Saturday, May 19, 2007

Legal ethics, so-called torture, and Guantanamo Bay

{ Podcast this essay @ 5min. } Two stories came across the BBC wire within the last few days which attracted my attention. One concerns, Majid Khan, who is a Pakistani-born US resident. He is currently detained at Guantanamo Bay. His claim is that he was "mentally tortured". Naturally, he proclaims his absolute innocence of all charges. He's been accused of planning to blow up US gas stations and fuel depots. I think, therefore, he is indeed a person who could be used to harm the US. Detaining him on those grounds is not completely without merit, as long as there is some evidence that uncommitted parties would find telling against allowing him unimpeded freedom of movement.

What I found intriguing about Mr. Khan's story concerns the exact nature of complaints he brings regarding his torture at Guantanamo Bay:
"I swear to God this place in some sense worst than CIA jails [sic]. I am being mentally torture here," he said. "There is extensive torture even for the smallest of infractions." Mr Khan complained about how US guards had taken away pictures of his daughter, given him new glasses with the wrong prescription, shaved his beard off, forcibly fed him when he went on hunger strike, and denied him the opportunity for recreation. This led him to attempt to chew through his artery twice, Mr. Khan said. Later, Mr Khan produced a list of further examples of psychological torture, which included the provision of "cheap, branded, unscented soap", the prison newsletter, noisy fans and half-inflated balls in the recreation room that "hardly bounce".[1]
Unquestionably, giving a man some cheap, branded, unscented soap will break him everytime. In fact, I well recall a stay at a Days Inn in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma where I had to use that kind of soap, and it drove me into such distress that I had to take a few moments to blow into a beach ball so as not to hyper-ventilate, and so as to work off my angst at the whole experience!

On a more serious note, I can appreciate the despair of sitting in a prison, lonely, scared, and unable to track any sort of schedule for due process of an alleged crime against me. Still, some people maintain such a petty undeveloped character, that they really cannot appreciate the difference between their own psychological trivialities, and actual dire circumstances. Mr. Kahn's whining strikes me as indicating this weakness of character. Compare him with someone like James Stockdale,[2] or other POW survivors, and the contrast becomes very clear.

On another side of the Guantanamo issue is the account of Lt Cdr Matthew Diaz, a US Navy lawyer who faces six months in prison and dismissal from service for sending a human rights organization the names of 550 Guantanamo Bay detainees. As he was completing is final days of a tour of service at Guantanamo Bay in 2006, he sent an unmarked Valentine's Day card to a lawyer associated with The Center for Constitutional Rights. That organization had won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that terrorism suspects had the right to challenge their detention, yet the Pentagon was refusing to identify the men, hampering the group's effort to represent them.[4]

What is interesting about the Diaz case is how he had "observed the stonewalling, the obstacles we continued to place in the way of the attorneys." He continued, "I knew my time was limited. ... I had to do something."[4] Diaz also explained how he was moved to act because prisoners' rights under the Geneva Convention had been violated: "No matter how the conflict was identified, we were to treat them in accordance with Geneva, and it just wasn't being done."[3] On my view, his actions are morally praiseworthy, though I think the execution of the plan was not well done. Later, Diaz claims he was acting "irrationally"[3] and even claiming "it was 'cowardly' to release the names and other identifying information in that manner."[4]

I am certainly not in agreement with Diaz that it was cowardly to do what he did, and I suspect he's saying this to lesson the consequences that are being levied on him for his otherwise praiseworthy actions. (Also, his light sentence of 6mos., as opposed to 14 years, leads me to believe others, likewise, think he was motivated by ethical reasons.) However, I do agree that he was somewhat irrational in what he did, for there were probably much more subtle ways for him to reveal the names of Guantanamo prisoners without him being the one who becomes the scapegoat for an on-going oppressive political policy carried out at the Pentagon. (Fortunately we still have a free press and a separate court system which eventually counteracts oppresive policies by US agencies.)

Guantanomo Bay is a very instructive study about the inconsistencies and tensions in the broader US legal process and in the treatment of internationals who are not straightforwardly protected by political commitments embedded in the documents and heritage of US traditions.


[1]"US detainee 'mentally tortured'" BBC News (Accessed 5/19/07)

[2] "James Stockdale Biography - Congressional Medal of Honor" Academy of Achievement See also "James Stockdale Dies; Won Medal of Honor, Ran for Vice President" The Washington Post

[3]"Guantanamo lawyer faces jail term" BBC News (Accessed 5/19/07)

[4] "Jury: 6 Months in Prison for Navy Lawyer" The Washington Post


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At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Guy Gadbois said...

I heard a really good piece yesterday from a guy who was an intelligence officer in Iraq & engaged in some of these methods.


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