reports of torture and abuse of prisoners in American-run military camps cause shock and revulsion everywhere except in the Bush administration.

WITH graphic accounts of torture and abuse of prisoners by American soldiers surfacing on a regular basis, the Bush administration seems to be somewhat on the defensive, though no apologies are forthcoming as yet. According to the White House spokesman, President George W. Bush was angry that pictures of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in various stages of undress were leaked out to the media. The pictures first appeared in newspapers owned by his ideological soulmate, Rupert Murdoch.

In the eyes of many Iraqis and other Arabs, Saddam remains the President of Iraq as there was no legitimate transfer of power. Murdoch's spokesmen have said that the pictures of Saddam were supplied to them by an American military source "in the hope of dealing a body blow to the resistance in Iraq". Many leading Western commentators, who have no sympathy for Saddam, have said that by letting the demeaning pictures of the Iraqi leader be published, the American authorities have trampled on the laws enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations charter.

The Arab street is seething at the treatment being meted out to the incarcerated leaders and people fighting against the American occupation forces. The cases of widespread human rights violations in high-security American-run prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Baghram have been making headlines the world over. Documented cases have surfaced of so-called terror suspects being despatched by the American authorities to friendly countries where they are tortured routinely. Human Rights Watch recently reported the story of two American citizens of Pakistani origin being tortured in a Pakistani prison, sometimes in the presence of officers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the U.S. The brothers, Zain Afzal and Kashan Afzal, were abducted from their home on August 13, 2004, and released on April 22, 2005.

"It is outrageous that Pakistan abducts people from their homes in the middle of the night and tortures them in secret prisons to extract confessions, all the while ignoring court orders to produce their victims in court," said Brad Adams, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. "The United States should be condemning this, but instead it either directed this activity or turned a blind eye in the hope of gaining information in the war on terror," he said. Adams called on President Pervez Musharraf to end immediately the use of secret detention facilities. "If President Musharraf wants to convince the world that he is indeed an enlightened moderate, he needs to order immediately an end to such rampant and abusive practices. The hidden prison services are an open secret in Pakistan. No self-respecting government should tolerate such a system," said Adams.

However, it was the report in mid-May regarding the desecration of the Koran that sparked off widespread street violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To make matters worse for the Bush administration, The New York Times published a leaked report on the torture and killing of two Afghan detainees at the Baghram air base where the Americans run a high-security prison. The news appeared around the same time Saddam's pictures were published on the front pages of many newspapers around the world.

Even Afghan President Hamid Karzai was forced to issue a statement critical of the Bush administration's handling of the prison abuse issue. Before going for a meeting with Bush in Washington, Karzai told the media in Kabul that he was shocked by the new revelations. He demanded strong action against the culprits and said that Afghan prisoners should be handed over to the custody of the government in Kabul. American forces are holding hundreds of Afghan prisoners in their military bases. Many of the prisoners in Guantanamo are Afghans. President Bush was not happy with the criticism from one of his most loyal allies. Before the Afghan President's visit, the U.S. State Department criticised Karzai for not doing enough to curtail the burgeoning narcotics trade. Karzai did not get any assurance from Bush about Afghan prisoners being handed back to the control of Kabul.

The American weekly Newsweek, which broke the "Koran abuse" story, retracted the report. It was clear from the tone of the retraction that the magazine was under tremendous pressure from the White House. The story the magazine published had alleged that American interrogators at Guantanamo had thrown a Koran into the toilet in full view of prisoners. American officials had described the Newsweek story as "demonstrably false". The Bush administration's sudden love for truth and objectivity, however, did not have many takers even in the U.S. "The pot is calling the kettle black. The administration is chastising Newsweek magazine for a story containing a fact that turned out to be false. This is the same administration that lied to Congress, the United Nations and the American people by fabricating reasons to send us to war," Pete Sark, a Democratic Congressman from California, was quoted as saying.

However, according to many observers, the Newsweek story is not far off the mark. Before the story appeared in the magazine, similar allegations had been made by many groups and individuals. According to The Los Angeles Times, oral transcripts, court records and government documents as well as interviews with former detainees, their lawyers, civil liberties groups and U.S. military personnel, there were similar incidents involving the Koran in many American-supervised detention facilities, including Guantanamo. The newspaper reported that prisoners had talked about the Koran being urinated upon by American guards. One Iraqi detainee alleged that an American soldier had a guard dog carry a Koran in its mouth.

Guantanamo witnessed a hunger strike by detainees in 2002 after word spread that some U.S. soldiers were ritually abusing the Koran. The U.S. Defence Department had to issue detailed guidelines instructing American soldiers on the proper way of "inspecting and handling" Korans. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has acknowledged that the U.S. authorities did take "corrective measures" after the receipt of complaints in connection with the earlier Koran controversy. The ICRC had communicated to the U.S. authorities in early 2002 about U.S. Army personnel mishandling the Koran at Guantanamo Bay. Human Rights Watch has said that the controversy over the Newsweek report only diverted attention from the fact that humiliation on the basis of religion was widespread in Guantanamo Bay and other American-run military prisons.

Since 2002, at least 25 prisoners charged with terrorism-related offences have died in American military custody. The leaked report of an American military investigation into the killing of two detainees in Afghanistan has produced new evidence implicating senior military officials in systematic prisoner abuse. The report says that military intelligence officers who were under investigation at the Bagram base in Afghanistan in 2002 were transferred to the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where they continued with their brutal ways. Investigations into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal by the Pentagon have virtually absolved top military and political leaders while pinning most of the blame for the prison abuses on a non-commissioned officer who was nominally in charge at that time.

From the leaked report on the Bagram prison abuse, it is evident that the prison guards and interrogators were influenced by the White House's belief that "terrorists" did not deserve the rights given to prisoners under the Geneva Convention. In February 2002, President Bush had issued a directive which stated that the Geneva Convention rules did not apply to Al Qaeda and Taliban combatants. The report said that two Afghans prisoners, Dilawar and Habibullah, were tortured to death at Bagram in 2002. They were arrested on suspicion of having links with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The leaked report said that Habibullah was locked in an isolation cell with his hands shackled to the ceiling. He was subjected to extreme physical violence for several days, which resulted in his death. According to the report, it took the American interrogators only 24 hours to get rid of Dilawar. The autopsy report said that Dilawar died of heart failure caused "by blunt force injuries to the lower extremities". The American military coroner said that his legs "had been basically pulpified - I've seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus".