In China, brutality yields confessions of graft

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: The local Chinese official remembers the panic he felt in Room 109. He had refused to confess to bribery he says he didn’t commit, and his Communist Party interrogators were forcing his legs apart.

Zhou Wangyan heard his left thigh bone snap, with a loud “ka-cha.” The sound nearly drowned out his howls of pain.

“My leg is broken,” Zhou told the interrogators. According to Zhou, they ignored his pleas.

China’s government is under strong pressure to fight rampant corruption in its ranks, faced with the anger of an increasingly prosperous, well-educated and Internet-savvy public. However, the party’s methods for extracting confessions expose its 85 million members and their families to the risk of abuse. Experts estimate at least several thousand people are secretly detained every year for weeks or months under an internal system that is separate from state justice.

In a rare display of public defiance, Zhou and three other party members in Hunan described to The Associated Press the months of abuse they endured less than two years ago, in separate cases, while in detention. Zhou, land bureau director for the city of Liling, said he was deprived of sleep and food, nearly drowned, whipped with wires and forced to eat excrement. The others reported being turned into human punching bags, strung up by the wrists from high windows, or dragged along the floor, face down, by their feet. [Continue reading...]

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Washington Post: Declassify the Senate report on CIA interrogation methods

o13-iconIn an editorial, the Washington Post says: More than a dozen years after the attacks of 9/11, it is time to treat government decisions made in the aftermath as history — to be debated and learned from. This is especially true of the misguided program of interrogation and torture carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency. In the years after the attacks, so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that did not measure up to American values nor international law were brought to bear on detainees. We need to know the full story of how that happened.

In a landmark investigation, comparable in significance to the 9/11 Commission report, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence initiated a full probe of the interrogations in 2009. The investigation was completed in December 2012 and approved by a 9 to 6 vote. The resulting report is roughly 6,300 pages long, with a 300-page executive summary. The CIA, which is the focus of much criticism in the report, submitted a 120-page response to the committee in June, explaining where the agency agreed with the findings and where it disagreed. A long period of discussion between the CIA and committee staff ensued, concluding last September. Since then, the report has been under revision to reflect the comments.

When complete, the full report will go back to the committee for approval and then, perhaps, to the executive branch for declassification. We hope this happens soon. The committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), has called for the release of a declassified executive summary and of the findings and conclusions. President Obama, who early in his first term repudiated the legal memos that were used as justification for the interrogations but also announced that he would not seek criminal charges against CIA operatives who participated in the them, has endorsed making public a declassified version.

Clearly, this has been a painful process for the CIA. The report is expected to be highly critical of the agency’s actions. A key issue is whether methods such as waterboarding produced any useful intelligence, as members of the Bush administration and others have claimed. A debate without the facts is hollow. We need to read the report of the Senate committee in order to squarely address it.

There have been some reports in recent days of an investigation by the CIA’s inspector general into whether agents gained access to Senate committee computers, perhaps an effort to interfere with the report’s publication. If this happened, this is terribly inappropriate. The CIA must cooperate with Congress in getting this report published, however unpleasant that may be.

The interrogation methods were part of a covert action program authorized by the president. It is time to examine the program with some historical perspective, learn the lessons and ponder how the United States can best defend itself in a dangerous world without violating dearly held values and principles.

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Karen Greenberg: Obama’s commandments

Think of us as having two presidents.  One, a fellow named Barack Obama, cuts a distinctly Clark Kent-ish figure.  In presiding over domestic policy, he is regularly thwarted in his desires by the Republicans in Congress and couldn’t until recently get his most basic choices for government positions or the judiciary through the Senate.  For the most minimal look of effectiveness, he has to rely on relatively small gestures by executive order.  In the recent history of the American presidency, he is a remarkably powerless figure presiding over what everyone who is a media anyone claims is a riven, paralyzed, even broken government structure, one in which the Republicans are intent on ensuring that a Democratic president can do nothing until they take the White House (which is almost guaranteed to be never).  What this president wants, almost by definition, he can’t have.  He is, as Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote recently, a man who’s lost the plot line to his own story and has been relegated to the position of onlooker-in-chief.

But keep in mind that that’s only one of our two presidents.  The other, a fellow named Barack Obama, flies (by drone) like Superman, rules more or less by fiat, sends U.S. missiles to strike and kill just about anyone, including American citizens, anywhere in the distant backlands of the planet, and dispatches the country’s secret warriors (whether from the CIA or the special operations forces) wherever he pleases.  He can, with rare exceptions, intervene violently wherever he chooses.  He can (by proxy) listen in on whomever he’s curious about (including, it seems, 320 German business and political leaders).  He rules over what former Congressional insider Mike Lofgren calls the “deep state” in Washington, a national security apparatus that is neither riven, nor broken, nor paralyzed, with only the rarest intercessions from Congress.  In this world, Obama’s powers have only grown, along with the “kill list” he reviews every week.

Admittedly, in his actions abroad from Afghanistan to Libya, his moves on the global stage haven’t exactly proven to be brilliant coups de théâtre.  Many have, in fact, been remarkably boneheaded.  But no one ever claimed that Superman’s superpowers included super-brain-power.

Think of this White House, then, as the schizophrenic presidency, one half remarkably impotent, the other ever more potent.  The conundrum is that they both inhabit the same man.  And if they add up to anything, as Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and TomDispatch regular, makes clear today, it’s long-term bad news for the country and the planet. Tom Engelhardt

The Five Commandments of Barack Obama
How “thou shalt not” became “thou shalt”
By Karen J. Greenberg

In January 2009, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office projecting idealism and proud to be the constitutional law professor devoted to turning democratic principles into action.  In his first weeks in office, in a series of executive orders and public statements, the new president broadcast for all to hear the five commandments by which life in his new world of national security would be lived. 

Thou shalt not torture.

Thou shalt not keep Guantanamo open.

Thou shalt not keep secrets unnecessarily.

Thou shalt not wage war without limits.

Thou shalt not live above the law.

Five years later, the question is: How have he and his administration lived up to these self-proclaimed commandments?

[Read more...]

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Is solitary confinement an impossible idea?

f13-iconBenjamin Wallace-Wells writes: On July 8 of last year, a 50-year-old man named Todd Ashker, an inmate at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, began a hunger strike. He had compiled a list of demands, but the essential one was that the policy that dictated the terms of his imprisonment be abolished. Ashker was housed in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, the most restrictive prison unit in California and a place of extreme isolation. Convicts stay in their cells 23 hours a day and leave only to exercise in a concrete room, alone; their meals are fed into their cell through a slot. Other than an awareness that they are staring at the same blank wall as seven other men kept in their “pod,” they are completely alone. Ashker has been there since 1990; in his view, he has been subject to nearly a quarter-­century of continuous torture. “I have not had a normal face-to-face conversation with another human being in 23 years,” he told me recently, speaking from the other side of a thick plate of glass.

The sheer length of time inmates spend here has made Pelican Bay a novel experiment in social control. The California prison system allows any confirmed gang member to be kept in the SHU indefinitely, with a review of his status only every six years. (Prisoners who kill a guard or another inmate, by contrast, are given a five-year term in the SHU.) This policy has filled Pelican Bay with men considered the most influential and dangerous gang leaders in California. Ashker, allegedly a senior member of the Aryan Brotherhood, had for years shared a pod with Sitawa Jamaa, allegedly the minister of education of the Black Guerrilla Family, and Arturo Castellanos, allegedly an important leader of the Mexican Mafia. In the next pod over was Antonio Guillen, allegedly one of three “generals” of Nuestra Familia. According to the state, these men have spent much of their lives running rival, racially aligned criminal organizations dedicated, often, to killing one another. But over a period of years, through an elaborate and extremely patient series of conversations yelled across the pod and through the concrete walls of the exercise room, the four men had formed a political alliance. They had a shared interest in protesting the conditions of their confinement and, eventually, a shared strategy. They became collaborators.

The men planned for the hunger strike meticulously. They had staged two more modest strikes in 2011, and afterward some had staged private fasts in their cells to try to learn how long they might be able to go without food. The four men had spent the spring putting on weight. Ashker had calculated how much water he needed to drink to keep his electrolytes ­balanced, his heart pumping: 240 ounces a day. In June, the men sent letters to an activist group detailing their grievances, explaining when the strike would begin, and asking other prisoners to join them. In letters to families and friends, they spread the word. Corrections officers throughout the state heard the news; on July 2, a few senior officials visited from Sacramento to meet with the prisoners and measure their intent. They left ­convinced the men were serious. Then, a few days later, the prisoners stopped eating.

The severity of his isolation meant that as the strike began, Ashker had little idea of what effect it was having or how many other prisoners had decided to join him. It turned out to be the largest coordinated hunger strike in American history. [Continue reading...]

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Lawyers, judge hold secret Guantánamo hearing on CIA black sites

n13-iconCarol Rosenberg reports: A military judge held a secret war court session Saturday on defense lawyers’ efforts to uncover evidence of what the CIA did to the alleged USS Cole bomber across years in the agency’s clandestine overseas prison network.

Both the public and the alleged terrorist were excluded from the 111-minute hearing in the case that seeks the execution of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri as mastermind of the Oct. 12, 2000 terror attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors off Aden, Yemen.

Only prosecutors and defense lawyers attended the hearing with the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, and a court recorder creating a classified transcript of the proceedings.

Nashiri, 49, spent four years in secret CIA prisons where, according to declassified reports, agents waterboarded him and interrogated him nude with a hood on his head and handcuffs on his wrists. One U.S. agent threatened to kill the Saudi with a power drill and handgun, and threatened to have his mother raped. [Continue reading...]

Meanwhile, AFP reports: Five former Guantanamo detainees are seeking damages for what they say were years of sexual, mental and physical abuse at the US detention center, where they were held without charge or trial.

The men from Turkey, Uzbekistan and Algeria, who are now settled in other countries, alleged Friday at a US appeals court that they were subjected to torture that included forced nudity, sexual harassment and beatings, first in Afghanistan and then at the military jail in Cuba.

Justices will make their ruling in several weeks, but one of them, Judge David Tatel, said military and civilian officials at the Pentagon had failed in their duty.

“Their job is to protect the detainees from abuse, they failed to do so,” he said.

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What the CIA learned from the Nazis

f13-iconAnnie Jacobsen writes: It was 1946 and World War II had ended less than one year before. In Top Secret memos being circulated in the elite ‘E’ ring of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were preparing for ‘total war’ with the Soviets—to include atomic, chemical, and biological warfare. They even set an estimated start date of 1952. The Joint Chiefs believed that the U.S. could win this future war, but not for reasons that the general public knew about. Since war’s end, across the ruins of the Third Reich, U.S. military officers had been capturing and then hiring Hitler’s weapons makers, in a Top Secret program that would become known as Operation Paperclip. Soon, more than 1,600 of these men and their families would be living the American dream, right here in the United States. From these Nazi scientists, U.S. military and intelligence organizations culled knowledge of Hitler’s most menacing weapons including sarin gas and weaponized bubonic plague.

As the Cold War progressed, the program expanded and got stranger still. In 1948, Operation Paperclip’s Brigadier General Charles E. Loucks, Chief of U.S. Chemical Warfare Plans in Europe, was working with Hitler’s former chemists when one of the scientists, Nobel Prize winner Richard Kuhn, shared with General Loucks information about a drug with military potential being developed by Swiss chemists. This drug, a hallucinogen, had astounding potential properties if successfully weaponized. In documents recently discovered at the U.S. Army Heritage Center in Pennsylvania, Loucks quickly became enamored with the idea that this drug could be used on the battlefield to “incapacitate not kill.” The drug was Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.

It did not take long for the CIA to become interested and involved. Perhaps LSD could also be used for off-the-battlefield purposes, a means through which human behavior could be manipulated and controlled. In an offshoot of Operation Paperclip, the CIA teamed up with Army, Air Force and Naval Intelligence to run one of the most nefarious, classified, enhanced interrogation programs of the Cold War. The work took place inside a clandestine facility in the American zone of occupied Germany, called Camp King. The facility’s chief medical doctor was Operation Paperclip’s Dr. Walter Schreiber, the former Surgeon General of the Third Reich. When Dr. Schreiber was secretly brought to America—to work for the U.S. Air Force in Texas—his position was filled with another Paperclip asset, Dr. Kurt Blome, the former Deputy Surgeon General of the Third Reich and the man in charge of the Nazi’s program to weaponize bubonic plague. The activities that went on at Camp King between 1946 and the late 1950s have never been fully accounted for by either the Department of Defense or the CIA.

Camp King was strategically located in the village of Oberursel, eleven miles northwest of the United States European Command (EUCOM) headquarters in Frankfurt. Officially the facility had three names: the U.S. Military Intelligence Service Center at Oberursel, the 7707th European Command Intelligence Center, and Camp King. In 1945, the place housed captured Nazis but by 1948 most of its prisoners were Soviet bloc spies. For more than a decade Camp King would function as a Cold War black site long before black sites were known as such—an ideal facility to develop enhanced interrogation techniques in part because it was “off-site” but mainly because of its access to Soviet prisoners. [Continue reading...]

Annie Jacobsen’s new book, Operation Paperclip, is published this week.

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The torture that flourishes from Gitmo to an American supermax

FeaturePardiss Kebriaei writes: I just returned from Guantánamo, where I met with my client Ghaleb Al-Bihani, a Yemeni citizen who began his thirteenth year of detention without charge there this month. He has been deprived of a third of his life, from ages 22 to 35, because the United States government says that in 2001 he was a cook for a Taliban affiliate that no longer exists. In a few months, he will go through another government review that will either recommend his transfer from Guantánamo or his continued and indefinite imprisonment. We have words and images to describe waterboarding; it is harder to convey the suffocation of perpetual detention.

The crisis of Ghaleb’s continuing detention — its injustice and pain — was at one time more visible. Guantánamo began as a prison the Bush administration declared was outside the law, and there was little pretense about it. People were shoved off the first transport planes in shackles and hoods and locked into outdoor cages. For two years, they were held incommunicado and denied the right to know or contest why they were being detained. When it came to torture, the “gloves were off,” to paraphrase top military and civilian officials.

The wrongful detention and abuse of the men who remain are less overt now. Today, as the result of years of legal challenges and advocacy, detainees have the right to challenge the legality of their detention in federal court; indeed, it is a federal court that sanctioned Ghaleb’s indefinite detention for being a cook. Today, the cages of the makeshift “Camp X-Ray” are overgrown with weeds; the majority of detainees are held in “state-of-the-art” facilities that resemble maximum-security prisons in the United States and mask similar cruelties. Today, torture is the mental torment of 4,380 days behind the walls of an island prison without good reason or end. It is that which Ghaleb says is excruciating.

A colleague, the first civilian attorney allowed access to the prison in 2004, talks of that first visit. The barbarity of the way human beings were being treated was raw and exposed. My visits nowadays begin with a mint on my pillow in my lodging quarters. I can bring pizza to my clients. The crisis at Guantánamo is as present now as ever, but it has been given legal cover, sanitized, normalized. It took a mass hunger strike at the prison last year to wake us up to it.

A few years ago, at an event in January marking yet another anniversary of the Guantánamo prison’s existence, I met the father of Fahad Hashmi, a US citizen of Pakistani descent who grew up in New York City. Fahad is incarcerated at another infamous US prison — the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Colorado. As a lawyer, I had spent the last several years trying to extend the protections of the American legal system to Guantánamo. But that meeting was an introduction to a slice of unjust punishment and torture on American soil—another outrage born of the “War on Terror,” where government zealotry produces grotesque outcomes, the façade of legal process can legitimize profound unfairness, and barbarity is masked by utter normality. [Continue reading...]

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Contrary to Obama’s promises, the U.S. military still permits torture

Jeffrey Kaye writes: The United States Army Field Manual (AFM) on interrogation (pdf) has been sold to the American public and the world as a replacement for the brutal torture tactics used by the CIA and the Department of Defense during the Bush/Cheney administration.

On 22 January 2009, President Obama released an executive order stating that any individual held by any US government agency “shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in Army Field Manual 2 22.3.”

But a close reading of Department of Defense documents and investigations by numerous human rights agencies have shown that the current Army Field Manual itself uses techniques that are abusive and can even amount to torture.

Disturbingly, the latest version of the AFM mimicked the Bush administration in separating out “war on terror” prisoners as not subject to the same protections and rights as regular prisoners of war. Military authorities then added an appendix to the AFM that included techniques that could only be used on such “detainees”, ie, prisoners without POW status.

Labeled Appendix M, and propounding an additional, special “technique” called “Separation”, human rights and legal group have recognized that Appendix M includes numerous abusive techniques, including use of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. psychology body declines to rebuke member in Guantánamo torture case

The Guardian reports: America’s professional association of psychologists has quietly declined to rebuke one of its members, a retired US army reserve officer, for his role in one of the most brutal interrogations known to have to taken place at Guantánamo Bay, the Guardian has learned.

The decision not to pursue any disciplinary measure against John Leso, a former army reserve major, is the latest case in which someone involved in the post-9/11 torture of detainees has faced no legal or even professional consequences.

In a 31 December letter obtained by the Guardian, the American Psychological Association said it had “determined that we cannot proceed with formal charges in this matter. Consequently the complaint against Dr Leso has been closed.”

But the APA did not deny Leso took part in the brutal interrogation of the suspected 20th 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani, whose treatment the Pentagon official overseeing his military commission ultimately called “torture”. [Continue reading...]

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Evidence of ‘industrial-scale killing’ by Syria spurs call for war crimes charges

The Guardian reports: Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the “systematic killing” of about 11,000 detainees, according to three eminent international lawyers.

The three, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to last August.

Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.

The UN and independent human rights groups have documented abuses by both Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebels, but experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis.

The three lawyers interviewed the source, a military policeman who worked secretly with a Syrian opposition group and later defected and fled the country. In three sessions in the last 10 days they found him credible and truthful and his account “most compelling”.

They put all evidence under rigorous scrutiny, says their report, which has been obtained by the Guardian and CNN.

The authors are Sir Desmond de Silva QC, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court.

The defector, who for security reasons is identified only as Caesar, was a photographer with the Syrian military police. He smuggled the images out of the country on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar, which has financed and armed rebel groups, has called for the overthrow of Assad and demanded his prosecution.

The 31-page report, which was commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar, is being made available to the UN, governments and human rights groups. Its publication appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week’s UN-organised Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government. [Continue reading...]

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MI6 ‘turned blind eye’ to torture of rendered detainees

The Guardian reports: MI6 officers were under no obligation to report breaches of the Geneva conventions and turned a “blind eye” to the torture of detainees in foreign jails, according to the report into Britain’s involvement in the rendition of terror suspects.

Even when individual MI6 and MI5 officers expressed concerns about the abuse of detainees they did not pass on their thoughts for fear of offending the US, Britain’s closest intelligence partner.

British officials were reluctant to question sleep deprivation, hooding, and waterboarding for “fear of damaging liaison relationships” – an unmistakable reference to the CIA.

This is the message of the 115-page report by a panel led by Sir Peter Gibson, the former appeal court judge, into Britain’s involvement in the extra-judicial abduction of terror suspects who were flown in secret to prisons where they were ill treated. [Continue reading...]

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Guantánamo detainees claim Poland allowed CIA torture

The Guardian reports: Lawyers for two men subject to extraordinary rendition by the CIA told the European court of human rights (ECHR) on Tuesday that Poland, which permitted a secret “black” site to operate on its territory, should be held responsible for their torture.

The two-day hearing at Strasbourg was the first time a European country has been taken to court for allowing US agencies to carry out “enhanced” interrogation and “waterboarding” programmes. In a highly unusual legal move, the media and public were barred from the opening day’s session.

The military base at Stare Kiejkuty, north of Warsaw, it was revealed, had previously been used by German intelligence and later the Soviet army during the second world war. One of the men, it was alleged, was subjected to mock executions while hooded and otherwise naked. [Continue reading...]

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Report: CIA made doctors torture suspected terrorists after 9/11

Institute on Medicine as a Profession: An independent panel of military, ethics, medical, public health, and legal experts today charged that U.S. military and intelligence agencies directed doctors and psychologists working in U.S. military detention centers to violate standard ethical principles and medical standards to avoid infliction of harm. The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers (see attached) concludes that since September 11, 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) and CIA improperly demanded that U.S. military and intelligence agency health professionals collaborate in intelligence gathering and security practices in a way that inflicted severe harm on detainees in U.S. custody.

These practices included “designing, participating in, and enabling torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of detainees, according to the report. Although the DoD has taken steps to address some of these practices in recent years, including instituting a committee to review medical ethics concerns at Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Task Force says the changed roles for health professionals and anemic ethical standards adopted within the military remain in place.

“The American public has a right to know that the covenant with its physicians to follow professional ethical expectations is firm regardless of where they serve,” said Task Force member Dr. Gerald Thomson, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at Columbia University. “It’s clear that in the name of national security the military trumped that covenant, and physicians were transformed into agents of the military and performed acts that were contrary to medical ethics and practice. We have a responsibility to make sure this never happens again.”

The Task Force report, supported by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundations, calls on the DoD and CIA to follow medical professional standards of conduct to enable doctors and psychologists to adhere to their ethical principles so that in the future they be used to heal, not injure, detainees they encounter. The Task Force also urges professional medical associations and the American Psychological Association to strengthen ethical standards related to interrogation and detention of detainees.

The report, Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror, is based on two years of review of records in the public domain by a 19-member task force. The report details how DoD and CIA policies institutionalized a variety of interventions by military and intelligence agency doctors and psychologists that breach ethical standards to promote well-being and avoid harm. [Continue reading...]

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CIA secret prisons: a decade later, justice in Africa?

John Sifton writes: I have just arrived here in the Gambia, in westernmost Africa, to testify before the African Commission of Human Rights about a CIA rendition case involving Djibouti, 4,000 miles east at the mouth of the Red Sea.

The case against Djibouti was brought by Mohammed Abdullah Saleh al-Asad, a Yemeni citizen who was arrested in 2003 in Tanzania and taken on a private flight to Djibouti. There the CIA — with help from Djibouti authorities — detained him short term and then flew him to another CIA facility in Afghanistan. His petition provides evidence that he was subjected to beatings and torture in both locations. The CIA appears to have realized later that al-Asad was not involved in terrorism or al-Qaeda, and returned him to Yemen in 2005.

The al-Asad case is one of several brought to hold the US government and its co-perpetrators accountable for unlawful arrests, detentions, and interrogations carried out by the CIA during the Bush administration — serious abuses that my colleagues and I documented for Human Rights Watch in numerous reports in 2004 to present. Known CIA interrogation techniques included severe sleep deprivation, forced standing, exposure to cold, slapping and hitting, confining detainees in small boxes, and throwing detainees against the wall. Some were waterboarded. [Continue reading...]

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Obama colludes with CIA in effort to block release of Senate’s damning report on torture

Jane Mayer reports: Last night, along with the bill reopening the government, the Senate confirmed Stephen W. Preston, the top lawyer at the C.I.A., to move to the Pentagon to serve in the same role there. The vote slipped by unnoticed by most, but on close inspection, it revealed previously unreleased documents that lift the lid on an unusual standoff between Congress and the Obama Administration’s C.I.A. At its core is a bitter disagreement over an apparently devastating, and still secret, report by the Senate Intelligence Committee documenting in detail how the C.I.A.’s brutalization of terror suspects during the Bush years was unnecessary, ineffective, and deceptively sold to Congress, the White House, the Justice Department, and the public. The report threatens to definitively refute former C.I.A. personnel who have defended the program’s integrity. But so far, to the consternation of several members of the Intelligence Committee, the Obama Administration, like Bush’s before it, is keeping the damning details from public view.

Preston’s confirmation became a proxy skirmish in the fight. Obama reportedly hoped to get Preston confirmed before the congressional recess this past summer. Instead, Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, who is a member of both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Armed Services Committee, put a “hold” on Preston’s confirmation until he answered a set of additional, and previously undisclosed, questions. A copy of these seven questions, and Preston’s answers, obtained by The New Yorker (below), sheds new light on the conflict.

The questions and answers make clear that Udall, who has pushed vigorously for the report’s release, voted to confirm Preston only after he believed that the general counsel distanced himself from his own intelligence agency’s defiant and defensive stance on the six-thousand-three-hundred page report, which cost forty million dollars to produce. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, are pushing to declassify and publicly release it. But John Brennan, the agency’s director, a career C.I.A. officer, and an Obama confidant, is apparently resisting disclosure, and challenging many of the report’s conclusions.

On June 27th, the C.I.A. delivered an impassioned rebuttal of the report to the committee. Last month marked the last of numerous meetings between C.I.A. and Intelligence Committee personnel over the disputed report. They did not go well, according to several informed sources. Meanwhile, despite Obama’s calls for increased transparency, the White House has apparently sat on the sidelines, urging the two intransigent sides to work out their differences. Without White House involvement, the standoff is likely to remain a huge battle. [Continue reading...]

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How did a form of torture become policy in America’s prison system?

Andrew Gumbel writes: In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to observe first-hand the effects of a peculiar — and, at the time, entirely novel — form of incarceration. The Quakers, who had opened the prison two years earlier, believed that long-term solitary confinement was an ideal form of religious penitence (whence the term penitentiary) and would hasten prisoners’ rehabilitation and reintegration into society. They saw it not as extreme punishment but as a progressive idea, far preferable to the giant holding pens typical of the age, where mutilations and violence among prisoners were common, and spiritual betterment all but unthinkable.

Tocqueville was favorably impressed. “Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation,” he wrote, “than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope, and makes him industrious by the burden of idleness?”

Ten years later, Dickens paid his own visit to Eastern State, and came away with a rather different opinion. Solitary confinement, he found, inflicted unimaginable torment on the minds of those subjected to it. Far from leading prisoners to enlightenment, it ruined their concentration and haunted them with hideous visions. They fell into deep despair, losing track of time and of themselves. “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” he wrote in his American Notes for General Circulation:

[B]ecause its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear [...] It wears the mind into a morbid state, which renders it unfit for the rough contact and busy action of the world.

Dickens was not alone. Harry Hawser, who wrote poems about his experience at Eastern State around the same time, hauntingly described the effects of being plunged into a “living tomb.” By the end of the 19th century, the Supreme Court noted that solitary confinement had caused many prisoners to fall “into a semi-fatuous condition,” and others still to kill themselves or to become violently insane. By World War I, the practice was largely abandoned.

Still, the idea never entirely went away, and in our bewildering world of chronically overcrowded, gang-infested prisons, it has returned with a vengeance. The new generation of high-security supermax prisons, whose spreading popularity over the past 40 years has coincided with an explosion in prisoner numbers, is premised on the notion that dangerous inmates — the “worst of the worst,” in official parlance — need to be kept separate from the general prison population, and from each other. [Continue reading...]

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