Crime without punishment

A moment of great rejoicing for human rights activists and champions of the rule of law came at the beginning of this month as former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in jail for “crimes against humanity”, having authorized murders, kidnappings, and torture as part of a severe anti-terrorist campaign in the 1990s. Fujimori’s sentencing, one must hope, will send a powerful message to government leaders around the world that maintaining public security is an insufficient excuse for violating fundamental human rights, and that even presidents will be held to account for the crimes they commit in office.

But not in America.

Continue reading

The worst of the worst: a memorandum

In researching an upcoming post relating to Soviet language policy (oh stop rubbing your hands with such anticipation — it’s distracting), I came across a memo that casts a sadly familiar light on the current U.S. administration’s justifications of the use of torture. I’ll let the memo — and the identity of its author — speak for themselves:

To the Secretaries of oblast and regional party committees,
To the CCs of national Communist parties,
To the people’s commissars of internal affairs, and to the heads of NKVD directorates

It has become known to the VKP CC that the secretaries of oblast and regional party committees, in checking up on employees of NKVD directorates, have laid blame on them for the use of physical pressure against those who have been arrested, treating it as something criminal. The VKP CC affirms that the use of physical pressure in the work of the NKVD has been permitted since 1937 in accordance with a resolution of the VKP CC. This directive indicated that physical pressure was to be used in exceptional cases and only against blatant enemies of the people who, when interrogated by humane methods, defiantly refuse to turn over the names of co-conspirators, and who refuse for months on end to provide any evidence, and who try to thwart the unmasking of co-conspirators who are still at large, and who thereby continue even from prison to wage a struggle against the Soviet regime. Experience has shown that such an arrangement has produced good results and has greatly expedited the unmasking of enemies of the people. True, subsequently in practice the method of physical pressure was abused by Zakovsky, Litvin, Uspensky, and other scoundrels, converting it from an exception into a rule and beginning to apply it against honest people who had been arrested accidentally. For these abuses, they [the scoundrels] have been given due punishment. But this in no way detracts from the value of the method itself when it is properly used. It is known that all bourgeois secret services use physical pressure against representatives of the socialist proletariat and rely on especially savage methods of it. We might therefore ask why a socialist secret service should be any more more humane in relation to inveterate agent of the bourgeoisie and sworn enemies of the working class and collectivized farmers. The VKP CC believes that the use of physical pressure must absolutely be continued from here on in exceptional cases and against blatant and invidious enemies of the people, and that this is a perfectly appropriate and desirable method. The VKP CC demands that the secretaries of oblast and regional party committees and the CCs of national party committees bear in mind this explanation when they check up on the employees of NKVD directorates.

Secretary of the VKP CC
J. Stalin
10.1.1939

Stop.

Section cover, Washington Monthly (Jan/Feb/Mar 2008)

The title sums it up, and in the world we once thought we lived in, nothing more would need to be said. But such is not our world any longer, and a great deal needs to be said, as often as possible. In this cause, the Washington Monthly has performed a great service by devoting a 26-page section (pdf version here) of its latest issue to a simple proposition: that the use of torture by the United States must stop. Its contributors include former congressman Bob Barr, former NSC advisor Rand Beers, terrorism expert Peter Bergen, former president Jimmy Carter, Marine Corps Brig. General (ret.) Steve Cheney, National Association of Evangelicals VP Richard Cizik, former supreme commander of NATO General Wesley Clark, senators Chris Dodd, Carl Levin, Dick Lugar, and Chuck Hagel, former U.S. Navy judge advocate general John Hutson, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former presidential special counsel Ted Sorensen. From the introduction:

In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishingly-despite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib-we remain one. As we go to press, President George W. Bush stands poised to veto a measure that would end all use of torture by the United States. His move, we suspect, will provoke only limited outcry. What once was shocking is now ordinary.

On paper, the list of practices declared legal by the Department of Justice for use on detainees in Guantanamo Bay and other locations has a somewhat bloodless quality-sleep deprivation, stress positions, forced standing, sensory deprivation, nudity, extremes of heat or cold. But such bland terms mask great suffering. Sleep deprivation eventually leads to hallucinations and psychosis. (Menachem Begin, former prime minister of Israel, experienced sleep deprivation at the hands of the KGB and would later assert that “anyone who has experienced this desire [to sleep] knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.”) Stress positions entail ordeals such as being shackled by the wrists, suspended from the ceiling, with arms spread out and feet barely touching the ground. Forced standing, a technique often used in North Korean prisons, involves remaining erect and completely still, producing an excruciating combination of physical and psychological pain, as ankles swell, blisters erupt on the skin, and, in time, kidneys break down. Sensory deprivation-being deprived of sight, sound, and touch-can produce psychotic symptoms in as little as twenty-four hours. The agony of severe and prolonged exposure to temperature extremes and the humiliation of forced nudity speak for themselves.

And yes, President George Bush did veto the measure, as predicted.

Canada’s special relationship

What are friends for, if not to politely ignore the fact that you’ve become an alcoholic and started beating your children? In such a spirit, Canada proved itself once again a faithful and utterly harmless pal of the United States yesterday when our government fell all over itself to retract a “torture awareness” manual given to its diplomats which listed the United States and Israel as states where prisoners are at risk of torture. Declared foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, “It contains a list that wrongly includes some of our closest allies. I have directed that the manual be reviewed and rewritten.” Even Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, after admitting that torture might indeed be “a live question” in American politics, finally threw his support behind the United States: “The idea that you would equate the government of the United States with the government of Iran with respect to the treatment of prisoners is a little hard to fathom,” he told the Canadian Press.

The reason why our government wrote such a manual in the first place? Because in 2002 the United States arrested and shipped an innocent Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, off to Syria to be tortured for ten months. According to CTV, it was felt during the inquiry into Arar’s case that Canadian diplomats should be taught to notice signs that prisoners had been tortured, as well to be made aware of countries in which such signs were more likely to appear. Quite rightly, the United States was placed on this list. But now we are expected to accept the Canadian government’s declaration that the United States — despite all of the evidence, all of the memos, despite even the Bush administration’s own clear intention that it be allowed to waterboard and otherwise abuse prisoners — is not such a country.

If friendship means the willingness to allow a powerful neighbouring country to take your people, torture them, hand them back to you grudgingly without apology (or simply detain them indefinitely), and then expect you to pretend that such things do not happen, well then, we are fast friends indeed. Of course, in international politics, we call such a situation “Finlandization”. In prison they’ve got another term for this kind of friendship, and it’s not a polite one.