June 16, 2005

Bush Plays Politics with Guantánamo “Gulag”

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“Absurd!” George Bush exclaimed. “Reprehensible!” Donald Rumsfeld charged. “Ridiculous!” stated Scott McClellan. “I’m offended!” declared Dick Cheney. What are they all so upset about? Is it the stripping and shackling of Guantanámo prisoners low to the ground, the forcible squeezing of their genitals, the smearing of menstrual blood on Muslim detainees, the shooting of rubber bullets at inmates, the forcing of prisoners to stand cruciform in the sun until they collapse, the desecration of the Koran, or the psychological torture documented at Gitmo by Physicians for Human Rights? Are they concerned about the treatment of Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was force-fed liquids through an IV and then forbidden from urinating, and who evidenced “behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma,” according to Time Magazine?

No, it’s Team Bush engaging in damage control after Amnesty International labeled the United States prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, “the gulag of our time.”

Strong language indeed from one of the premier human rights organizations. This is the same Amnesty International whose accusations about Saddam Hussein’s atrocities were eagerly gobbled up and regurgitated by the Bush administration when they dovetailed nicely with Bush’s predetermined plan to oust Hussein to make Iraq safe for 14 permanent US military bases.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, in a rare public rebuke, observed a “worrying deterioration in the psychological health of a large number” of the Gitmo inmates in late 2003. Until the Supreme Court instructed Bush to give the prisoners access to US courts, the Red Cross called Guantánamo “a legal black hole.”

Bush & Co., which characteristically goes after anyone or any organization that challenges its policies, is now gunning for the venerable Red Cross. A new report being circulated among Republican congressional staff this week charges that the Red Cross, which receives major funding from the United States, has lost its impartiality. Why? Because it is advocating positions at odds with American policy.

But the Red Cross’s website says the organization, founded in 1863, has a “permanent mandate founded in international law, a worldwide mission to help victims of conflicts and internal violence, whoever they are.”

Nearly two years ago, the National Lawyers Guild and the American Association of Jurists called for the closure of the US prison at Guantánamo. Amnesty International and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers have recently followed suit. Since Amnesty International’s scathing accusation, former President Jimmy Carter, Senators Chuck Hagel and Joe Biden, and Rep. Mel Martinez have come out for the closure of Gitmo. Prominent liberal neo-con Thomas Friedman and the New York Times have also jumped on board.

The Senate held a hearing on Guantánamo yesterday, but the Republican majority specified that no questions could be asked about torture or mistreatment. Nevertheless, Sen. Patrick Leahy said the prison was “an international embarrassment to our nation, to our ideals and remains a festering threat to our security.” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy felt the treatment of the Guantánamo prisoners has stained our reputation on human rights, inflamed the Muslim world and has become “a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists.”

Some Republicans, like Rep. Duncan Hunter, strive to keep Guantánamo open for business. “They’ve never eaten better. They’ve never been treated better,” according to Hunter. “We don’t beat them. We don’t touch them. We’ve been treating people well.”

But although many in the administration are in denial about the torture and abuse at Guantánamo, the high officials are stumbling over themselves as they react to the mounting furor.

Evidently before checking with Karl Rove, Bush allowed in a television interview with Fox that “we’re exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America.” Many took this to mean Bush was leaving open the possibility of closing the Guantánamo prison. Within hours of Bush’s interview, Rumsfeld categorically ruled out the prospect of shutting down the detention center. “I know of no one in the US government, in the executive branch, that is considering closing Guantánamo,” he said.

Scott McClellan, still trying to tamp down talk of closing Guantánamo this week, underscored that Rumsfeld was “talking for the administration” with his comments. The same day, Rumsfeld proclaimed that the Guantánamo operations had been more transparent than those in any military detention center. This claim is disingenuous in light of the US government’s refusal to allow UN human rights monitors, including the special rapporteur on torture, to visit the Guantánamo prisoners.

Four days after Bush’s Fox interview, Cheney reminded us, “The important thing here to understand is that the people that are at Guantánamo are bad people.” A curious characterization for individuals who have been charged with no crime.

Although Team Bush tries to portray a united front on Guantánamo, yesterday’s New York Times reported a “widening internal debate” within the Pentagon and the State Department about whether to close the prison. Indeed, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confirmed yesterday that Guantánamo’s fate is under active study.

Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, predicts it is just a matter of time before the Guantánamo prison is shut down.

But Rumsfeld says, “If you closed it, where would you go?” The reason the administration located that prison in Cuba in the first place was to avoid judicial review. And, although the Supreme Court ruled a year ago that Bush must give prisoners there access to US courts, none has yet had his day in court. Prisoners undergo annual reviews, which, according to attorney Joseph Margulies, “are a sham. They mock this nation’s commitment to due process, and it is past time for this mockery to end.” The Bush administration maintains the inmates can be jailed at Guantánamo “in perpetuity.”

No high-level officials have been investigated for their roles in setting the policies that lead to torture at Guantánamo and other US prisons. Congress must establish a truly independent commission to do a thorough investigation, no matter whom it may implicate. And, as the head of Amnesty International USA said, if the US continues to shirk its responsibility, other countries should prosecute senior US officials for violation of the Torture Convention, under the Pinochet principle.

Sen. Chuck Hagel told CNN’s Late Edition that Guantánamo is “identifiable with, for right or wrong, a part of America that people in the world believe is a power, an empire that pushes people around, we do it our way, we don’t live up to our commitments to multilateral institutions.”

Although it would be a good first step, shutting down Guantánamo prison will not stop the accusations that the US engages in human rights hypocrisy. It is our policies that must change.