Egypt: Catastrophic decline in human rights one year after ousting of Morsi

Amnesty International: A surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and harrowing incidents of torture and deaths in police custody recorded by Amnesty International provide strong evidence of the sharp deterioration in human rights in Egypt in the year since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted.

Thousands of people have been detained, with figures varying. According to official estimates published by the Associated Press in March, at least 16,000 people have been detained over the past year as part of a sweeping crackdown against Mohamed Morsi’s supporters and other groups and activists that have expressed dissent.

According to WikiThawra, an initiative run by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social rights, at least 80 people died in custody over the past year and more than 40,000 people were detained or indicted between July 2013 and mid-May 2014.

Reports of torture and enforced disappearances in police and military detention facilities are also widespread. [Continue reading...]

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Judge upholds order demanding release of CIA torture accounts

The Guardian reports: A military judge has rejected the US government’s attempts to keep accounts of the CIA’s torture of a detainee secret, setting up a fateful choice for the Obama administration in staunching the fallout from its predecessor’s brutal interrogations.

In a currently-sealed 24 June ruling at Guantánamo Bay – described to the Guardian – Judge James Pohl upheld his April order demanding the government produce details of the detentions and interrogations of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri during his years in CIA custody. The Miami Herald also reported on the ruling, citing three sources who had seen it.

Among those details are the locations of the “black site” secret prisons in which Nashiri was held until his September 2006 transfer to Guantánamo; the names and communications of CIA personnel there; training and other procedures for guards and interrogators; and discussions of the application of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s ‘drone memo’ is finally public. Now show us the library of secret law

Jameel Jaffer writes: A federal appellate court’s publication on Monday of the so-called “drone memo” finally allows the American public to evaluate the legal theories that were the basis for one of the Obama administration’s most controversial acts – the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.

Authored three years ago by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the 41-page memo contends that the president has broad power to carry out the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, even in geographic areas far removed from conventional battlefields.

The publication of the memo is a victory for transparency – the result of hard-fought litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times. (I argued the ACLU’s case before the appellate court.) It is a very rare thing for a federal court in the United States to order the release of information that the government contends is properly classified. In transparency litigation in the national-security sphere, the courts almost invariably defer. That the court declined to defer here suggests that it found the arguments from the Obama administration to be not simply unpersuasive but wholly without foundation.

But despite the release of the drone memo, the American public still does not have the information it needs in order to evaluate the lawfulness and wisdom of its government’s policies. Indeed, to read through the memo is to be reminded of how successful the Obama administration has been at rationing even the most basic information. [Continue reading...]

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Ariel Dorfman: A tale of torture and forgiveness

I’ll bet you didn’t know that June is “torture awareness month” thanks to the fact that, on June 26, 1987, the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment went into effect internationally.  In this country, however, as a recent Amnesty International survey indicated, Americans are essentially living in Torture Unawareness Month, or perhaps even Torture Approval Month, and not just in June 2014 but every month of the year.

One simple fact of the post-9/11 era should make this clear and also boggle the mind, but has had almost no impact here.  But for this you need a little background from the early years of what was once called the Global War on Terror.  In addition to a stream of international kidnappings (euphemistically called “renditions”) of terror suspects, including completely innocent people the CIA snatched off the streets of global cities, as well as from the backlands of the planet and “rendered” into the hands of well-known torturing regimes (with the help of 54 other countries) and the setting up of a network of “black sites” or offshore prisons where anything went, the CIA tortured up a storm.  And it did so at the behest of the top officials of the Bush administration, including the president and vice president who were convinced that it was time for Washington to “take the gloves off.”  In those years, torture techniques were reportedly demonstrated in the White House to some of those officials, including the vice president and national security advisor.  At the time, they went by the euphemistic, administration-approved term “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which was quickly picked up and used in the U.S. mainstream media in place of the word “torture” — though only when the enhanced interrogators were American, of course.  The bad guys out there continued to “torture” in the usual fashion.

In the Obama years, torture was (at least officially) tossed out as a useful tactic.  But the torturers themselves were given a pass, every last one of them, by the Justice Department, even two cases in which the CIA’s acts of enhancement had led to death.  No charge was ever brought against anyone, including the Justice Department lawyers who wrote the tortured memos endorsing those techniques and redefining torture as only happening when the torturer meant it to, or the officials who green-lighted them.  Think of the Obama administration then as Amnesty National.  That administration did, however, have the guts to go after one man connected to the torture program, forced a plea deal from him, and sent him to jail for two years.  I’m talking about former CIA agent John Kiriakou, the only person since 9/11 convicted of a torture-related crime.  To be specific, his criminal act was to blow the whistle on his former employer’s torture program to a journalist, revealing in the process the name of a CIA agent.  That was considered such an indefensible act — in effect, an act of torture against the American security state — that justice, American-style, was done.

It’s quite a tortuous record when you think about it, not that anyone here does anymore, which is why we need TomDispatch regular Ariel Dorfman, author most recently of Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, to remind us of what’s really at stake when one human being tortures another. Tom Engelhardt

How to forgive your torturer
The River Kwai passes through Latin America and Washington
By Ariel Dorfman

What a way to celebrate Torture Awareness Month!

According to an Amnesty International Poll released in May, 45% of Americans believe that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable” in order to “gain information that may protect the public.” Twenty-nine percent of Britons “strongly or somewhat agreed” that torture was justified when asked the same question.

For someone like me, who has been haunted by the daily existence of torture since the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende, such percentages couldn’t be more depressing, but perhaps not that surprising. I now live, after all, in the America where Dick Cheney, instead of being indicted as a war criminal, sneeringly (and falsely) claims to anyone who asks him — and he is trotted out over and over again as the resident expert on the subject — that  “enhanced interrogations” have been and still are absolutely necessary to keep Americans safe.

[Read more...]

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Iran’s dissidents, released but not freed

Robin Wright writes: Rouhani’s victory, an upset, spawned great expectations of change. A pragmatic centrist, he campaigned on the promise of “hope and prudence.” After the election, in a series of speeches and tweets, he pledged new freedoms and challenged past practices, including censorship. His quasi-official account tweeted, “Web filtering unable to produce results. Which important piece of news has #filtering been able to black out in recent years.” Rouhani was particularly tough on the country’s state-controlled television, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (I.R.I.B.):

Over the past year, though, Rouhani has conspicuously failed to uphold his promise. “We have freedom of expression in Iran,” Shamsolvaezin told me. “We just don’t have freedom after expression.” In accepting his press award, in April, Shamsolvaezin called for the release of forty-eight other jailed journalists.

Rouhani’s domestic agenda has generally suffered in his first year, while he concentrated on foreign policy—and, almost single-mindedly, on negotiating a nuclear deal with the world’s six major powers. (Talks will resume next week in Vienna.)

In the meantime, Iran maintains a bifurcated legal system that can charge people on vague grounds of un-Islamic behavior or unrevolutionary activities. Rouhani has been unwilling to take on either Iran’s deep state — a mix of security and intelligence agencies with their own political agendas — or the judiciary, over which he has no constitutional control. In addition to civil and criminal courts, Iran has Islamic revolutionary courts. Amnesty International warned last week that “despite President Rouhani’s popular mandate, Iran’s clerically-dominated politico-religious establishment, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and hardliners within its security and judicial sectors, retain enormous power and influence and, to a large extent, continue to have the determining voice on the nature and pace of change in Iran.” As Shamsolvaezin put it, “The ruling system is the deep state.” [Continue reading...]

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Major terrorism trial could be held in secret for first time in UK legal history

The Guardian reports: A major terrorism trial is set to be held entirely in secret for the first time in British legal history in an unprecedented departure from the principles of open justice, the court of appeal has heard.

The identities of the two defendants charged with serious terror offences are being withheld from the public, and the media are banned from being present in court to report the forthcoming trial against the two men, known only as AB and CD.

The unprecedented secrecy has been imposed on the proceedings after the Crown Prosecution Service obtained legal orders to withhold the names of the defendants and allow the trial to take place in private on the grounds, they said, of national security.

At the court of appeal in London, Anthony Hudson, representing the Guardian and several other media organisations, challenged the orders, which will allow a secret criminal trial to take place for the first time in legal history. [Continue reading...]

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Guantanamo prisoners get to play video games in a recliner — while being force-fed

Jason Leopold reports: Military officials at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility are attempting to make force-feeding a little more fun for detainees. Some longterm hunger strikers can now kick back in a plush recliner — well, not literally, since their ankles are restrained by shackles — and play video games or watch TV while being tube fed a liquid nutritional supplement.

The policy was implemented last October at about the same time prison officials were rewriting a new standard operating procedure that rebranded the hunger strikes as “long-term non-religious fasts.”

VICE News obtained from Guantanamo attorneys newly unsealed declarations in a lawsuit filed by a detainee who is challenging the legality of the force-feeding process. In one sworn declaration, Army Colonel John Bogdan discussed the new reclining chair policy. He said it only applies to detainees who are “compliant.” [Continue reading...]

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Afghanistan 2016 withdrawal keeps secret Bagram detainees in limbo

The Guardian reports: President Barack Obama’s decision to keep American troops in Afghanistan until 2016 is likely to mean two more years behind bars for America’s most secret detainee population, according to Pentagon officials.

On the outskirts of the massive Bagram airfield, about an hour’s drive from the capital of Kabul and in what the military calls the Detention Facility in Parwan, the US holds about 50 prisoners. The government has publicly disclosed nearly nothing about them, not even their names, save for acknowledging that they are not Afghans.

These are the last detainees the US holds in the Afghanistan war. It relinquished hundreds of Afghan detainees, and almost all of the detention facility, to Afghan control last year. Sometimes called, in military parlance, “Enduring Security Threats”, the non-Afghans have posed a dilemma for the Department of Defense for years, as officials pondered what to do about them ahead of a pullout that had been anticipated for December 2014. [Continue reading...]

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Obama administration continues to obstruct release of drone strike memo

The New York Times reports: One week after the Obama administration said it would comply with a federal appeals court ruling ordering it to make public portions of a Justice Department memo that signed off on the targeted killing of a United States citizen, the administration is now asking the court for permission to censor additional passages of the document.

In the interim, the Senate voted narrowly last week to confirm David Barron, the former Justice Department official who was the memo’s principal author, to an appeals court judgeship. At least one Democratic senator who had opposed Mr. Barron over the secrecy surrounding his memo voted for him after the administration said it would release it.

The 41-page memo, dated July 16, 2010, cleared the way for a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen accused by intelligence officials of plotting terrorist attacks. The American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times are seeking the memo’s public disclosure in lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act.[Continue reading...]

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The case for reparations

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired — the protection of the law.

In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state. “You and I know what’s the best way to keep the nigger from voting,” blustered Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi senator and a proud Klansman. “You do it the night before the election.”

The state’s regime partnered robbery of the franchise with robbery of the purse. Many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants. Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were deemed to be in debt—and they often were—the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.

Well into the 20th century, black people spoke of their flight from Mississippi in much the same manner as their runagate ancestors had. In her 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of Eddie Earvin, a spinach picker who fled Mississippi in 1963, after being made to work at gunpoint. “You didn’t talk about it or tell nobody,” Earvin said. “You had to sneak away.”

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.” [Continue reading...]

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Guantánamo prosecutor fights handing secrets over to defense

The New York Times reports: The chief prosecutor at the Guantánamo Bay war-crimes court has asked a judge to set aside an order that requires the government to give defense lawyers sweeping amounts of classified details related to the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi detainee accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole.

In a pretrial motion declassified last week, the prosecutor, Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins, cited Obama administration efforts to declassify information related to a Senate Intelligence Committee report about the detention and interrogation program. That process, he said, should be allowed to play out.

Richard Kammen, an Indianapolis defense lawyer representing Mr. Nashiri, said in a phone interview that he was drafting a motion to oppose any attempts to reverse the judge’s order. He noted that he had a security clearance, and said the information he was seeking was for his own investigations and was not necessarily going to be made public. [Continue reading...]

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How many have we killed with drones?

David Cole writes: On Monday, The New York Times reported that “the Senate has quietly stripped a provision from an intelligence bill that would have required President Obama to make public each year the number of people killed or injured in targeted killing operations in Pakistan and other countries where the United States uses lethal force.” National security officials in the Obama administration objected strongly to having to notify the public of the results and scope of their dirty work, and the Senate acceded. So much for what President Obama has called “the most transparent administration in history.”

The Senate’s decision is particularly troubling in view of how reticent the administration itself continues to be about the drone program. To date, Obama has publicly admitted to the deaths of only four people in targeted killing operations. That came in May 2013, when, in conjunction with a speech at the National Defense University, and, in his words, “to facilitate transparency and debate on the issue,” President Obama acknowledged for the first time that the United States had killed four Americans in drone strikes. But according to credible accounts, Obama has overseen the killing of several thousand people in drone strikes since taking office. Why only admit to the four Americans’ deaths? Is the issue of targeted killings only appropriate for debate when we kill our own citizens? Don’t all human beings have a right to life?

In the NDU speech, President Obama also announced new limits on the use of drones “beyond the Afghan theater.” He proclaimed that drone strikes would be authorized away from the battlefield only when necessary to respond to “continuing and imminent threats” posed by people who cannot be captured or otherwise countermanded. Most important, he said, “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Yet in December, a US drone strike in Yemen reportedly struck a wedding party. The New York Times reported that while some of the victims may have been linked to al-Qaeda, the strike killed “at least a half dozen innocent people, according to a number of tribal leaders and witnesses.” [Continue reading...]

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Mystery surrounds move of Afghan ‘torturer in chief’ to U.S. amid allegations of spy agency abuse

The Washington Post reports: In Afghanistan, his presence was enough to cause prisoners to tremble. Hundreds in his organization’s custody were beaten, shocked with electrical currents or subjected to other abuses documented in human rights reports. Some allegedly disappeared.

And then Haji Gulalai disappeared as well.

He had run Afghan intelligence operations in Kandahar after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and later served as head of the spy service’s detention and interrogation branch. After 2009, his whereabouts were unknown.

Because of his reputation for brutality, Gulalai was someone both sides of the war wanted gone. The Taliban tried at least twice to kill him. Despite Gulalai’s ties to the CIA and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United Nations officials and U.S. coalition partners sought to rein him in or have him removed.

Today, Gulalai lives in a pink two-story house in Southern California, on a street of stucco homes on the outskirts of Los Angeles. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. senators remove requirement for disclosure over drone strike victims

The Guardian reports: At the behest of the director of national intelligence, US senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.

The bill authorizing intelligence operations in fiscal 2014 passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, and it originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year. It did not require the White House to disclose the total number of strikes worldwide.

But the Guardian has confirmed that Senate leaders have removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, after the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, assured them in a recent letter that the Obama administration was looking for its own ways to disclose more about its highly controversial drone strikes. [Continue reading...]

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Karen Greenberg: Abu Ghraib never left us

In mid-April, Abu Ghraib was closed down.  It was a grim end for the Iraqi prison where the Bush administration gave autocrat Saddam Hussein a run for his money. The Iraqi government feared it might be overrun by an al-Qaeda offshoot that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. By then, the city of Fallujah for which American troops had fought two bitter, pitched battles back in 2004 had been in the hands of those black-flag-flying insurgents for months.  Needless to say, the American project in Iraq, begun so gloriously — remember Iraqi exiles assuring Vice President Cheney that the invaders would be greeted with “sweets and flowers” — was truly in ruins.  By then, hundreds of thousands had died in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the insurgencies that followed, and the grimmest of sectarian civil wars.  And the temperature was rising anew in that divided land, where only the Kurdish north was relatively peaceful.  Iraq was once again threatening to fracture, with suicide bombers and car bombs daily occurrences, especially in Shiite areas of the country, and the body count rising rapidly.

The legacy of America’s Iraq is essentially an oil-producing wreck of a state with another autocrat in power, a Shiite government allied to Iran in Baghdad, and a Sunni population in revolt.  That, in short, is the upshot of Washington’s multi-trillion-dollar war.  It might be worth a painting by George W. Bush.  Or maybe the former president should reserve his next round of oils not for the world leaders he met (and Googled), but for those iconic photos from the prison that might have closed in Iraq, but will never close in the American mind.  From the torture troves of Abu Ghraib, there are so many scenes that the former president could focus on in his days of tranquil retirement.

Those photos from hell were, at the time, so run-of-the-mill for the new American Iraq (“as common as cornflakes”) that they were used as screen-savers by U.S. military guards at that prison.  The images then returned to the United States as computer “wallpaper” before making it onto “60 Minutes II” and into our collective brains.  They revealed to this country for the first time that, post-9/11, Washington had taken a cue from the Marquis de Sade and any other set of sadists you cared to invoke.  Of course, the photos and the systematic torture and abuse that went with them at Abu Ghraib were quickly blamed on the usual “few bad apples” and “some hillbilly kids out of control.”

As it happened, those photos that first entered public consciousness 10 years ago this week exposed a genuine American nightmare that led right to the top in Washington and has never ended.  Included in the debacle were Justice Department lawyers who, at the bidding of the highest officials in the land, redefined torture in remarkable ways.  They made it clear, for instance, that the only person who could affirm whether torture had actually taken place was the torturer himself.  (If he didn’t think he had tortured, he hadn’t, or so the reasoning then went.)

No one has followed this endlessly grim tale more assiduously than TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, the chronicler of the creation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib.  Today, she explores the shameful tale of why, a decade later, the Abu Ghraib affair remains without an end. Tom Engelhardt 

The road from Abu Ghraib
A torture story without a hero or an ending
By Karen J. Greenberg

It’s mind-boggling. Torture is still up for grabs in America. No one questions anymore whether the CIA waterboarded one individual 83 times or another 186 times. The basic facts are no longer in dispute either by those who champion torture or those who, like myself, despise the very idea of it. No one questions whether some individuals died being tortured in American custody.  (They did.) No one questions that it was a national policy devised by those at the very highest levels of government. (It was.) But many, it seems, still believe that the torture policy, politely renamed in its heyday “the enhanced interrogation program,” was a good thing for the country.

Now, the nation awaits the newest chapter in the torture debate without having any idea whether it will close the book on American torture or open a path of pain and shame into the distant future. No one yet knows whether we will be allowed to awake from the nightmarish and unacceptable world of illegality and obfuscation into which torture and the network of offshore prisons, or “black sites,” plunged us all.

[Read more...]

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The living death of solitary confinement

Lisa Guenther writes: I first met Five Omar Mualimm-ak at a forum on solitary confinement in New York City. He wore track shoes with his tailored suit. ‘As long as the Prison Industrial Complex keeps running, so will I,’ he explained. After hearing him speak about the connections between racism, poverty, mass incarceration and police violence, I invited Five to speak at a conference I was organising in Nashville, Tennessee. He arrived, as always, in a suit and track shoes. As we walked across campus to a conference reception, I worked up the courage to ask him how he got his name. He told me: ‘I spent five years in solitary confinement, and when I came out I was a different person.’

In an article for The Guardian last October, Five described his isolation as a process of sensory and existential annihilation:

After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but grey walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.

There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.

There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of ‘recreation’.

Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.

The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.

Five’s experience of solitary confinement is extreme, but it’s not atypical. His feeling of disconnection from the world, to the point of losing his capacity to make sense of his own identity and existence, raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?

My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. [Continue reading...]

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