"America will not torture"

Among the things U.S. Vice President said at the Munich security conference is this: “America will not torture”.

The Politico blog reported that Biden said in Munich: “We will uphold the rights of those we bring to justice. And we will close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay” … In return for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, as the administration has promised to do within a year, he said, the United States will ask other countries to accept the transfer of prisoners now held in the facility. While some European government have promised to consider the ideas, none has yet committed itself to accepting transfers of prisoners now at Guantanamo”. This can be read in full here.

One year is way too long — the special detention facilities at Guantanamo should be closed down now.

The most unforgivable actions of George W. Bush’s recently-departed administration were the introduction of “legalized” torture and the opening of special detention facilitiies to hold those unfortunate enough to have been put in the new and indeterminate category of “illegal combattants” — including at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba — as well as the vile and evil policy of secret rendition that allowed the movement of suspected “illegal combattants” into and out of secret facilities around the world, as well as into Guantanamo.

UPDATE: A BIG DISAPPOINTMENT — The New York Times wrote scathingly in an editorial on 10 February that “The Obama administration failed — miserably — the first test of its commitment to ditching the extravagant legal claims used by the Bush administration to try to impose blanket secrecy on anti-terrorism policies and avoid accountability for serial abuses of the law. On Monday, a Justice Department lawyer dispatched by the new attorney general, Eric Holder, appeared before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. The case before them involves serious allegations of torture by five victims of President Bush’s extraordinary rendition program. The five were seized and transported to American facilities abroad or to countries known for torturing prisoners. Incredibly, the federal lawyer advanced the same expansive state-secrets argument that was pressed by Mr. Bush’s lawyers to get a trial court to dismiss the case without any evidence being presented. It was as if last month’s inauguration had never occurred. Voters have good reason to feel betrayed if they took Mr. Obama seriously on the campaign trail when he criticized the Bush administration’s tactic of stretching the state-secrets privilege to get lawsuits tossed out of court. Even judges on the panel seemed surprised by the administration’s decision to go forward instead of requesting a delay to reconsider the government’s position and, perhaps, file new briefs.  The argument is that the very subject matter of the suit is a state secret so sensitive that it cannot be discussed in court, and it is no more persuasive now than it was when the Bush team pioneered it. For one thing, there is ample public information available about the C.I.A.’s rendition, detention and coercive interrogation programs. The fact that some of the evidence might be legitimately excluded on national security grounds need not preclude the case from being tried, and allowing the judge to make that determination. More fundamentally, the Obama administration should not be invoking state secrets to cover up charges of rendition and torture. President Obama has taken some important steps to repair Mr. Bush’s damaging legacy — issuing executive orders to prohibit torture, shut secret prisons overseas and direct closure of the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It would have been good if he and Mr. Holder had shown the same determination in that federal court, rather than defending the indefensible”.   This NYTimes editorial is posted on the web here.

Gaza journalist forcibly undergoes stripping and full body cavity search by Israelis at Allenby Bridge

My friend and colleague Robert J. Parsons, a journalist in Geneva, sent me the news item below– a report from the Inter Press Service (IPS) about what happened to one of its correspondents.

Angry Arab also has a link to the Gaza Today blog here which picked up the same story as it was reported by the Palestinian news agency Ramattan (but I can’t find the story on Ramattan because their archives appear to be unsearchable…)

And, Reuters has picked up the story and added some more sickening details in a report that has been published by Haaretz, as follows:

“Mohammed Omer, who writes for the pro-Palestinian Washington Report, said he was strip-searched and detained for nearly four hours at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge when he crossed from Jordan into the West Bank, en route to the Gaza Strip, on June 26.

‘They wanted to humiliate me. I collapsed in tears … I had to throw up twice and I fainted twice’, Omer said. ‘They asked silly questions about everything I had done during my trip to London and Europe and they made fun of me’.

An Israeli government spokesman declined immediate comment and said he would look into the incident.

Omer said that at the Allenby Bridge, he was forced to strip to his underwear by an Israeli officer who then ‘snatched it down off me’.

He said two officers dragged him by his legs, his head sweeping the floor, in front of other passengers.

After he vomited and fainted, Israeli security personnel summoned a Palestinian ambulance to take him to hospital.

At a hospital in nearby Jericho, he contacted Dutch diplomats who had facilitated his trip to Europe, and they drove him to an Israeli border crossing with the Gaza Strip.

Back in the Hamas-controlled territory, he was admitted to hospital where doctors said he had suffered a nervous breakdown and that several of his ribs had been broken”…

The full Haaretz report can be read here .

Photo of Mohammed Omer - IPS

Here are excerpts from the earlier IPS story:
“Mohammed Omer, the Gaza correspondent of IPS, and joint winner of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, was strip-searched at gunpoint, assaulted and abused by Israeli security officials at the Allenby border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank on Thursday as he tried to return home to Gaza.

Omer’s trip was sponsored by The Washington Report, and the Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv was responsible for coordinating Omer’s travel plans and his security permit to leave Gaza with Israeli officials.

While waiting in Amman on his way back, Omer eventually received the requisite coordination and security clearance from the Israelis to return to Gaza after this had initially been delayed by several days, he told IPS.

Accompanied by Dutch diplomats, Omer passed through the Jordanian side of the border without incident. However, after arrival on the Israeli side, trouble began. He informed a female soldier that he was returning home to Gaza. He was repeatedly asked where Gaza was, and told that he had neither a permit nor any coordination to cross.

Omer explained that he did indeed have permission and coordination but was nevertheless taken to a room by Israel’s domestic intelligence agency the Shin Bet, where he was isolated for an hour and a half without explanation.

‘Eventually I was asked whether I had a knife or gun on me even though I had already passed through the x-ray machine, had my luggage searched, and was in the company of Dutch diplomats’, Omer said.

His luggage was again searched, and security then proceeded to go through every document and paper he had on him, taking down the names and numbers of the European parliamentary officials he had met.

The Shin Bet officials then started to make fun of the European parliamentarians, and mocked Omer for being ‘the prize-winning journalist’.

The Gazan journalist was repeatedly asked why he was returning to ‘the hell of Gaza after we allowed you to leave’. To this he responded that he wanted to be a voice for the voiceless. He was told he was a ‘trouble-maker’.

The security men also demanded he show all the money he had on him, and particular attention was paid to the British pounds he was carrying. His Gellhorn prize money had been awarded in British pounds but he was not carrying the entire sum on him bodily, something the investigators refused to believe.

After being unable to produce the prize money, he was ordered to strip naked.

‘At first I refused but then I had an M16 (gun) pointed in my face and my clothes were forcibly removed, even my underwear’, Omer said.

At this point Omer broke down and pleaded for an end to such treatment. He said he was told, ‘you haven’t seen anything yet’. Every cavity of his body was searched as one of the investigators pinned him

When he came round his eyelids were being forcibly opened and his eardrums probed by an Israeli military doctor, who was also armed. He was then dragged along the floor by his feet by the Shin Bet officials, with his head repeatedly banging on the floor, to a Palestinian ambulance which had been called.

‘I eventually woke up in a Palestinian hospital with the doctors trying to reassure me’, Omer told IPS”

This report was published by IPS online here .

Who thinks torture has been stopped?

From an article by Gideon Levy in Haaretz: “The interrogators used this torture for 5-10 minutes, during which I would scream with pain and beg them to stop, while some of them laughed at me … The torture continued from 3 P.M. to 6 A.M. … At 6 A.M. a new team of interrogators arrived. Two interrogators sat with me, removed my handcuffs, and brought me a cup of tea, which I drank with a straw, since I was suffering from pains in my hands. Franco told me that it was better for me to reveal everything because they had permission to continue to torture me for days and weeks. I told Franco a lot of things, but repeated that I had no information about future military activities. Victor insisted I knew more and continued to interrogate me. Afterward they asked me to take another polygraph test and I agreed. At about 10 they took me to the solitary confinement cell. I arrived there a broken man, I had great difficulty walking and moving my hands, I lay on the mattress in pain. I was in such pain that I couldn’t fall asleep … Captain Victor entered the room and led me to the interrogation room. In the room were Adi, Effie, Peretz and two other people whom they called ‘Colonel’ and ‘General.’ The interrogators told me that I had been lying and that I would understand only if force were used on me, and [they] resumed the military interrogation, from the afternoon until the next morning. This time they used more force”… This article, from Haaretz, was republished here.

Stop the torture, whatever it's called

Many valid points were made in a comment posted on the Angry Arab Blog in response to the NY Times article on two secret Justice Department memos we covered yesterday in our post U.S.: “Torture” is out, “combined effects” are in..

One of the most important is that torture does not extract reliable information from people who will say anything just to stop the pain and humiliation, and is thus not a good interrogation tactic.

The second is that this must stop.

Here is the comment from the Angry Arab Blog, in its entirety, from V:

” v said…

Tyranny and torture are bedfellows. It has always been this way and always will be. From the time of the ‘divine right of kings’ who claimed they were ‘ordained by God’, and hence able to torture enemies and their own people with impunity. The use of torture is always the mark of a tyrant, no matter who does, or where it is done.

It amazes me, that when state historians (in the sense of those who support their country, right or wrong) have at times even admitted that torture is a poor method. This is because when a person is tortured you can get them to confess anything just so the agony will stop – they will even confess they are a little tea pot if it will stop the pain. The attack on Iraq was in part justified through information based on torture (as a recent example). It is interesting that this article mentions KSM and his confessions under torture, but fails to mention that he confesses to so much, at times and places that are contradictory, that his whole confession is worthless – check the facts. It is a proven fact that much more humane methods produce the same results of information to be gathered.

One thing that always makes me wonder is why people who know what torture is for remain silent. It is a well known fact that torture is used TO GET THE CONFESSION THAT THE PERPETRATOR WANTS, WHETHER RIGHT OR WRONG. In this way cases are built (like the Iraq war, etc), so the perpetrator can say that he was right, and point to whatever signed document to justify what he has done or intends to do. During the time of kings, the torture many times was applied so the subject would cave in to the kings sovereignty and divine right to rule – by making the victim even cry for “mercy,” so that it could be claimed that he acknowledged the king in public.

Torture is meant to make the people cower under the severity of their king or conquerer – torture says the one who practices is so depraved, he will do anything to get his way. It is a form of control through fear over the people. Torture will ALWAYS produce the wrath of the people eventually, it is NEVER the harbinger of peace between men and nations.

For these reasons, amply grounded in history and experience, torture is never acceptable. It is always the denial of the humane treatment of fellow human beings. It is the exact opposite of the confession that “all men are created equal,” which this nation at least confesses on paper in it’s founding documents. Stop the torture NOW!”

UN AIDS Programme asks Libya to review death sentence on Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor

In a bold step with a weakly-argued point, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has called on Libyan courts to review the death sentences imposed on five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor for the alleged intentional transmission of HIV to hundreds of children — in light of evidence showing that the virus circulated before the health workers’ arrival.

“UNAIDS is concerned that certain scientific evidence appears to have not been taken into consideration and that this raises serious doubts regarding the conclusion reached by the court”, UNAIDS said in a news release. “As published in the scientific journal Nature, an analysis of HIV and hepatitis virus samples taken from some of the children concluded that the HIV viral strains were circulating in the hospital where the children were treated before the nurses and doctor arrived in March 1998”, it added. “UNAIDS urges that the present decision be reviewed, and that due weight be given to this evidence and all other available scientific evidence related to the case”.

A much stronger case was made in the London newspaper, the Independent: The Big Question: Why have five nurses and a doctor been condemned to death in Libya? , By Peter Popham, 20 December 2006:

“Why are we asking this question now?

Because yesterday the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor were, for the second time, sentenced to death by a Libyan court. The verdict was a carbon copy of that handed down by the court in the first trial in May 2004. The foreigners appealed to the Supreme Court and on Christmas Day 2005 the court accepted the appeal and ordered a retrial. The foreign health workers have now been in prison in Libya for nearly seven years, much of that time in degrading conditions. The trial has become by far the longest and most heavily politicised legal process in Libya’s history.

What is their alleged crime?

Almost too horrible to describe: deliberately pumping HIV-infected blood into the veins of hundreds of small Libyan boys and girls. Fifty-two children have died since the epidemic began. Some of the surviving children have tuberculosis and other Aids-related diseases, though the condition of many of the others has stabilised thanks to anti-retroviral medication. Many of the children are being treated at hospitals in Italy and France thanks to funding from the EU.

Why are we calling it ‘alleged’?

Because nobody outside Libya believes there is the slightest reason to think they are guilty. The nurses belonged to a larger group of Bulgarians who took up their contracts at Al-Fatih government hospital in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, in March 1998. Then in February of the next year, 23 Bulgarians working at the hospital were arrested, six of whom, along with the Palestinian, were held incommunicado for months, while the rest were released.

Those held were initially charged with ‘committing actions leading to the uncontrolled murder of people with the aim of undermining state security’ , in a plot that the Libyan authorities claimed had been dreamed up by the CIA and Mossad. The charge of which they were convicted yesterday was ‘deliberately causing an Aids epidemic by injecting over 400 children with harmful micro-organisms’, which also carries the death penalty.

On what evidence were they convicted?

The only evidence against them is a report that was hurriedly compiled by five Libyan doctors and which contains no data, only anecdotes. The court refused to hear witnesses in defence of the medical staff, and rejected requests for new inquiries into the HIV outbreak. The report by Aids experts Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi submitted to the original trial, which indicated that the epidemic was caused by poor hygiene – needles washed under the tap – and began before the Bulgarians arrived, was discounted. A new report published in Nature last week indicates that the outbreak stemmed from a single HIV-positive child under treatment in the hospital who had been infected by his mother; the virus, the report claims, was already present in the hospital in 1997. But the court did not wish to know.

What do the nurses say?

One of the accused, Christiana Valcheva, told the court: ‘No doctor or nurse would dare commit such a dreadful crime’.

All claim innocence, and insist that their confessions were tortured out of them. They brought a civil suit against their 10 alleged torturers, which was thrown out by a Tripoli court last year, and they were not allowed to appeal that verdict to the Supreme Court, nor to tell the new trial about what had happened to them. The nurses were once again obliged at the retrial to hear the confessions that had been extracted from them by beatings and electric shocks employed to send them to the firing squad.

Has the international community done much to help?

It has done quite a bit. The case is embarrassing all round because while in 1999, when it started, Libya was still an international pariah and nobody was surprised to hear Colonel Muammar Gaddafi making exotic allegations about CIA/Mossad conspiracies, since giving up the bomb in 2003 he has been making a ponderous return from the cold. This case has made the process more difficult. Since the original guilty verdict, the Council of the European Union has invited Libya to join the Barcelona Process – the EU-funded initiative to bring its Mediterranean neighbours into a closer political, economic and cultural relationship, intended to culminate in a free-trade zone – in exchange for dropping the case against the Bulgarians. In November 2004, the European Commission launched a Benghazi Aids Action Plan which has so far received €2m in EU money. Last year Colonel Gaddafi offered to drop the case on payment by Bulgaria of €10m for each infected child’s family. Bulgaria rejected the proposal, but in December set up its own international fund to help Libya combat Aids.

And there is probably more going on behind the scenes: last Friday David Welch, an American Assistant Secretary of State who helped negotiate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Libya and the US, arrived in Tripoli to discuss ‘issues which hinder improvements in relations”‘, according to the Libyan news agency Jana. No details were released. Welch has previously called for the nurses to be allowed to go home, and yesterday Washington said it was ‘disappointed’ with the trial verdict.

Why doesn’t Gaddafi commute the sentences?

Benghazi is the centre of opposition to his dictatorial regime, and the Aids epidemic has become a focus of mass popular anger. The idea propagated by Colonel Gaddafi himself that the epidemic was caused by the Bulgarians acting on the orders of foreign intelligence agencies was repeated verbatim at a press conference in London on Monday by the president of a group representing the victims.

But if he is looking for a way of taking revenge on the West for the loss of face (and dollars) inflicted over the Lockerbie bombing, then the closer the Bulgarians get to the firing squad, the harder the bargain he will be able to drive. There are still two legal steps the foreigners can take before they run out of options, first the Supreme Court, second the so-called ” high judicial council” described yesterday by Libya’s justice minister Ali Hasnaoui as senior to the Supreme Court. Whatever those bodies may decide, the real horse-trading should be starting about now … “
The Independent story on the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor on trial in Libya is here.

After a judicious few days’ wait, UNSG Kofi Annan said at UNHQ/NY on Friday, according to a report from Associated Press (AP) that “he was ‘deeply concerned’ about a Libyan court’s decision to reimpose death sentences on five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of infecting children with HIV. Annan offered U.N. support for the children and for efforts to ‘find a humane solution for the fate of the medics.’ He said, ‘I am deeply concerned by confirmation of a guilty verdict and a death sentence’. Annan, whose tenure ends on Dec. 31, praised the international community for providing treatment and medicine to the infected children. Fifty children have died, and the rest have been treated in Europe
The AP story on Kofi Annan’s comments of concern is here.