Monday, November 14, 2005

The Face of Torture, by Susan Dicklitch

Torture is an ugly word. But what does it really look like? I recently found out when I sat through the testimony of a thirty-something Cameroonian woman who was seeking asylum in the United States.
Claudette (not her real name) clutched her hands nervously as she sat in the sterile immigration courtroom. She was surrounded by her support team, a Harvard-trained pro-bono lawyer working for a large law firm in Washington, a clinical psychologist specializing on victims of torture, a representative from C.A.i.R Coalition (Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition), and me, a country conditions expert on Cameroon.
Within two to three hours, Claudette would find out her fate – whether she would remain in the United States, or be deported back to Cameroon and possibly face more torture. It was no wonder that she was so nervous. Only one out of five asylum cases that are referred to an immigration judge are granted asylum.
It is estimated that about 5,000 asylum seekers are held in detention in the United States, awaiting their immigration court hearing. Since 1996 with the implementation of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), any asylum seeker who enters the United States without proper documentation is detained. Also, unlike criminal law, asylum seekers are not entitled to the equivalent of a public defender. If they can afford to hire a lawyer, or have pro-bono legal advice, they are lucky, if not, they have to present their case in an adversarial hearing, pro se, in front of a government trial attorney, and an Immigration Judge. Asylum seekers have to prove that they have both a subjectively and objectively credible “well-founded fear” of past persecution and/or future persecution.
Claudette had a better chance than most – she had a team of experts working for her, and she was not in detention.
But this was little consolation to Claudette who looked so frail and scared, struggling to retell her encounter with torture. She spoke of being forced to watch others being tortured, of being threatened with rape and electrocution of her private parts. She showed us scares from cigarette butts put out on her arm, and she recounted how she was forced to clean up the human feces left in the prison cells. It was the smell that still haunts her on a daily basis, so much so that she refuses to eat very much to avoid having to defecate.
She started to talk about her third and final detention in one of Cameroon’s most notorious prisons, La Gendarmerie du Lac. Because she was Francophone and required a government-issued translator, there was often a pregnant pause between questions from the Immigration Judge and the BICE (Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement) trial attorney, and the translated response. When the translator asked her to repeat herself at one point, Claudette lost it, screaming out, “du Lac”, “du Lac”, sobbing uncontrollably. Everyone in the courtroom froze, as Claudette gushed out a guttural “kkkkkk” sound, unable to stop reliving her traumatic experiences.
Thankfully, the Judge, sensing the inhumanity of making her continue with her testimony ordered everyone out of the courtroom except for Claudette’s psychologist. I sat in the waiting room with the others, avoiding their eyes, and trying to hide my tears, shocked by my own reaction to Claudette’s testimony. We tried to ignore the continuing shrieks coming from Courtroom 4.
But why would this soft-spoken, intelligent woman be subjected to torture by government security forces? Was she a terrorist, a freedom-fighter, or a threat to society?
Claudette was detained and tortured because she dared to express her political opinion. She had participated in political demonstrations in Cameroon against the government’s detention of a prominent journalist, and the murder of nine boys (the infamous Bependa 9) by a government-sponsored shady paramilitary group called the Operational Command.
I was intimately familiar with Claudette’s case, having read it many times whilst preparing my own affidavit in support of her asylum case. But I never felt her case.
All of us in that courtroom shared the anguish of having to watch Claudette relive her torture – what psychologists call secondary trauma. We shared the shame of humanity that allowed this to happen to this mother of two, but most of all, we shared an unspoken relief that we live in a country that continues to allow individuals to freely express their political opinion, and even protest in the streets without being arrested or detained.
Claudette was granted asylum that day, but she will never be free from the scars of her torture. We got off lucky that day, we just stared torture in the face.

Is Torture a Patriotic Act?

Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay, "black sites", "extradordinary rendition". Is this America? Is this the new post-9-11 reality that Americans have to become accustomed to? Is torture sometimes okay? -- Is it sometimes necessary, even, a "patriotic act"? Two guest bloggers this week, Rachel W., and Anthony P., offer their perspectives below.

Guantánamo Bay is NOT a disgrace to the United States.
Rachel W.

Since 2001, over 500 foreign citizens have been unlawfully detained at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Dubbed “enemy combatants” by the U.S. government, these detainees have been imprisoned without undergoing due process of law. Only recently have military tribunals established by the U.S. government have begun to try prisoners. For the past three years, Guantánamo Bay has been an area of concern for human rights organizations because of reported poor treatment of detainees, allegations of torture, and violations of international law. However, these allegations have seemed to escape the minds of the American public, leaving Guantánamo Bay to the sideline in the War on Terror.
Guantánamo Bay is NOT an embarrassment to the United States. Generally speaking, the American government and American public do not seem to be disgraced by what has been referred to as the American “gulag.” As a result, is not the torture or illegal detainment that makes Guantánamo an embarrassment to Americans; it is rather the fact that Americans are seemingly unconcerned by the torture and illegal detainment that have been taking place at Guantánamo Bay. Simply stated, Guantánamo Bay is a disgrace because we do not consider it a disgrace.
Yet, we should be embarrassed, upset, and angry about the present issues relating to Guantánamo Bay. Issues such as the legality of detainment, the conditions of detainment, allegations of torture, and the U.S. attitude towards Guantanamo demonstrate the pressing importance of human rights at Guantánamo Bay and illustrate why Guantánamo Bay should be (and is) a disgrace to the United States.
First, is the legality of detainment. The detention of suspected “terrorists” at Guantánamo Bay is a violation of the Amendment V of the United States Constitution which states: “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” As of January 2005, only four of the nearly 550 people detained at Guantánamo Bay had been charged of crimes.
[1] The U.S. Government presently argues that because the base is located in Cuba it is outside of U.S. Constitutional law. However, this practice is also a violation of international law.[2] The article V of the Geneva Convention also prohibits this:
Should any doubt arise as to whether persons, having committed a belligerent act and having fallen into the hands of the enemy, belong to any of the categories enumerated in Article 4, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal.

In 2004, in response to international scrutiny, the U.S. established a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), which consist of panels of three military officers who determine each detainee’s status. International human rights organizations however, consider these tribunals incompetent and unacceptable as they are not proper courts of law.
[4] Furthermore, in November of 2004, a U.S. judge determined that the military commissions did violate the U.S. obligations under the Geneva Convention. A higher court later overturned this decision. Regardless of this, the detention of prisoners without due process of law continues to violate U.S. and International law. Amnesty International reports that:
In its more than 1,000 days of executive detentions, Guantánamo has become a
symbol of a government’s attempt to put itself above the law. The example it sets
is of a world where basic human rights are negotiable rather than universal. Such
a world, although built in the name of national security, is dangerous to us all.
The United States is putting itself above its own Constitution, but also above International Law and Conventions that it has promised to uphold. This presents a huge threat to the security of international human rights.
Perhaps more pressing than the legal issues of Guantánamo Bay are the human rights issues. Prisoners have been held in horrible conditions. Reports of poor conditions have surfaced from the Red Cross, human rights agencies, lawyers of detainees, and even from recently declassified FBI documents. The following statement was taken from an FBI e-mail correspondence:
Here is a brief summary of what I observed at GTMO. On a couple of occasions (sic), I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated (sic) on themselves and had been left there for 18, 24 hours or more. On one occasion (sic), the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. When I asked the [military police guards] what was going on, I was told that interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment, and the detainee was not to be moved. On another occasion (sic), the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night. ..”

In addition to dismal living conditions such as the ones described above, there have been several allegations of physical and mental torture. In March 2004, British citizens Tarek Dergoul was released from Guantánamo Bay. In an interview with a British newspaper, The Observer, Dergoul stated that the conditions of his detainment “included humiliation, prolonged exposure to intense heat and cold, sleep deprivation, being kept chained in painful positions, and the threat of 'rendition.'
[7] Other prisoners and human rights agencies support these claims. Detainees have begun to rebel against the conditions of their detainment by participating in a hunger strike. As of October 27, 2005, ABC news reported that the Pentagon estimated that 26 prisoners were on hunger strike, while the Centre for Constitutional rights estimated the number to be approximately 210 prisoners.[8] Many other sources point out that the number is higher than what the military reports. Another issue of abuse that has arisen from the hunger strike is force-feeding. Many of the strikers are being force-fed incorrectly and without care:
The repeated removal and insertion of the tubes has caused striking prisoners to vomit blood and experience intense pain they have equated with torture, the lawyers reported to a U.S. federal judge after visiting their clients at the base in eastern Cuba.

This has increased the very abuses the prisoners are protesting. From poor conditions to torture, human rights are being violated in Guantánamo Bay.
Yes--illegal detainment, horrible conditions, allegations of torture— Guantánamo Bay is atrocious. However, the real problem does not lie behind the barbed wire of the prison camp. It lies in the American people who continue to allow their government to continue mistreating people and worse, to justify poor treatment. It is a disgrace precisely because we do not feel disgraced by it. Why are we not in uproar? Why aren’t people protesting, writing letters, speaking out? Why do we sit complacently as our government passes legislative that prevents prisoners from appealing their detainment? Why do we sit quietly as our leaders try to pass an act to justify the use of torture by the CIA? Or more importantly, how do we justify to ourselves that all of these things are acceptable?
When we allow our government to justify torturous interrogation techniques in the name of national security, when we allow our government to call for a legalization of torture and to deny people their human rights---Guantánamo Bay becomes part of a larger human rights problem. It is representative of U.S. disrespect for international law and treaties, and subsequently, disrespect for international universal human rights.
If we do not hold our government responsible for upholding our own Constitution, who will? If we do not hold our government responsible for adhering to International Law, who will? If we do not stand up for human rights, who will? Whose fight is this?
Ours. This fight is our fight, as citizens of the U.S. We are the guardians of our own democracy, and it is our responsibility, our duty, as citizens of the United States and citizens of humanity, to ensure the protection of human rights for all, and to hold accountable those who continue to abuse them. We should not allow ourselves and our democracy to continue to be disgraced by the presence of places such as Guantánamo Bay. It is time we take democracy into our own hands, and stand up for what we believe in. Because until then we will continue to be disgraced not only by Guantánamo Bay, but also by our own inaction.

Anthony P.
“President Bush regards the defense and advancement of human rights as America’s special calling.” – former Secretary of State Colin Powell, February 25, 20041

If Mr. Powell is correct, the President is failing miserably to fulfill “America’s special calling.” The United States – under the guidance of President Bush – continues to detain, interrogate, and torture hundreds of so-called “enemy combatants” without charge, trial, or access to legal counsel at its naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in strict violation of international law. The egregious abuses of human rights and breaches of international law occurring at Guantánamo constitute yet another stain on America’s sullied human rights record.
The United States began holding Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists and enemy combatants at the temporary Camp X-ray at Guantánamo Bay in January of 2002, two weeks after a memo from the Justice Department advised the Department of Defense that foreigners held in Guantánamo would not be able to access US courts. By the end of April 2002, the more than 500 detainees representing 35 nations were moved to more permanent facilities at Camp Delta. Allegedly, to be detained at Camp Delta, an enemy prisoner must be deemed a threat to US security or believed to possess valuable intelligence and must meet only one of the following criteria: be a foreign national, have received training from al Qaeda, or have commanded 300 or more people.2 In May 2003, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer announced that President Bush decided that the Taliban detainees (but not the al Qaeda detainees) would be considered prisoners of war and treated in accordance with the tenets of the Geneva Convention; according to the Bush administration, detention standards for all Guantánamo detainees comply with the Geneva Convention,3 but reports on the conditions suggest otherwise.
In addition to being denied charge, access to legal counsel, and access to US courts, the prisoners are placed in solitary confinement in tiny cells (only about 50 square feet, which, to put it in perspective, is about 1/3 to 1/4 of the size of an F&M freshman dorm room), are denied visits from their families, have their mail heavily censored, and are subjected to brutal interrogation sessions and other practices amounting to torture. Until recently, the US has also prevented all non-governmental agencies – besides the International Community of the Red Cross – from visiting Guantánamo; just two weeks ago, the US finally invited five experts from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to do a study of Guantánamo but has denied them the ability to conduct private interviews with the detainees.4
In June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled in Rasul v. Bush that foreign nationals held at Guantánamo could challenge the legality of their detention in US courts but failed to spell out how this would occur. Amnesty International relates,
The administration responded to the Rasul decision by setting up Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), panels of three military officers, to determine if each detainee was an “enemy combatant” as labeled. The detainee has no access to secret evidence used against him in this process or to legal counsel to assist him. The CSRT, meanwhile, can draw on evidence extracted under torture or other ill-treatment in making its determinations.5
These extrajudicial tribunals found in favor of only 38 of the 558 detainees they reviewed. Worse yet, the US has been avoiding any further attempts to get Guantánamo prisoners before US courts by releasing them to their home governments. To the chagrin of human rights experts, approximately 250 enemy combatants have already been returned to places with poor human rights records like Russia, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, and hundreds more Afghanis, Saudi Arabians, and Yemenis will be repatriated soon.6
The US must certainly stop repatriating the Guantánamo detainees for several reasons. First, America cannot consider advancing human rights its “special calling” if it is setting such a horrid, hypocritical example by “outsourcing” the detention of its prisoners to other countries with such awful human rights records. Amnesty International condemns this practice because it amounts to the US allowing “countries it annually criticizes in its State Department human rights reports [to] do its dirty work for it.”7 Moreover, America must halt the repatriations not only because it subjects the prisoners to worse conditions than they faced in Guantánamo but also because it presents a greater security threat to the US and the rest of the world. Deroy Murdock points out that at least 12 former Guantánamo detainees have committed terrorist acts after returning home, and several terrorists have already escaped from Yemeni prisons.8
More importantly, America must stop using Guantánamo as a decoy to divert attention from the other human rights abuses it is committing in the name of the “war on terror” (Guantánamo accounts for less than 1% of the total number of “war on terror” detainees that the US is holding at home and abroad9) and must bring the detention facilities there into compliance with international law. First of all, the US should allow the Guantánamo detainees to challenge the legality of their detention in the US District Courts (much like it does for the illegal aliens in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security) in order to truly comply with Article 9(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Supreme Court’s Rasul decision. Additionally, the US should pursue more than just a (false) rhetorical commitment to upholding the Convention Against Torture and actually end the use of torture and other cruel practices at Guantánamo, as well as formally charge any US soldiers responsible for such human rights abuses. Better yet, the US should formally charge and allocate for judicial trial all of its Guantánamo prisoners, and anyone who is acquitted must be allowed to return home (only a handful of the detainees have been charged and allocated for trial before special military commissions; acquittal does not guarantee release, and there is no appeal process10). Until the US takes these steps and stops violating human rights and international law, Guantánamo Bay will remain a huge disgrace to America and continue to erode our nation’s credibility in the domain of human rights.

1 Qtd. in “Despite Releases, Guantánamo Remains an Affront to the Rule of Law,” Amnesty
International, 27 Feb. 2004, 8 Nov. 2005 , 1.
2 Paraphrased from “Guantánamo Bay – Camp Delta,”, 12 Nov. 2005 .
3 Paraphrased from Fleischer, Ari, “Statement by the Press Secretary on the Geneva
Convention,” The White House 7 May 2003, 12 Nov. 2005 .
4 Paraphrased from “UN Human Rights Experts Welcome US Invitation to Guantánamo Bay but
Seek More Access,” UN News Centre 31 Oct. 2005, 12 Nov. 2005 .
5 “Guantánamo and Beyond: The Continuing Pursuit of Unchecked Executive Power,” Amnesty
International 13 May 2005, 8 Nov. 2005 , 2.
6 Paraphrased from “Empty Beds, Empty Stomachs,” The Economist 24 Sep. 2005, Lexis-Nexis,
11 Nov. 2005 .
7 “Guantánamo and Beyond,” 6.
8 Paraphrased from Murdock, Deroy, “Let Gitmo Be Gitmo,” National Review 30 Aug. 2005,
Lexis-Nexis, 11 Nov. 2005 .
9 See “Guantánamo and Beyond,” 4.
10 See “Despite Releases,” 2, and “Empty Beds.”

[1] Human Rights Watch. “Guantánamo: Three Years of Lawlessness. Detainees Still Held Indefinitely Without Basic Rights (Washington D.C., January 11, 2005)”
[2] Amnesty International. “Guantánamo Bay—a human rights scandal.
[3] Geneva Convention.
[4] Amnesty International. “Guantánamo: An Icon of Lawlessness.” January 6th, 2005.
[5] Amnesty International. “Guantánamo: An Icon of Lawlessness.” January 6th, 2005.
[6] Ibid.
[7] David Rose, “They tied me up like a beast and began kicking me.” The Observer, London, May 16, 2004.,6903,1217969,00.html
[8] (Reuters, Oct. 27th
[9] “Guantanamo Hunger Strikers Say Feeding Tubes Employed as Torture.” Associated Press, October 20, 2005. bin/print.cgi?file=/headlines05/1020-07.htm