From the April 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 4)

Eye on the United States

Treatment of Prisoners Exposes America

Gitau Warigi, The East African (independent), Nairobi, Kenya, January 27, 2002

Harboring terrorists: U.S. military police watch detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Photo: Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Department of Defense).
America’s war against terrorism may have decimated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But that was to be expected. What is surprising is another side of America exposed by this war, which the country likes to believe does not exist.

Start with the treatment of Al-Qaeda prisoners being transported to the X-Ray camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The photographs splashed across the globe— shackled captives, their eyes blacked out behind no-see goggles, their ears and noses tightly muffled as they were made to kneel before their captors— rightly caused international outrage, even in European countries that consider themselves U.S. allies.

The “technique” being applied to the prisoners as shown in the pictures is called sensory deprivation. It is a refined but no less cruel form of torture. All the prisoner’s senses are blocked. The eyes are completely blindfolded. The ears are muffled. So is the nose. The prisoner cannot see, hear, smell, or feel anything. The Al-Qaeda men were kept like this for an agonizing 20-hour flight from Afghanistan, and seemingly for another spell thereafter.

Try to imagine the extreme trauma this totally blacked-out state causes, and you will get sick. Like all torture, the aim is to break the victim as he is prepared for interrogation. Sensory deprivation is especially preferred because it leaves no physical traces. Nonetheless, the mental scars it bears are severe.

You would be amazed at the roll call of culprits who have practiced this sordid business. A startling 1974 book called The Guinea Pigs detailed shocking cases of sensory deprivation experiments carried out in 1971 on 14 Irish Republican Army prisoners by their British jailers.

Authored by an Irish ex-prisoner, John McGuffin, the book caused a sensation upon publication, selling 20,000 copies in the first two weeks of release. The British government, however, exerted so much pressure to block the book’s sale that it was abruptly taken off the market.

In 1981 the book was reissued, but with two of the most damning chapters omitted. The saving grace was that the outcry the book provoked in 1974 forced British authorities to outlaw this kind of mental and psychological torture. In addition, some US$5 million has since been paid out by the British government over the years to victims of torture.

But others were quick to pick up where the Brits left off. East Europeans had long been acknowledged as masters of the science of mental torture. There have also been very plausible charges by assorted American activists that their country has indulged in this kind of gross human-rights abuse targeted at sundry undesirables: Black Panther members, Puerto Rican nationalists, peaceniks of the Plowshares movement [that opposes the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction], and the like.

For all that, books like The Guinea Pigs can be comparatively tame. That Her Majesty’s good government subjected captured Mau Mau fighters to unspeakable horrors in our own country is totally shocking. [A group of freedom fighters called the Mau Mau led a rebellion from 1952-59 to free Kenya from British colonialism at any cost. British troops crushed the rebellion.—WPR] Hearing those tales from the survivors quite simply harrows the soul. Those who sneer at these survivors’ periodic demands for compensation from Britain have no idea what these men went through.

In releasing the Guantánamo photos, the American military most probably wanted to frighten would-be terrorists by alerting them to what awaits them if ever they try to strike again. Little thought appears to have been given to the likelihood of fanning even more hatred toward America in the Islamic world.

The disturbing trend of America failing to practice what it preaches goes beyond its mistreatment of Al-Qaeda prisoners. There was also its undisguised anger against Al-Jazeera, the intrepid Qatar-based television station that became famous for its live broadcasts of Osama bin Laden’s speeches. Quite properly, Qatari officials rebuffed American entreaties to put pressure on the station for giving Osama coverage. That it took an autocratic, unelected monarchy like the Qatari royal family to remind America of values it likes professing, such as freedom of the press, was one of the more interesting ironies of this anti-terrorism war.

That was not all. Bush administration officials pressured CNN and the other American TV networks to cut off the Osama broadcasts. This behavior is universally known as censorship, something that America says it abhors. The explanation given by the Bush administration, that Osama’s broadcasts could contain some coded signals to Al-Qaeda foot soldiers, sounded quite sheepish.

You can expect that the world’s autocrats whom America is keen on lecturing followed this episode with great interest. “Now we know,” they must have muttered to themselves, grinning from ear to ear. Next time the Americans try to get sanctimonious, these despots will laugh them out of town.

America’s ally Britain, true to her claim as the less barbaric of the pair, showed more imagination. Tony Blair instructed his officials to avail themselves for on-air interviews with Al-Jazeera in an effort to put the West’s point of view across.

The international outcry has forced America to call a temporary halt to the transfer of Al-Qaeda prisoners to Guantánamo. A Muslim chaplain has also been appointed for the detainees, who are being held in enclosures that are nothing but cages. In a further insult to the captive men and their puritanical Muslim beliefs, there have been reports that some of the military guards overseeing them at the base are women.

Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook spoke for many when he noted that while Al-Qaeda may be terrorists, America ought not to descend to their level in seeking retribution. Whatever their crimes, the captives are human beings.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he is not bothered by reports from Guantánamo. Clearly this is somebody who is not the most sensitive of people. It is surprising the leeway this roughneck gets in the Bush administration.

The stories from Guantánamo have also brought to light another obscure injustice. It so happens that the United States pays a measly $4,000 annual rent to Cuba for use of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, which the Americans occupied in 1898. America has since refused to return the property to Cuba.

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