By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
After six and a half years of imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay military prison, Al-Jazeera cameraman, Sami Al-Hajj, was released on May 2, 2008 in a very bad shape. He was carried off a U.S. air force jet on a stretcher when he arrived in Khartoum, Sudan, and immediately taken to hospital. Al-Hajj’s case symbolizes the policy of torture and human rights violation of the Bush Administration.
Sami al Hajj, who is originally from Sudan, is a journalist working for the Qatari TV Al-Jazeera. After an assignment to cover the conflict in Afghanistan, he was asked to return there from Pakistan to cover the inauguration of the new Afghan government. He and his crew were stopped by the Pakistani intelligence officers before they reached the border. He was handed over to U.S. authorities who took him to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and ultimately transferred to Guantánamo Bay. Al-Hajj was held as an “enemy combatant” without ever facing trial or charges. Al-Hajj was never prosecuted at Guantanamo so the U.S. did not make public its full allegations against him.
Al-Haj’s detention may be described as political since the U.S. interrogators focused almost exclusively on obtaining intelligence on Al-Jazeera and its staff. At one point U.S. officials reportedly told Al-Hajj that he would be released if he agreed to inform U.S. intelligence authorities about the satellite network’s activities. Al-Hajj refused. In October 2006, Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted his plight in a special report titled “The Enemy?” From his hospital bed in Khartoum, now a free man, he told Al-Jazeera TV that “rats are treated with more humanity”, than the Guantanamo inmates, whose “human dignity was violated.”
While denying those held at Guantánamo Bay prison the right to challenge their detentions in an independent and impartial court, in line with the centuries old right to habeas corpus, the U.S. authorities have subjected detainees to treatment and conditions that violate the absolute prohibition on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Hence it was not surprising when former President Jimmy Carter said in October last that the United States tortures prisoners in violation of international law and President Bush creates his own definition of human rights. “Our country for the first time in my life time has abandoned the basic principle of human rights… We’ve said that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to those people in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo, and we’ve said we can torture prisoners and deprive them of an accusation of a crime to which they are accused.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration is trying to make its own definition of torture and say we don’t violate them. In March 2003, a notorious torture memo was written in which John Yoo, who was then deputy assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel, argued that President Bush’s wartime authority had priority over any international ban on torture. “Our previous opinions make clear that customary international law is not federal law and that the president is free to override it at his discretion,” Yoo wrote.
The 81-page memo, declassified in January 2008 in response to an ACLU law suit, was rescinded after nine months but it was replaced by another secret legal opinion in 2005 that for first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.
In March 2008, President Bush vetoed a legislation that would have limited the CIA to using only the 19 interrogation methods approved in the Army field manual. That guidebook bans the use of waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning. CIA Director Michael Hayden has confirmed that the spy agency used the technique on three terrorist suspects in 2002 and 2003.
To borrow Senator Dodd, in the name of national security, our government is sponsoring torture programs that transcend the bounds of law and threaten our most treasured values. The U.S. once led the fight against torture and not only signed, but helped craft many of the international treaties and laws that outlaw torture. It spoke out against inhumane treatment of detainees and prisoners and offered refuge to victims of atrocities perpetrated by other governments. Now, upending two centuries of humane detention and interrogations practices, the current administration is facilitating of torture.
By failing to honor our vaunted ideals, we’ve lost the respect of much of the world. Over the past years, a litany of sordid policies and practices has sullied our image: the abuses at Abu Ghraib; the kidnapping of innocent civilians for torture in other countries, such as Syria and Egypt; the maintenance of a miserable prison at Guantanamo Bay; and President Bush’s refusal to disavow waterboarding and other abhorrent forms of “interrogation.”
As recently as a decade ago, our steady adherence to our constitutional values — our struggles to stick to our righteous principles — stood us in good stead, giving us the moral authority to lead the world. But now we’ve lost our moral authority. When the terrorists struck six years ago, the vast majority of the world’s people mourned with us. But we’ve managed to squander the world’s good will, partly by ignoring our own revered principles.
Support for America’s so-called war on terrorism has plummeted since 2002, especially in Europe, where U.S. practices against inmates at the Guantnamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons have been harshly condemned. Distrust of the United States has intensified across the world, according to a Pew Research Center survey of June 2007. Over the last five years, favorable ratings of the United States have decreased “in 26 of the 33 countries for which trends are available,” Pew said. The United States had the third-highest negative ranking, with 51 percent citing it as a bad influence and 30 percent as a good one. Next was North Korea, which was viewed negatively by 48 percent and positively by 19 percent.
Reverting to the issue of Sami Al-Hajj who was released just one day before the World Press Freedom Day. Interestingly, in its 2007 press freedom index, Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders) ranks the United States in 48th position. It cited three cases for its decision: (1) The detention of Al-Jazeera’s Sudanese cameraman, Sami Al-Haj, since 13 June 2002 at the military base of Guantanamo. (2) The unresolved murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey in Oakland, CA. in August last. (3) The prison sentence served by San Francisco-based video blogger Josh Wolf who was found in contempt of court for refusing to turn over video footage to a grand jury determining whether to bring arson charges against participants in an anti-G-8 protest.
In short, the so-called “war on terror” has led to an erosion of a whole host of human rights. Many states are resorting to practices which have long been prohibited by international law, and have sought to justify them in the name of national security.
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective: www.amperspective.com