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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