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Amnesty report on "war on terror"
U.S. prison "gulags" exposed

By Lee Sustar | June 3, 2005 | Pages 1 and 2

AN AMERICAN Gulag. That's Amnesty International's description of the U.S. military prisons around the world--where arrests without cause and systematic torture recall the sadistic practices in the prisons, or gulags, of Stalinist Russia.

"The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law," wrote Amnesty International General Secretary Irene Kahn. "Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process."

Predictably, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan called the report "ridiculous," claiming that the "United States is leading the way when it comes to protecting human rights and dignity." Chair of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Myers used an appearance on Pentagon-friendly Fox News to call Amnesty's charges "irresponsible."

But he couldn't say "inaccurate." That's because Amnesty's report summarizes horrors that are already well documented, even if they are downplayed or ignored by the U.S. media.

The numbers of people imprisoned in U.S. military jails is staggering. Some 50,000 people have been detained during the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Amnesty reports.

And the military brass and CIA certainly are using methods that would be familiar to Stalin's secret police. In fact, the U.S. practice of "rendition"--moving prisoners outside the U.S.--includes transporting some to the former USSR republic of Uzbekistan, where security services are notorious for their use of torture. Some of these prisoners are "ghost detainees"--whose identities are kept secret from the Red Cross and other organizations monitoring human rights.

Detention of prisoners without charge or trial is standard operating procedure for the U.S. in the so-called "war on terror." "Thousands of people were held without charge on suspicion of anti-Coalition activities and their legal status at the end of [2003] was not clarified," Amnesty noted. "Many were held in harsh conditions, including in unacknowledged centers, for months and were denied access to lawyers and families for long periods."

The report also draws attention to systematic torture at Abu Ghraib--all but forgotten by the U.S. media aside from the trials of the low-ranking soldiers involved. The violations included, Amnesty said, "hooding for up to four days; handcuffing that caused skin lesions and nerve damage; beatings with hard objects; threats of execution; solitary confinement; acts of humiliation with detainees being paraded naked; exposure while hooded to loud noise or music; and being forced to remain for long periods in painful 'stress' positions."

In Guantánamo, the report pointed out, the U.S. has continued to deny prisoners the right to judicial review, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that gave the federal courts jurisdiction over the prisoners.

Instead, the U.S. military has devised a legal process that any dictator would welcome. First, the prisoners are given a "combatant status review tribunal" to determine whether or not they are "enemy combatants." No lawyers are permitted, and secret evidence can be used. If found to be "enemy combatants," the prisoners will receive an annual review of their case before the administrative review board--but with no access to a lawyer.

All this was set in motion with memorandums drafted by then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. As Amnesty notes, "The documents discussed, among other things, ways in which U.S. agents could avoid the international prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including by arguing that the president could override international and national laws prohibiting such treatment."

If Bush is getting away with these horrors, it's because the McCarthyite witch-hunt of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. has created a racist atmosphere that helped the administration sell such measures as necessary to deal with "terrorists."

At the same time, of course, U.S. forces have a license to kill anyone in Iraq that they deem to be an insurgent or a threat. "U.S., UK and other foreign forces in Iraq continued to enjoy immunity from Iraqi criminal and civil law," Amnesty noted. "They remained subject solely to the jurisdiction of their own states. Only a minority of killings of Iraqi civilians and other alleged abuses involving multinational forces were investigated, and those investigations that did take place were often inadequate and shrouded in secrecy. In many cases, victims' families were not told how to apply for compensation, or were given misleading information."

While the Amnesty investigation is a damning indictment of U.S. violations of human rights, it is far from a complete report on Washington's international network of secret prisons and torture chambers. For example, it was written before recent reports about the murder of two detainees in Afghanistan, who where beaten to death by U.S. soldiers.

Nor does the report include revelations about secret CIA flights to transport prisoners to be tortured in Egypt and other countries. "The activities of the CIA in Iraq and elsewhere, for example, remained largely shrouded in secrecy," the authors point out. "No investigation dealt with the USA's alleged involvement in secret transfers between countries and any torture or ill-treatment that may have ensued. Many documents remained classified."

This global gulag is the inevitable consequence of Washington's "war on terror"—military operations and alliances with dictators to consolidate U.S. imperial power in the Middle East and Asia. Activists opposed to the U.S. occupation of the Iraq should make exposure of Washington's prisons a central issue in rebuilding the antiwar movement.

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