Thursday, March 23, 2006

CBS Cameraman to be tried

The most under-reported story of the day from Iraq was the news that CBS Cameraman, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, held for nearly a year without charge, will be prosecuted in Baghdad court shortly. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Hussein was picked up by US forces near Mosul in April 2005. While the charges and evidence against him remain secret, the US military has gone out of its way to paint him as guilty until proven innocent. US officials suspect him of having prior knowledge of the attacks he filmed, claim that he tested positive for explosive residue. (If that is enough to convict a war correspondent, one wonders how we would ever get any news from war zones.)

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Bigger Fish to Try

So dog handler Sgt. Smith gets six months in jail for his use of his unmuzzled black German shepherd against detainees at Abu Ghraib. He will also be demoted and fined. It's a start, but in light of evidence brought out in the trial, it does not seem fair to punish only Sgt. Smith. As the New York Times's Eric Schmitt points out, Col. Thomas Pappas and General Geoffrey Miller were directed implicated in the use of dogs in Abu Ghraib. And they are not about to stand trial, Schmitt tries to explain why:

Some military experts said one reason there had not been attempts to pursue charges up the military chain of command was that the military does not have anything tantamount to a district attorney's office, run by commanders with the authority to go after the cases.

"The real question is, who is the independent prosecutor who is liberated to pursue these cases," said Eugene Fidell, a specialist in military law. "There is no central prosecution office run by commanders. So you don't have a D.A. thinking, I'm going to follow this wherever it leads." [...]

Sergeant Smith, who was convicted Tuesday for abusing detainees in Iraq with his black Belgian shepherd, had said he was merely following interrogation procedures approved by the chief intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, Col. Thomas M. Pappas. In turn, Colonel Pappas had said he had been following guidance from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, commander of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who in September 2003 visited Iraq to discuss ways to "set the conditions" for enhancing prison interrogations, as well as from superiors in Baghdad. [...]

But in Sergeant Smith's trial, General Miller was never called to testify. Colonel Pappas acknowledged that he had mistakenly authorized a one-time use of muzzled dogs to keep prisoners in order outside their cells, but he said that he had no idea that dog handlers were using unmuzzled dogs to terrorize detainees as part of the interrogation process. Colonel Pappas had previously been reprimanded and relieved of his command, but was permitted to testify under a grant of immunity. [...]

The trial of a second dog handler, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, is scheduled to begin on May 22, and it may offer another occasion for defense lawyers to try to direct blame at higher levels. Sergeant Cardona's lawyer, Harvey Volzer, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that his defense would include information not revealed in Sergeant Smith's trial. Mr. Volzer said he would seek to have Mr. Rumsfeld, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of American forces in the Mideast, and General Sanchez all testify at Sergeant Cardona's trial.

So there is hope that more scrutiny will be placed on the command structure, both in Congress and in military courts.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Guantanamo film US release for early summer

The Road to Guantanamo, director Michael Winterbottom's film about three Britons' ordeal from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay is set to be released by a North American distributor in the US in early summer. Roadside Film's recent releases have included Supersize Me and What the Bleep do we Know?

The film will premiere in the US later this month at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Task Force 6-26 and the Black Room

The New York Times seems to have momentarily redeemed itself from the monumental screw-up of incorrectly reporting a famous Abu Ghraib detainee's identity last week.

Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall detail the abuses by the infamous Task Force 6-26, a Special Forces group operating in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.

The allegations include the repeated use of detainees as paintball targets, at a secret detention facility near Baghdad airport called Camp Nama. The slogan of the group was apparently "No blood, no foul" implying that troops believed they could not be prosecuted for injuries to detainees which involved no spilling of blood.

Made up of members of the Delta Force, based at Fr. Bragg, the Navy Seal's Team 6, and the Army's Rangers, Task Force 6-26 was originally formed in 2003 as "Task Force 121" (which eventually inspired a bizarre fantasy videogame.)

TF 6-26's members have "special" privileges, they are allowed to grow beards and wear civilian clothing. The role of civilian interrogators and interpreters in the TF is unclear.

The CIA, FBI and even Army officials had warned as early as August 2003 that the situation at Camp Nama was out of control, yet no real action was taken by the Pentagon until the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004. (See the memo above.)

The Times story is worth reading, as it brings more evidence and more specific allegations to light regarding the operation of the mysterious TF 6-26, its invented rituals and methods.

The abuses at Camp Nama continued despite warnings beginning in August 2003 from an Army investigator and American intelligence and law enforcement officials in Iraq. The C.I.A. was concerned enough to bar its personnel from Camp Nama that August.

It is difficult to compare the conditions at the camp with those at Abu Ghraib because so little is known about the secret compound, which was off limits even to the Red Cross. The abuses appeared to have been unsanctioned, but some of them seemed to have been well known throughout the camp. [...]

Task Force 6-26 had a singular focus: capture or kill Mr. Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant operating in Iraq. "Anytime there was even the smell of Zarqawi nearby, they would go out and use any means possible to get information from a detainee," one official said.

Defense Department personnel briefed on the unit's operations said the harsh treatment extended beyond Camp Nama to small field outposts in Baghdad, Falluja, Balad, Ramadi and Kirkuk. These stations were often nestled within the alleys of a city in nondescript buildings with suburban-size yards where helicopters could land to drop off or pick up detainees.

At the outposts, some detainees were stripped naked and had cold water thrown on them to cause the sensation of drowning, said Defense Department personnel who served with the unit.

In January 2004, the task force captured the son of one of Mr. Hussein's bodyguards in Tikrit. The man told Army investigators that he was forced to strip and that he was punched in the spine until he fainted, put in front of an air-conditioner while cold water was poured on him and kicked in the stomach until he vomited. Army investigators were forced to close their inquiry in June 2005 after they said task force members used battlefield pseudonyms that made it impossible to identify and locate the soldiers involved. The unit also asserted that 70 percent of its computer files had been lost.

Despite the task force's access to a wide range of intelligence, its raids were often dry holes, yielding little if any intelligence and alienating ordinary Iraqis, Defense Department personnel said. Prisoners deemed no threat to American troops were often driven deep into the Iraqi desert at night and released, sometimes given $100 or more in American money for their trouble.

Back at Camp Nama, the task force leaders established a ritual for departing personnel who did a good job, Pentagon officials said. The commanders presented them with two unusual mementos: a detainee hood and a souvenir piece of tile from the medical screening room that once held Mr. Hussein.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

US court: green light for CIA renditions

This week the Village Voice's Nat Hentoff analyzes the decision of a federal judge to throw out a suit by a Canadian citizen, alleging the US sent him illegally to be tortured in Syria.

In 2002, Maher Arar, who was born in Syria, was stopped while in transit through the US home to Canada. After being held incommunicado, he was "extraordinarily rendered" by the US to Jordan and then Syria, a country that State Department alleges tortures people regularly. In Syria, Arar was tortured and held in solitary confinement for nearly a year.

The Voice calls Judge David Trager's decision last month to throw out Arar's civil suit "startling" and "ominous." The suit was seeking damages from former US Attorney General John Ashcroft.

According to the Voice article, Trager's decision is a green light for the government to continue the CIA "extraordinary renditions." The conditions placed on detainee treatment by Congress last year do NOT apply to the CIA. Trager, unsurprisingly, is one of a large crop of Bush administration appointees.

The Trager decision tramples on the concept of "judicial review" of the Legislative and Executive branches of government. In his decision he writes the other branches of government decide where judicial oversight is appropriate.

What about the separation of powers? Ah, said Trager, "the coordinate branches of our government [executive and legislative] are those in whom the Constitution imposes responsibility for our foreign affairs and national security. Those branches have the responsibility to determine whether judicial oversight is appropriate."

Gee, I thought that the checks and balances of our constitutional system depend on the independence of the federal judiciary, which itself decides to exercise judicial review.

Judge Trager went further to protect the Bush administration's juggernaut conduct of foreign policy: "One need not have much imagination to contemplate the negative effect on our relations with Canada if discovery were to proceed in this case, and were it to turn out that certain high Canadian officials had, despite public denials, acquiesced in Arar's removal to Syria."

"More generally," Trager went on, "governments that do not wish to acknowledge publicly that they are assisting us would certainly hesitate to do so if our judicial discovery process could compromise them."

But judge, the Canadian government itself is now actively involved in an inquiry to discover, among other things, what happened to Arar, and how. And in Europe, there is a fierce controversy over whether governments there have been covertly involved in facilitating the CIA's kidnapping of terror suspects from other lands.

Is it the job of a federal judge here to protect other governments from embarrassment and eventual punishment by their own courts for helping the United States commit crimes?

And what about our own government's criminal accountability? The February 17 New York Law Journal noted that "Judge Trager said that even assuming the government had intended to remove Maher Arar to Syria for torture, the federal judiciary was in no position to hold our government officials liable for damages 'in the absence of explicit direction by Congress . . . even if such conduct violates our treaty obligations or customary international law.' " (Emphasis added.)

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

British Ex-SAS soldier speaks out

The Telegraph printed extensive excerpts of an interview with a 28-year old retired SAS soldier, who resigned after his first tour in Iraq. Groomed to be part of the elite SAS counter terrorism contingent, Ben Griffin had already served in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan. In Iraq he served for three months in the SAS G-Squadron, along side the US Army's Delta Force in early 2005.

To quote him:

I saw a lot of things in Baghdad that were illegal or just wrong. I knew, so others must have known, that this was not the way to conduct operations if you wanted to win the hearts and minds of the local population. And if you don't win the hearts and minds of the people, you can't win the war.

If we were on a joint counter-terrorist operation, for example, we would radio back to our headquarters that we were not going to detain certain people because, as far as we were concerned, they were not a threat because they were old men or obviously farmers, but the Americans would say 'no, bring them back'.

The Americans had this catch-all approach to lifting suspects. The tactics were draconian and completely ineffective. The Americans were doing things like chucking farmers into Abu Ghraib [the notorious prison in Baghdad where US troops abused and tortured Iraqi detainees] or handing them over to the Iraqi authorities, knowing full well they were going to be tortured.

The Americans had a well-deserved reputation for being trigger happy. In the three months that I was in Iraq, the soldiers I served with never shot anybody. When you asked the Americans why they killed people, they would say 'we were up against the tough foreign fighters'. I didn't see any foreign fighters in the time I was over there.

I can remember coming in off one operation which took place outside Baghdad, where we had detained some civilians who were clearly not insurgents, they were innocent people. I couldn't understand why we had done this, so I said to my troop commander 'would we have behaved in the same way in the Balkans or Northern Ireland?' He shrugged his shoulders and said 'this is Iraq', and I thought 'and that makes it all right?'

As far as I was concerned that meant that because these people were a different colour or a different religion, they didn't count as much. You can not invade a country pretending to promote democracy and behave like that.

On another operation, Mr Griffin recalls his and other soldiers' frustration at being ordered to detain a group of men living on a farm.

After you have been on a few operations, experience tells you when you are dealing with insurgents or just civilians and we knew the people we had detained were not a threat.

One of them was a disabled man who had a leg missing but the Americans still ordered us to load them on the helicopters and bring them back to their base. A few hours later we were told to return half of them and fly back to the farm in daylight. It was a ridiculous order and we ran the risk of being shot down or ambushed, but we still had to do it. The Americans were risking our lives because they refused to listen to our advice the night before. It was typical of their behaviour.

As far as the Americans were concerned, the Iraqi people were sub-human, untermenschen. You could almost split the Americans into two groups: ones who were complete crusaders, intent on killing Iraqis, and the others who were in Iraq because the Army was going to pay their college fees. They had no understanding or interest in the Arab culture. The Americans would talk to the Iraqis as if they were stupid and these weren't isolated cases, this was from the top down. There might be one or two enlightened officers who understood the situation a bit better but on the whole that was their general attitude. Their attitude fuelled the insurgency. I think the Iraqis detested them.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Detainee No. 155148

The Washington Post reports that Army Sargeant Michael J. Smith, in his court martial hearing for the use of dogs at Abu Ghraib, has submitted as evidence the famous photo of himself scaring a detainee with a black dog.

Sgt. Smith's defense alleges that he was specifically ordered by superiors to use dogs on Detainee 155148, whose real name is Ashraf Abdullah Ahsy. The defense alleges this detainee was marked as a "high value" and that his continued interrogation was declared a "special project" of Military Intelligence at Abu Ghraib.

Sgt. Smith and another dog handler allege that the use of dogs against the detainees was encouraged and approved of by Military Intelligence at the prison.

The Post writes that Col. Thomas Pappas, who ran military intelligence at the prison and was recently granted immunity for his testimony, approved of the use of dogs on certain detainees only days before the infamous photo was taken of Ahsy.

More than other torture techniques like water-boarding, and the use of tight restraints, the question of the use of dogs seems to be the most likely to implicate some of the Pentagon's bigger fish, including Col. Thomas Pappas and General Geoffrey Miller.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Coming to terms with torture

The man whose haunting image changed the world is now an individual, with a name, a face, and a mission. Ali Shalal Qaissi, the man pictured standing on a box, with a black frock and electrodes attached to his fingers, was imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib prison.

The New York Times' Hassan Fattah caught up with him and tells his important story.

Qaissi, known as "Haj Ali," now uses the famous image of himself on his business cards.

Based in Amman, Jordan, he founded the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons. He now travels the Middle East raising awareness and funds to support prisoners and their families.

One wonders whether the discussion of torture, in Syria and other nations with dubious records, will transcend criticisms of America and inspire a more generalized discussion of rights and liberties. Haj Ali himself displays surprisingly little ill -will towards the United States.

It must be noted that he has been rejected visas for speaking engagements in Italy and Austria. (This is apparently linked to allegations by Iraqi exiles in Germany that Haj Ali was implicated in human rights abuses in his capacity as Mayor during the Saddam era, allegations which Haj Ali denies.)

Today, those photographs, turned into montages and slideshows on Mr. Qaissi's computer, are stark reminders of his experiences in the cellblock. As he scanned through the pictures, each one still instilling shock as it popped on the screen, he would occasionally stop, his voice breaking as he recounted the story behind each photograph. [...]

Financed partly by Arab nongovernmental organizations and private donations, the group's aim is to publicize the cases of prisoners still in custody, and to support prisoners and their families with donations of clothing and food.

Mr. Qaissi has traveled the Arab world with his computer slideshows and presentations, delivering a message that prisoner abuse by Americans and their Iraqi allies continues. He says that as the public face of his movement, he risks retribution from Shiite militias that have entered the Iraqi police forces and have been implicated in prisoner abuse. But that has not stopped him.

Last week, he said, he lectured at the American University in Beirut, on Monday he drove to Damascus to talk to students and officials, and in a few weeks he heads to Libya for more of the same.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Australian held, tortured for 18 mos. in Kurdistan

The Australian newspaper reported the rather incredible emerging details of the story of Australian Ahmed Jamal, who according to his family disappeared 18 months ago during a trip to the Middle East to search for a wife. Since September 2004, he has apparently been in the custody of the Kurdish Intelligence Agency, the Asayesh.

Australian consular officials only met with Jamal 10 days ago and have confirmed that he was tortured during his year and-a-half in prison. According to The Australian, he is depressed, suffering memory loss and skin rashes, and is still being threatened by prison authorities.

It is unclear how or when he might be released from custody.

Jamal's brother was previously detained in Lebanon on terrorism-related charges. But there appears to be no legal pretext for Ahmed Jamal's continuing detention.

The Australian Foreign Ministry's lack of concern over Jamal has raised criticism from civil liberties groups, who claim that the case of Douglas Wood, the Australian engineer who was kidnapped in Iraq was given much more attention.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in Northern Iraq, remains largely autonomous from the rest of Iraq. Rumors have abounded of kidnappings in Northern Iraq and secret prisons in the cities of Arbil and Suleimaniyah.

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Militants hanged; Abu Ghraib to close

The world media reported yesterday what had been rumored for quite a while -- that the US will definitively close Abu Ghraib prison. The transfer of thousands of prisoners to Camp Cropper detention facilities at the airport in Baghdad will occur when construction of the larger facility there is finished. Currently Saddam Hussein and other "high value" detainees are being held there.

In related news from Iraq, it was also reported yesterday that 13 confessed militants were hanged yesterday by the Iraqi government. It is only the second (judicial) application of the death penalty since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, its application was suspended during the US occupation. The Iraqi government can legally execute people convicted of murder, "endangering national security" and drug distribution. Only one of the hanged was indentified by name. (The first hangings in September 2005 were of "common criminals.") Interestingly, Prime Minister Jalal Talabani is against the death penalty, but allowed his deputies to sign the death warrants.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Taliban Country" airs in Germany

The reason-for-being of this blog is a powerful documentary, made in 2004, by Australian filmmaker Carmela Baranowska. Even after two years, it stands alone in its portrayal of remote, central Afghanistan. Journalists still do not spend long in Uruzgan unless "embedded." We have heard from European journalists who recently ventured into this province, but were not able to safely report from there, and returned quickly to Kandahar.

Even Kandahar, according to the Sunday Times Afghanistan correspondent Christina Lamb, is pretty off-limits at night, after a recent wave of murders and suicide bombings there.

Taliban Country airs on Sunday, Monday and possibly Tuesday (please check local listings), on WDR, German television. We hope to hear feedback from Germany, as we did from the Netherlands a couple of months ago.

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State Dept Rights Report blames Iraqis

The State Department, in its yearly survey of Human Rights practices of every country except the United States, has singled out the Iraqi police forces as the most heinous abusers of human rights in Iraq.

The New York Times and others report that the State Department admits that the Iraqi police forces (trained and armed by the US) are widely infiltrated by sectarian militias, and responsible for uncounted extra-judicial kidnappings, torture and killings. The US' treatment of its own prisoners in Iraq, numbering as high as 14,000, is not addressed in the report.

The report also describes the human rights violations in various countries to which the CIA has "rendered" prisoners, including Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Romania, a country which is suspected to have held CIA prisoners in the recent past, is also recognized as having abused prisoners rights.

China released its response to the State Department report, a full documentation of alleged US human rights violations, with an emphasis on the violation of the right to life, and social and economic rights. The Chinese dedicate a special section to violations committed outside of the US.

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Not so fast, General Miller

Salon magazine reported that congressional leaders have requested that General Geoffrey Miller's retirement be delayed until the questions surrounding the "GITMOization" of Abu Ghraib, specifically the use of dogs during interrogation, be answered in military court and (hopefully) in Congress.

General Miller was hoping to make a quiet exit, after last year having invoked the fifth amendment, the right not to self-incriminate, in the case of the two military dog handlers who are on trial for their use of dogs on detainees in Abu Ghraib.

But Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner(R-VA) and senior member Carl Levin (D-MI) have called for Miller's retirement to be "held in abeyance" until the courtmartial of these two defendents has been completed. Sources say that

Miller's active-duty status makes it easier for the Armed Services Committee to compel Miller's testimony if the senators decide to hold new hearings to determine who was ultimately responsible for the mistreatment and, in some cases, torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Bush admin losing western hearts & minds

Bush's visit to Afghanistan and his Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' visit to Europe seem to have been intended to persuade Europe and the US that everything is going alright in what the US calls the "War on Terror," and that the US still can count on support from key allies.

The French aren't buying it

Yet the visits took place against the backdrop of a prison riot in Kabul, in which at least 6 people were killed, and the release of an Amnesty International report which claims that at least 14,000 are being head in US custody in Iraq for months and months with no due process and that those in Iraqi custody are regularly subject to torture.

Bush's visit to Afghanistan amounted to little more than a photo opportunity and a courtesy call on President Karzai and American troops. Upon his departure, the prison riot raged, and was finally resolved after days of painstaking negotiation. (One of the principal causes for the riot was according to an ICRC spokesman the Afghan government's decision to force prisoners to wear orange jumpsuits -- yes, the ones associated with Guantanamo Bay.)

Having watched Gonzales take questions after a speech at a prestigious London thinktank this morning, we can verify that his "defense" of US detention was extremely flimsy. He was vigorously questioned by a skeptical policymaker and journalist audience. He refused to acknowledge the primacy of international law, or even the European insistence on this point, proposing instead that the Geneva Conventions were becoming obsolete.

When asked whether the use of dogs was still allowed in prisoner interrogation, Gonzales could not come up with a correct answer, which is quite simply that the Pentagon has explicitly banned the use of dogs during interrogation.

(Not surprisingly, Reuters and the AP failed to accurately portray Gonzales' public appearance, merely parroting the points he made during his prepared remarks. Bloomberg was the only news service to relay the full session.)

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