Monday, June 16, 2008

Just a little hazing

This article should shock and disturb you. The facts contained within have shocked and disturbed me for years, but for some reason, they have received relatively little attention in the media, at least compared with what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The major reason is the lack of pictures, I think. Without any visual representation, it's hard to grab people's attention. The details may be shocking (and far more serious than anything that went on at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib), but there's some weird disconnect going on here.

The most violent of the major U.S. detention centers, the McClatchy investigation found, was Bagram, an old Soviet airstrip about 30 miles outside Kabul. The worst period at Bagram was the seven months from the summer of 2002 to spring of 2003, when interrogators there used techniques that when repeated later at Abu Ghraib led to wholesale abuses.

New detainees were shoved to the floor of a cavernous warehouse, a former Soviet aircraft machine shop that stayed dim all day, and kept in pens where they weren't allowed to speak or look at guards.

The Afghan government initially based a group of intelligence officers at Bagram, but they were pushed out. Mohammed Arif Sarwari, the head of Afghanistan's national security directorate from late 2001 to 2003, said he got a letter from U.S. commanders in mid-2002 telling him to get his men out of Bagram. Sarwari thought that was a bad sign: The Americans, he thought, were creating an island with no one to watch over them.

"I said I didn't want to be involved with what they were doing at Bagram — who they were arresting or what they were doing with them," he said in an interview in Kabul.

The rate of reported abuse was higher among men who were held at the U.S. camp at Kandahar Airfield. Thirty-two out of 42 men held there whom McClatchy interviewed claimed that they were knocked to the ground or slapped about. But former detainees said the violence at Bagram was much harsher.

The brutality at Bagram peaked in December 2002, when U.S. soldiers beat two Afghan detainees, Habibullah and Dilawar, to death as they hung by their wrists. Dilawar died on Dec. 10, seven days after Habibullah died. He'd been hit in his leg so many times that the tissue was "falling apart" and had "basically been pulpified," said then-Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, the Air Force medical examiner who performed the autopsy on him.

Had Dilawar lived, Rouse said in sworn testimony, "I believe the injury to the legs are so extensive that it would have required amputation."

The usual excuses are given; lack of training, inadequate supervision, etc. But it also gives the real reason for these abuses:

The mistreatment of detainees at Bagram, some legal experts said, may have been a violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which forbids violence against or humiliating treatment of detainees.

The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 imposes penalties up to death for such mistreatment.

At Bagram, however, the rules didn't apply. In February 2002, President Bush issued an order denying suspected Taliban and al Qaida detainees prisoner-of-war status. He also denied them basic Geneva protections known as Common Article Three, which sets a minimum standard for humane treatment.

Without those parameters, it's difficult to say what acts were or were not war crimes, said Charles Garraway, a former colonel and legal adviser for the British army and a leading international expert on military law.

Bush's order made it hard to prosecute soldiers for breaking such rules under the military's basic law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in large part because defense attorneys could claim that troops on the ground didn't know what was allowed.

In sweeping aside Common Article Three, the Bush administration created an environment in which abuse such as that at Bagram was more likely, said Garraway, a former professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

The Bush administration created the conditions that led to abuse. It is their responsibility. As the article makes clear, in most of these cases, no one at all is punished, but when they are, it's only those at the bottom. There are no high-profile prosecutions or resignations. It's a travesty.

A lot of the people who were tortured were completely innocent, but in my view, that shouldn't matter. Whether it's an innocent Afghan goat-herder or a hardened terrorist, Western militaries are supposed to have some standards of conduct. We are signatories to the Geneva Convention. We do not believe in inflicting physical or psychological pain on defenseless prisoners. It's the antithesis to everything we profess to be fighting for. And that's why it's so important to publicize these abuses and prosecute those responsible.

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