Monday, November 30, 2009

Bagram Interviews, ACLU Letter on Child Prisoners, Obama Seals Up Secrets

Yesterday [11/28], my [Daily Kos] diary on the Washington Post and New York Times articles regarding the existence of torture at a black-site, Special Operations-run prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, sparked a lot of comments. These spanned the spectrum from incredulity at the torture reports to speculations regarding Obama's place in this story.

I want to do a number of things with this follow-up diary. I'd like to highlight one of the New York Times prisoner interviews (long excerpts of which are now posted at the Times), that of Hamidullah, a 42-year-old poor farmer from rural Kandahar Province, who due to the war had to leave his farm, and now tries to make his living as a "spare auto-parts dealer".

I also want to take note of a letter from the ACLU to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates "on efforts to bring U.S. policy regarding the treatment, detention and trial of juveniles into compliance with international law." In addition, I think it's worth noting a special report at the Boston Globe on the struggle between the Obama administration and spy agencies over the declassification of decades of secret government documents.

The interview with Hamidullah

I've chosen to highlight this interview because the seizure, detention, interrogation, and release of this 42-year-old farmer took place entirely within Obama's months as commander-in-chief. Note that, per the earlier articles, the White House had no comment to make on this and other stories published over the weekend.

There can be, of course, no independent verification of Hamidullah's story. That would be impossible at this point. The existence of the Bagram black site prison is "classified." However, the New York Times noted that the interviews were conducted independently, and were consistent in their details with what other human rights workers interviewing detainees had reported. Since these prisoners were released, I'd add, and not considered ideological or organized opponents of the U.S., they don't, it seems to me, have any particular advantage in making the reports they do.

From the Hamidullah interview (as much as I believe fair use will allow - all bold emphases I have added):
I was in my house with my family, and we had a guest. It was night; about 11:30 p.m. They raided the house and arrested me and my guest. They tied my hands and blindfolded me. A kind of hood was put on my head. It was five and a half months ago in early June....

Then they put me in the Tor jail. I can’t remember the number of days I spent there because it’s hard to tell days from nights in the black jail, but I think every day they came twice to ask questions.

They took me to their own room to ask the questions. They beat up other people in the black jail, but not me. But the problem was that they didn’t let me sleep. There was shouting noise so you couldn’t sleep....

The black jail was the most dangerous and fearful place. It is a place where everybody is afraid. In the black jail, they can do anything to detainees.
Hamidullah notes that the Red Cross is not allowed "to see or communicate" with any of the prisoners. He reports his being stripped naked in front of the interrogators and interpreters. While he says he didn't literally see anyone tortured, he could hear "crying" and "moaning" of other prisoners.
When they took us they tied up our hands and blindfolded us and covered our ears....

When I was in the black jail it was very difficult. I couldn’t even think how I felt. If I wanted to go to the bathroom, I banged on the doors for hours and no one came. It was too difficult.
It may be easy for some to dismiss Hamidullah's tale, or the fact that he feared at the time he would never get out of the main Bagram prison, after transferred there from the black site, because he'd talked to other prisoners who had been there "for years." But for those who do, they should think of the moral burden carried by themselves for making such a dismissal, under these circumstances. What we need instead is a full investigation. No more secrets!

ACLU Asks Obama Administration to Comply with UN Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict

Before the Washington Post published their story on the Bagram black site, highlighting the torture of teenaged captives of U.S. Special Forces, earlier this month the ACLU had written a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, "requesting updated data on juveniles in U.S. military custody in Iraq and Afghanistan and information on efforts to bring U.S. policy regarding the treatment, detention and trial of juveniles into compliance with international law."

In May 2008, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child conducted a review of U.S. compliance with the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The U.S. is a signatory of this protocol. The review found that 513 Iraqi children were imprisoned by the U.S. military as "imperative threats to security." Moreover, the U.S. "had transferred an unknown number of additional children to Iraqi custody." As of April 2008, approximately 10 juveniles were reported being held at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan.

We know now, thanks to the Washington Post article the other day, which interviewed two teenaged prisoners previously incarcerated at the Bagram black site, what kind of mistreatment, amounting to torture, in my opinion, these children and teens have experienced.

From the Post article:
The two teenagers -- Issa Mohammad, 17, and Abdul Rashid, who said he is younger than 16 -- said in interviews this week that they were punched and slapped in the face by their captors during their time at Bagram air base, where they were held in individual cells. Rashid said his interrogator forced him to look at pornography alongside a photograph of his mother.
The ACLU letter to Gates noted that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its review had uncovered reports of juvenile mistreatment by the U.S. military, including length of detention and conditions of confinement of juvenile detainees, and lack of adequate access to education, legal services and physical and psychological recovery services.
The committee also was concerned that children were being charged and prosecuted for war crimes without consideration for their status as juveniles. Last Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Canadian Guantánamo detainee Omar Khadr, who was 15 when he was captured by U.S. forces, will be charged in a military commission for allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed an Army medic and wounded others in Afghanistan.
The human rights community and progressives in general should see to it that Gates' feet are held to the fire on this, and pressure put on the Obama administration to fulfill their obligations to the Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict.

The full letter to Gates can be found here. The full report of the U.N. CRC is here (PDF).

Report: Obama to Maintain Secrecy on Millions of Military/Intel Docs

While not specifically about torture or the Bagram base, not too tangentially, this story about the fight over state secrecy, in terms of ever finding out what this government does, is important. The Boston Globe has a special report by Bryan Bender on how the Obama administration, flummoxed by intelligence agency interference and obstinacy regarding the declassification of documents, many over 25 years old, has led Obama to decide to continue the secret hold on these materials, which originally were to be released on Dec. 31 of this year.

The release was an extension of earlier holds put on the declassification by both Clinton and Bush administrations. The Bender article describes the struggle within the state bureaucracy over these documents, and it's difficult to see anyone, including Obama, who to his credit has made some play for greater transparency and openness, looking good about what is unfolding. The Obama administration appears to not have just been defeated on this, but some of their new proposals apparently are contrary to earlier policies regarding openness made in the early days of the administration.

From the Boston Globe article:
WASHINGTON - President Obama will maintain a lid of secrecy on millions of pages of military and intelligence documents that were scheduled to be declassified by the end of the year, according to administration officials.

The missed deadline spells trouble for the White House’s promises to introduce an era of government openness, say advocates, who believe that releasing historical information enforces a key check on government behavior. They cite as an example the abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War, including domestic spying and assassinations of foreign officials....

The failure to meet the disclosure deadline “does not augur well for new, more ambitious efforts to advance classification reform,’’ said Steven Aftergood, a specialist on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. “If binding deadlines can be extended more or less at will, then any new declassification requirements will be similarly subject to doubt or defiance.’’
Besides the larger picture around declassification and ever knowing our own history, the failure to declassify even old documents -- in this case, over 400 million pages of documents going back to World War II -- means that the scandals and abuses of the present day are also likely to never be fully understood or revealed, including the facts around U.S. use of torture.

It is time this country squarely face the momentous task of changing the direction we are headed. Recent events are clearly demonstrating the folly of putting all hope of change into one man, or even the electoral process alone, per se. We need powerful investigations, a vibrant and active press and citizenry, and a political leadership that is not afraid to make the hard choices.

If Obama makes a decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and not begin a withdrawal, it will be a decision as fateful as Bush's to illegally invade Iraq. It will be near-impossible to double-back on this path once launched (indeed, the fact that Obama is about to escalate the war is related to the instance of first invading that country).

As an example of how it otherwise could be, see Ray McGovern's excellent article at Truthout, discussing a different president's decision on a different war, and a sober assessment of how things could have been different.

Originally posted at Daily Kos

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