The US does not want to be known as the world's jailer, according to US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, yet she is apparently happy about her country being the world's number one torturer. US officials, however, are reluctant to admit that they torture people. Whenever the question of torture of detainees is broached, US officials, from President George Bush down, trot out the standard mantra: the US does not torture people because it is against the law. Perhaps, but the US has seldom been constrained by legal niceties. Declaring people held at the notorious prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “enemy combatants” is an example. They are regarded as being outside the remit of the Geneva Conventions. In a notorious memo written in 2002, Alberto Gonzales, then legal advisor to Bush, said that the US was not required to treat detainees at Guantanamo Bay according to the Geneva Conventions. For this advice Gonzales was rewarded with the job of top legal officer of the United States government: attorney general.
The US government's illegal attitude has not gone unnoticed, however. A UN panel on May 19 said that the indefinite detention of “suspected terrorists” at Guantanamo violates the world's ban on torture. In issuing its report, the Committee Against Torture said that the US should ensure that no prisoner is tortured. A week earlier Lord Peter Goldsmith, the British attorney-general, said that Guantanamo Bay has become a “symbol of injustice” and that its existence is unacceptable. “It is time in my view that it should close,” he said. Such strong words of condemnation from the US's staunchest European ally must have raised a few eyebrows in Washington, but US rulers have very thick skins. In response to such criticism as this, Rice said on Fox News Sunday (May 21) that the US would be delighted to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but cannot do so until the fate of “hundreds of dangerous people” held there is settled.
Describing such people as “dangerous” does not make them so. This allegation has not been proved in any court of law. Washington is reluctant to put these people on trial even in US courts; Bush and his defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld insist they must be tried by military tribunals. Even so, only a handful of the hundreds of people incarcerated in Guantanamo are to be brought before the very restricted military tribunals. At present there are 460 detainees at the notorious prison camp; several hundred have been laundered through the gulag. These include such “hardened criminals” as a 100-year-old Afghan man and an 11-year-old Afghan boy. Neither of them was sure why he was in the illegal prison. There was also the case of five British citizens, including Moazzam Begg, who wrote a fascinating account of his ordeal, Enemy Combatant, who were caught in Afghanistan or arrested in Pakistan and were held for three years. There is also 20-year-old Canadian-born Omar Khadr, who was arrested in Afghanistan when he was barely 16. As a minor he should not have been detained at all, but the Americans do not care for such legal niceties. He was so badly beaten that one eyes was injured. He is still at Guantanamo and is being tried by a military tribunal. The Canadian government has done little to protect him despite his Canadian citizenship; there have not even been verbal protests against the torture of a minor. Many people consider the Guantanamodetainees as hostages.
“We cannot be in a situation in which we are just turning loose on helpless populations or unprotected populations people who have vowed to kill more Americans if they're released,” Rice said during her Fox News interview. Such wild allegations are standard fare from the government that has killed tens of thousands around the world since September 2001. Bush has said that he is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on whether inmates can face military tribunals before he considers whether or not to close the facility. Like other US officials, Rice uses ingenuous arguments to rubbish the UN report; for instance she says that its authors have not visited the detention-centre. True, but what she does not mention is that the US refused to allow members of the panel to talk to detainees directly, despite repeated requests. To their credit, the panel-members did not want an official guided tour of the facility that has justifiably been described as a modern-day Alcatraz.
Aware that international criticism of the US behaviour's is increasing, Rice tried to deflect it by saying: “But I would ask this: If we do close down Guantanamo, what becomes of the hundreds of dangerous people who were picked up on battlefields in Afghanistan, who were picked up because of their associations with Al-Qaeda?” While her interviewers at Fox News, the rightwing TV station, did not press her to explain who has declared these people “dangerous”, they could also have asked how hundreds of people—Afghans, Pakistani, British, Canadian, Yemenis, Saudis and so on—ended up in the gulag in the first place. Most of them were seized by Afghans and accused of being members of al-Qa'ida or the Taliban, and handed over to the Americans for paltry sums. Many of the accusers had personal grudge against individuals. The Americans were so outraged by the events of 9/11 (and are generally so stupid) that they neither understood nor wanted to know what was going on. They were not interested in finding out whether there was actually any real evidence against the people they were seizing from the streets and hauling thousands of miles away.
Rice has said that the US works to try to return detainees to their native lands if their governments will take them and guarantee that they will not be mistreated. How touching! Prisoners have been brutally tortured by the US, at Guantanamo and in other prisons under its control, such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram in Afghanistan and countless others whose locations have not been disclosed but which are known to exist. Even an American senator, John McCain, who himself was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has said: “I don't think they deserve a fair jury trial, but there should be some sort of adjudication” to decide whether detainees are held for life, executed or released rather than held indefinitely.
Not only is the US the world's most notorious torturer, but it also has the world's largest number of people behind bars in its own country. Thousands are held in zoo-like cages around the world and beyond the reach of any law at all. This is the sort of thing that is making the US an international outlaw.