Talk is cheap; actions speak volumes. And it seems Barack Obama is compiling quite a volume for himself at America's flagship concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay. As Andrew Wander reports, conditions for prisoners at Gitmo have grown worse since Obama took office: Guantanamo conditions 'deteriorate'.
Of course, Gitmo is by no means the worst pit in America's worldwide gulag, which Obama has kept wide open for business, while fighting strenuously in court to retain all of Bush's authoritarian powers over the lives and liberties of anyone the president arbitrarily deems a suspected terrorist. And of course, he hasn't, uh, closed Gitmo, as he made a solemn promise to do within a year of his inauguration. But whether he eventually gets around to the PR show of shutting down this one camp, the fact that his administration has imposed an even harsher regime on its denizens of limbo is, literally, atrocious.
One can only assume that this has been done as some sort of compensation mechanism for Obama's promise to close the joint; every president now must continually prove that he is "tough enough" to do the dirty work – killing civilians, spying on citizens, kidnapping people and putting them in concentration camps, etc. – required to keep the imperial war machine going. Any gesture – however hollow – toward an alternative approach must be balanced with harshness elsewhere.
This works on the domestic front as well, of course. For example, you can't have even a hollow and perverse gesture at health care reform without condemning poor women to die in back-alley abortions. Somebody has to pay, in blood and suffering, for every attempt at amelioration in the system; that's the modern American way.
Within days of Obama's inauguration and subsequent announcement that he would close Guantanamo, prisoners say authorities introduced new regulations and revoked previous privileges at the prison.
"They took away group recreation for prisoners in segregation, which was the only time we saw anyone," Mohammed el Gharani remembers. [Gharani "They took away the books we had from the library. They even sprayed pepper spray into my cell while I was sleeping, so I'd wake up unable to breathe."
Gharani says he was beaten so badly by guards that he is still suffering pain today.
..."I am in the very same cell, wearing the same uniform, eating the same food, yet treated much worse compared to mid-2008," [a current] prisoner writes. "We are unable to understand the goals of the policy of more restrictions and inflexibility."
Gharani was released in June 2009, after being held in American captivity since he was seized in Pakistan in October 2001 – at the age of 14. He was originally charged with being a top money-man for al Qaeda, after an American-hired translator mistook Gharani's talk about vegetables as evidence of his wide-ranging financial operation. As the Boston Globe reported back in 2006:
He was .. interrogated using a translator from Yemen who spoke a different dialect of Arabic than was spoken in his native Saudi Arabia, according to Gharani's lawyer.
"The word `zalata' in Yemen means money, but in his Saudi Arabian dialect, it means tomato," said Smith. "They asked him, 'When you went to Pakistan, where did you get your zalata?' and he tells them all these different shops where you could buy tomatoes in Karachi. They write them all down, thinking that this 14-year-old kid is a big financier who was able to get money from all these different places."
Later, they accused him of being part of a London "cell" run by an extremist cleric – in 1998. The fact that Gharani was 11 years old at that time, and had never been to London, did not prevent him from being held captive for almost eight years – a cruel and unusual punishment no matter what the conditions were, much less with the abuse that he endured.
And still it goes on, as Wander reports:
According to the letter [from a current prisoner], prison authorities inflict "humiliating punishments" on inmates and prisoners face "intentional mental and physical harm".
"The situation is worsening with the advent of the new management," the prisoner writes, noting, like Gharani, that the new rules were imposed in January this year. Conditions, he says, "do not fit the lowest standard of human living".
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which monitors prisoner treatment at Guantanamo, declined to comment on specific allegations at the prison, but says that it recognises the cumulative effect low-level abuse can have on the well-being of prisoners in general.
"In some cases, a single act may amount to torture," ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno says. "In others, ill treatment may be the result of a number of methods used over time, which, taken individually and out of context, may seem harmless."
...Ahmed Ghappour, who represents Guantanamo prisoners, has lodged several requests to initiate investigations since Obama took office.
"I have requested four investigations regarding prisoner abuse just this past year," he says. "The military responded to my first request indicating that they would investigate, but have been radio silent since then."
Of course they've been silent. You can't expect an administration that refuses to investigate, much less prosecute, howlingly flagrant war crimes committed by its predecessor to investigate charges of abuse against itself, can you? (And again, it should be remembered that the existence of a gulag system that incarcerates people – including children – without charges or hearing, and holds them in captivity year after year, is itself a crime against humanity, regardless of the treatment given to the prisoners.)
In any case, even the cheap talk about closing Gitmo may be moot, in the wake of the Ft. Hood shootings. As we noted yesterday, many "respectable" figures in America's power structure are gearing up for "doing something" about the Muslims "in our midst," and especially those who dare sully the sacred military with their presence. As Jeremy Sapienza notes, Senator Joe Lieberman is a prime example, set to hold hearings of his Homeland Security Committee on how the Army came to nurture such a viper in its bosom, with, no doubt, recommendations on how to root out all the "self-radicalized home-grown terrorists" – the "enemy within" that Lieberman has long identified as a dire threat.
Lieberman can use his prominent position as committee chairman to do a great deal of damage, fomenting more division and racial and ethnic hatred across the country (and certainly across the media). And why is he in this position? Because the Democratic leadership (including Barack Obama, who endorsed Lieberman even after he bolted the party in a snit over being booted out by voters in an open primary) has put him there. They have placed this whining, fear-ridden extremist – now a member of a party named egotistically for himself – in a powerful post in order to buy his agreement to caucus with them, and swell their majority numbers – even though he regularly denounces their policies and votes against them.
So let no one think that the tide of hatred and malice and Muslimophobia flowing from the Ft. Hood shooting is due solely to right-wing cranks, respectable or otherwise. Just as our great and good "progressives" sell poor women down the river for a meaningless vote, they have also empowered a dim-witted extremist for meaningless partisan advantage. And now we may reap the all-too-meaningful whirlwind of their folly.
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.
This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on November 10, 2009.