By Victor Thorn
In 2008, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama campaigned as a man of peace, promising to stop torture and close the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. Upon moving into the White House in January 2009, Obama assured Americans that his administration would exhibit marked differences from that of George W. Bush. Ten months later, the Nobel Foundation awarded Obama its most esteemed prize, the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Today, however, “Gitmo” is still open. Some 90K U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. When Obama took office, that number stood at only 34K. Iraq teems with tens of thousands of U.S.-paid mercenaries. Obama has launched wars in Libya, central Africa and Yemen and has authorized international assassinations.
But where the Obama administration most closely resembles the George W. Bush regime is in the numerous torture-and-murder facilities it runs around the globe.
In March, the Afghan Independent Rights Commission released a report citing reliable evidence of “beatings, suspension from the ceiling, electric shocks and threatened or actual sexual abuse” being carried out by the U.S. government at detention facilities in Afghanistan.
The current administration has dropped all criminal prosecutions against those individuals in the Bush administration that Obama accused of torture while he campaigned in 2008. In essence, as The Washington Post reported, only “two or three cases” would be investigated.
On May 18, this writer spoke with London-based writer Andrew Worthington. As author of the book The Guatanamo Files, he is the premier authority on this subject.
“It’s important to know that the landscape has shifted in the Obama administration,” Worthington told AFP. “Although there are still secret facilities in Afghanistan and other places where there isn’t much scrutiny, the main structure of the Bush administration is gone.”
Confirming these assertions, on May 17 AFP interviewed a top official at the London-basedCagePrisoners, an organization that monitors secret detention facilities. He insisted that he’d speak with us only if his exact identity was kept secret.
He told AFP that the U.S. still maintains secret prisons in Europe, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Somalia.
When asked why a country like Syria—seemingly a profound enemy of the U.S.—would allow such installations to exist, the representative replied: “Syria is similar to Libya before [Muammar] Qaddafi was overthrown. We’ve recently discovered that many citizens opposed to the Libyan regime were tortured, and the whole operation was coordinated between Libyan intel and Britain’s MI6. The UK provided tips to the Libyan government about those who were opposed to them. So, behind closed doors, these countries have similar interests.”
AFP queried Worthington as to the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute high-ranking Bush officials who authorized torture—including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Justice Department attorney John Yoo and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. “They all committed crimes, so there is no excuse for not prosecuting them,” he said. “Obama isn’t dealing with it effectively; and if they get away with torture, it sends a message that the U.S. can do whatever it wants.”
He continued: “I’m trying to be as generous as possible, but politically—and even in terms of his own personal safety—it would be difficult to prosecute individuals from the previous administration. It would rip your entire country apart. On the other hand, Obama is a man who has lacked strength in a lot of areas. He hasn’t been bold or courageous in regard to Gitmo or the war on terror.”
Understanding political realities, Worthington said: “It’s difficult for anyone to come up against the military-industrial complex and shut it down. Components of the U.S. military and intelligence are out of control. They have insane amounts of money, and they’re not accountable to anyone. So, in this context, there is a huge gulf between what Obama said he’d do and what he’s really done.”
AFP Interviews Innocent Man Tortured by U.S.
By Victor Thorn
On May 19, AFP spoke with Moazzam Begg, a Pakistani citizen who was kidnapped in 2002 by U.S. intelligence, tortured for years and then released after U.S. officials realized he was innocent of any crime.
The story begins on Jan. 31, 2002, when CIA officials stormed into the Islamabad residence of Begg because, according to them, he was an “enemy combatant” who had trained with al Qaeda. At the time, Begg oversaw the formation of an educational program to assist local children in the area.
Begg related the experience to AFP: “It clearly dawned on me that these men, wearing hoods, were deciding to kidnap me,” he said. “I was taken to a vehicle and handcuffed, and from their accents I could tell they were Americans. Terrifying is the only way I can describe being shackled with a gun pointed to your head. It was an act of terror.”
AFP questioned Begg as to what he felt their motives were.
“We know now,” he began, “that bounties were being offered for arrests, especially by the U.S. In my particular case, I don’t think they felt I was a dangerous individual, but they hoped to glean information from me because I traveled to Bosnia and Afghanistan. I fit the profile, and they didn’t like my politics.”
Begg spent the next three years being shuttled between detention centers in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s Bagram Airbase, Kandahar and Cuba’s Guantánamo Prison.
AFP asked him to convey what he saw in these torturous atmospheres.
“From the outset, even worse than your own torture is watching someone else’s,” he said. “Men were stripped naked, beaten, thrown on the floor, had their facial hair forcibly shaven, or [were] paraded around naked, as ferocious dogs growled at them. I watched these atrocities and knew it would also happen to me.”
In regard to his own tortures, Begg said: “During CIA interrogations, my arms were hogtied to my legs as they kicked and punched me. Next, pictures of my wife and kids were revealed, with threats that they would be tortured, or I’d never see them again. To add even more impact, a woman in an adjacent room kept screaming. I was led to believe it was my wife. But the worst was watching people being beaten to death.”
On June 3, 2006 Begg expanded on these brutalities via an interview with CagePrisoners, a group that he later founded and now directs.
“[One man] was hung from the ceiling, and his body had gone limp,” said Begg. “Instead of coming in there to help him, they [soldiers] tried to get him to stand. When he couldn’t stand because he had gone weak, they started punching him. Then they dragged his body off into an isolation cell,where we all heard rumors that he was killed.”
These rumors were later confirmed to Begg at Gitmo.
He witnessed other horrors, which Begg told to AFP.
“What happened at Abu Ghraib didn’t take place until 2003, but I saw similar things with my own eyes even before then at Bagram,” he said. “It reminded me of a POW war camp. Upwards of 10 men were shackled together naked. You need to know that Muslims aren’t used to seeing other men naked. Plus, they terrorized us with rabid dogs, kind of like what I later saw with the Abu Ghraib naked pyramid photos.”
When asked for his thoughts on Gitmo, Begg simply responded, “It is the epitome of everything that is wrong in the world when it comes to extrajudicial detention.”
Now a free man, Begg spoke of his emotions upon being released in 2005: “I felt jubilation and apprehension at the same time. It was a sense of disbelief, similar to when being kidnapped. I couldn’t believe it then, and now it all seems so surreal.”
Today, with CagePrisoners, Begg is spearheading a public awareness campaign to help those detained without charges, while also trying to hold the guilty parties accountable for what they had done.
Begg’s words on what it took to survive should give everyone hope during their darkest hours.
“I didn’t care what these people did to me,” he said. “They could never break my conscience and spirit. After being released, I felt the shock of freedom, yet it’s also an ordeal trying to lead a normal life again.”
Inside the Chambers
Goal is to inflict maximum physical, psychological pain
By Victor Thorn
The mainstream media in the United States has been complicit in torture by censoring reports about what U.S. officials have done to “terrorism suspects” in secret. Journalists routinely employ euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogations” or downplay the effects of torture to keep public outrage at a minimum.
“The U.S. media is careful in finding ways not to use the word ‘torture’,” London-based author Andrew Worthington told AFP. “But it is torture, and the U.S. government at its highest levels connived to make torture not seem like torture.”
Worthington described a celebrated case currently making its way to the EU’s Human Rights Court. “In 2003, operatives of the Macedonian government working with the CIA kidnapped Khalid el-Masri,” he said. “They held Masri in a hotel room for three weeks at gunpoint until realizing they had the wrong person. In actuality, Masri worked as a car dealer in Germany. So, they dumped him alongside an Albanian road in the middle of the night.”
A representative of CagePrisoners, a human rights organization, told AFP about the case of Binyam Mohamed, kidnapped in Pakistan under the U.S. extraordinary rendition program. After being tortured at a Moroccan “ghost prison,” agents transferred him to Guantánamo Bay prison. Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ups knew Mohamed played no role in the “dirty bomb plot” supposedly engineered by Jose Padilla. U.S. government officials have yet to admit that Mohamed was held or tortured abroad. Padilla is currently in a U.S. prison, convicted of trying to blow up a radioactive “dirty bomb.”
Of special interest are claims by Mohamed that he had been jailed in Afghanistan’s notorious “Dark Prison.”
When asked about this facility, Worthington informed AFP: “The Dark Prison is a former Russian factory that looks like a medieval dungeon. Detainees were chained to walls, barely fed, while loud music blasted in their ears day and night. It’s almost inconceivable for any of us to comprehend the naked brutality of it.”
Worthington did clarify that most detention centers weren’t akin to the Dark Prison. “Really, most of them feel like a laboratory,” he said. “They’re clean, efficiently managed, while tortures were clinically conducted. But then, behind this façade, you’d find a man hanging naked from the ceiling by chains.”
He elaborated: “Other techniques included permanent isolation in solitary confinement, nudity, extreme hot or cold conditions, sleep deprivation and psychological torture. Then, if more regimented violence was deemed necessary, guards would throw prisoners against walls or ‘waterboard’ them. Waterboarding is actually controlled drowning.”
The end result is clear, said Worthington: “The goal inside these secret prisons is to inflict the maximum amount of physical stress, in order to break a person. It’s designed to create a state of learned helplessness, where detainees are entirely dependent on their interrogators. The only way to bring this torture to an end is by cooperating.”
In addition to the U.S. rendition program, Worthington also spoke about ghost prisoners: “The identity of these men are kept off the books so prisoners can’t be inspected by the Red Cross, which guarantees minimum safeguards under the Geneva Convention.”
When questioned about who, precisely, called the shots for these torture programs, Worthington didn’t hesitate:
“You have to look at Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld,” he said. “Prior to George W. Bush’s election, both men worked for Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush Sr., while defending Iran-contra. These guys believe in unfettered power for the executive branch, power that cannot be challenged. They pushed the limits of the program and feel rules don’t apply to them. According to them, the president can do whatever he wants.”