When I recently met up in Beirut with James Connell, the defence attorney for 9/11 suspect Ammar al-Baluchi, he recalled his August 2013 visit to Guantanamo Bay’s clandestine Camp Seven as follows: “In the most secret picnic of all time, Ammar was our host.”
Connell is the only lawyer to have ever been permitted to meet with a client in the facility, which houses five 9/11 suspects in addition to 10 other “high-value” detainees. The “picnic” came about when the detainees learned that Connell and two colleagues were going to be without food for the duration of their 12-hour incursion.
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The prisoners promptly donated their own meals, and Baluchi advised Connell on which components were more edible than others and which could be improved with lemon.
It’s nothing short of remarkable, of course, that someone subjected to intensely dehumanising treatment over a long period of time hasn’t had every ounce of humanity leached out of him. Abducted by the United States in 2003 in Pakistan, Baluchi was held at one or more “black sites” abroad, where he underwent torture by the CIA prior to being transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.
Manic classification scheme
As if the torture itself weren’t enough, the US subsequently embarked on a manic classification scheme according to which – as Connell notes in a report on US non-compliance with the Convention against Torture – the government “considers the observations and experiences of its victims of ill-treatment to be owned and controlled by the State”.
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In other words, if you’ve been tortured by the CIA, you’re not allowed to talk about it with anyone aside from your lawyer, who in turn can be criminally prosecuted for sharing details of the events – such as location of torture or methods involved.
Lisa Hajjar, author of “Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights” and the organiser of Connell’s recent talk at the American University of Beirut, “Is Guantanamo Bay a war crime?” summed up the detainees’ predicament: “Their memories are classified.”
If the word “totalitarian” happens to spring to mind, rest assured that such thoughts have not yet been criminalised.
On November 12 and 13 in Geneva, the United Nations Committee against Torture will review the US’ track record for the first time since 2006.
They’ll presumably have plenty to discuss, particularly in light of the continuing US opinion that 9/11 Guantanamo detainees aren’t covered by the anti-torture convention, which emphasises victims’ rights to complain about and seek redress for their ill treatment.
Connell’s report on the subject, which was submitted to the committee, describes point-blank current US motivations vis-a-vis these particular detainees: “The State Party seeks to execute … men imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay before they can reveal the truth of their torture.”
It’s this sort of cold-blooded approach that makes the obsession with force-feeding inmates all the more confounding; after all, why try so hard to keep folks alive if you’re just going to kill them?
According to Connell, the committee will also review the idea of force-feeding itself as a form of torture. Although denied by the US, the validity of this classification is pretty much a no brainer for anyone who can imagine being shackled to a chair and having tubes rammed down their nostrils and into their stomachs.
But again, the force-feeding frenzy to prevent prisoners from dying of hunger in US custody – something that apparently constitutes a red line as far as upkeep of the national image goes – raises the question of why the same red line doesn’t apply to torture in the first place, or to the maintenance of illegal prisons, the slaughter of civilians via drone strikes, or the launching of devastating wars under false pretences.
On a roll
Baluchi is accused of war crimes for allegedly wiring funds that ultimately contributed to the execution of the 9/11 attacks.
However, the ample evidence supporting an affirmative answer to Connell’s question: “Is Guantanamo Bay a war crime?” suggests that the accusations against Baluchi also qualify as an extreme case of projection.
That the US regularly violates the Geneva Conventions stipulating humane treatment for prisoners becomes even more glaringly obvious when we consider that the majority of the detainees at Guantanamo have never been charged with a crime and have furthermore been cleared for release.
Of course, the US government has auto-endowed itself with the powers to exempt its enemies from the protections afforded by Geneva. But it’s unlikely such measures will enhance “national security”, the catchphrase perennially invoked to justify the trampling of basic rights worldwide.
Instead, by obsessively classifying information regarding its abuse of detainees, the US is not disappearing its crimes but rather multiplying them – and in doing so, enhancing conditions for ever more radical responses.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.