Guantanamo: rule of law upheld – torture condemned

On 21 January 2009, President Obama made the long-awaited announcement that the US concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay will be closed within the year. This was followed by orders to:

• abolish the secret worldwide network of CIA ‘ghost prisons’
• ban the use of torture by restricting CIA operatives to the US Field Army Manual, which explicitly rules out the use of torture, coercion, physical abuse and threats
• end illegal ‘rendition flights’
• halt and review the use of the infamous ‘military commission’ courts.

The previous day, in his inauguration speech, Obama signalled the new US administration’s commitment to international treaties on human rights, in particular the Geneva Conventions.

These announcements roll back the worst excesses of the Bush Administration and are to be welcomed. Since 2001, the United States had been chipping away at prohibitions on torture, ultimately achieving a de facto legalisation of an internationally abhorred practice. Former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez derided the Geneva Conventions as ‘quaint and outdated’ and teams of White House lawyers were dedicated to eroding the rights of detainees. For seven years, the camp at Guantanamo has stood outside the provisions of international or US domestic law, a black hole where hundreds of so-called ‘illegal combatants’ have been held indefinitely, stripped of their rights and subjected to torture and abuse.

The classified presidential order to set up CIA secret prisons worldwide was issued within five days of the 11 September attacks on the US in 2001. Despite Bush’s assurances in September 2006 that all these prisons were now empty, it is estimated that some 26,000 prisoners, including children, are still being held clandestinely by the CIA. This sinister network covers Iraq and Afghanistan, Djibouti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Poland, Romania and the British dependency of Diego Garcia as well as military ships where detainees are completely out of the reach of the Red Cross, lawyers, journalists or campaigners. In addition, torture on behalf of the US has been outsourced to proxy countries such as Morocco and Jordan. Obama’s pronouncements bring to an end the official US sanctioning of brutal torture, illegality, kidnapping and disappearances that were the hallmarks of imperialism’s ‘war on terror’.

But more remains to be done. The mechanism by which detainees will be released or tried is still to be worked out, with countries such as Portugal urging the EU to take some of Guantanamo’s detainees and Britain declaring it will take only two - former British residents Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer. Human rights activists warn that amendments to the US Field Army Manual could open the door to ‘revised interrogation techniques’ not so very far removed from torture.

In Britain, the priority must be to expose the full scale of British complicity with US torture, kidnapping and other abuses. In 2008, British law courts found that an MI5 officer had participated in the unlawful interrogation of Binyam Mohamed while he was held in Pakistan (see FRFI 2006) and, despite agreeing that there was an ‘arguable case’ that Mohamed had been tortured and abused in custody, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has refused to disclose information about CIA practices. The cross party parliamentary intelligence and security committee is expected to censure the British government for withholding information about the extent of its cooperation with the CIA’s secret prison network and what it knew about the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo.
Britain cannot be let off the hook while questions remain about its co-operation with the US illegal ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights of kidnapped detainees over British airspace and the use of Diego Garcia as a CIA prison base. And the campaign must continue against Britain’s own abuse of detainees through the use of closed courts, secret hearings, control orders and the willingness to rely on evidence obtained through torture. In December 2008, in a sinister echo of the Bush administration’s words, British Immigration Minister Phil Woolas called for Britain to rethink its commitment to the Geneva Conventions, describing them as ‘outdated’.

Cat Alison

FRFI 207 February / March 2009


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