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Torture, The American Way

by Reverend Blair  (29 April 2004)

"We don't torture people in America. And people who make that claim just don't know anything about our country." George Bush, speaking in Australia, October 18, 2003.

In September 2002, Maher Arar was detained by US authorities in New York. Arar, a computer engineer in Ottawa was returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia, and was on a stopover in New York. The US flew Arar to Jordan and then took to Syria. In Syria, Arar says, he was held in a small cell in abhorrent conditions and tortured. Authorities in both the US and Canada were involved in the Arar investigation, although it now appears that he has no links to terrorist groups. According to the Village Voice, Syrian authorities say they had no interest in Arar, but took him as a show of goodwill toward the US. Law suits are pending in the United States and Canada.

The United States government and the Canadian Government are both signatories to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. That convention clearly states, in article 3, -

   "1. No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

   2. For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights."

Officials in both the US and Canada were fully aware of Syria's reputation for subjecting prisoners to torture. Arar was the victim of the growing paranoia promoted by the secretive and repressive war on terror, but he was also a victim of the long term practice of some governments of turning a blind eye to torture in some states if torture suits their purposes.

When the US began shipping prisoners to Guantanamo Bay to be held indefinitely away from the prying eyes of the world, talk of torture circulated. A December 26, 2002 Washington Post report pointed out that not only prisoners being forced to stand or kneel in uncomfortable positions for hours at the CIA interrogation centre un Bagram, but were being subjected to such interrogation techniques as sleep deprivation and being kept under bright lights for twenty four hour periods. In the same report the Washington Post also said that prisoners who would not cooperate were sometimes "rendered" to other states for further interrogation.

In other words, if the milder forms of torture being used by the US aren't getting results, they send the person to be interrogated by a country that will not hesitate to use much harsher forms of torture. It is kind of like outsourcing jobs, but more extreme. Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco are some of the places where the US has sent prisoners for further interrogation. These are all countries known to use torture during interrogation and as punishment.

The US uses other countries so it can maintain the appearance of abiding by international laws and agreements. In reality this no different than performing the torture themselves, but they hide behind the distinction. The US seems much less concerned about even bothering to maintain that illusion under the Bush regime.

What about those prisoners in Bagram that were being subjected to techniques such as sleep deprivation and being forced to maintain uncomfortable positions for hours on end? US authorities maintain that such techniques are not torture. They refer to them as "stress and duress" and insist that no torture is going on.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee Against Torture feel differently. According to Amnesty International, "The Committee against Torture, established to oversee implementation of the treaty, has expressly held that restraining detainees in very painful positions, hooding, threats, and prolonged sleep deprivation are methods of interrogation which violate the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." In other words the US is torturing people by using techniques that they admit to.

Then there are the things the US isn't admitting to. Two prisoners died in Bagram in December of 2002. The autopsy reports listed homicide as the cause of death. Blunt force trauma was noted in both cases. It appears that the men died from being beaten while in custody. That is torture. The men died as a result of it.

The incidents continue. We've all seen the footage of prisoners in Iraq; sacks on their heads, arms tied behind them; being made to stand in the sun for hours. Rumours of torture to prisoners being held by the US military, and sometimes private contractors working for the US military, are persistent. Usually the rumours are of the "stress and duress" variety of torture but not always.

The apologists say that torture is sometimes necessary to obtain information. That fallacy is shown in an episode of the television series Seven. A man is being tortured, he gives some pertinent information. The torturer passes the information on to an American sitting in the next room, apparently to avoid being involved in the actual torture. The bomb is found and everybody lives happily ever after.

Seven is just a television drama, but that scenario is the basic argument for torturing prisoners. It doesn't hold up to scrutiny because a subject of torture will often say almost anything to make the torture stop. The information is unreliable at best, dangerously wrong at worst. What if the subject of torture didn't know where the bomb was? What if he lied? Time and resources would be wasted, nothing having been accomplished except the torture of a prisoner...a crime. The bomb would still go off and there would be no happily ever after. The excuses given to justify torture are as fictional as the television show Seven.

We have real-world examples of the reliability of information obtained from torture victims. Maher Arar signed a confession when he was being tortured in Syria. He admitted to being a terrorist and having spent time at al Qaida training camps. He later recanted, saying the confession was a result of torture. Even the Syrians didn't believe the confession. They knew it was the result of the torture.

Torture continues though. It does so in spite of international law and signed conventions. It does so in spite of the fact that even the torturers do not trust any information gained.

In July of 2003, CBS News reported the story of Khraisan al-Aballi. al-Aballi's house was raided by US forces one night. His brother was wounded in the attack and Khraisan, his eighty year old father, and his wounded brother were taken into custody. The father and Khraisan were taken to the detention centre at the Bagdad where Khraisan says he was stripped naked and kept awake for over a week. He was made to stand or kneel almost the entire time, with a bag over his head. He was finally released after eight days.

In February of 2004 Electronic Iraq released a story written by Jim Loney, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Loney interviewed two Iraqi men who had been taken captive by US forces after an explosion near their house. Both men reported being hooded, beaten, refused food, having their hands tied behind them, being kept awake, and being forced to maintain uncomfortable physical positions for extended periods. This treatment lasted for days while the men were interrogated. They knew no details of the explosion, both are farmers and drivers for government departments. Their detention and torture was arbitrary, a fishing trip based on nothing more than where they lived and attended Mosque.

Such stories are becoming more and more common as the occupation of Iraq drags on and alleged war on terror expands. US military and intelligence agencies are becoming increasingly bold in their defiance of international and domestic laws. They pay no heed to conventions they have signed and refuse to answer for their crimes.

The US, while claiming to be fighting injustice and repression, is committing acts of injustice and repression on a daily basis. They are also, undoubtedly, creating new terrorists on a daily basis by doing so. In the end they will learn the hard lesson learned by all nations who seek to dominate others, that you cannot rule by force. In the meantime they are making the world less safe for all of us.

- Vive le Canada

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revised 18 November 2005