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Published in the 16-30 June 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Bush's Gulag at Guantanamo unravels

By Karamatullah K. Ghori

The Milli Gazette Online 

The month of May is usually associated in Washington with spring when the cherry trees that an American-occupied Japan 'gifted' to the American capital after World War II come into full bloom along the Potomac river. The cherry blossom season is regarded as the herald of a more congenial weather after a long and oppressive winter.

But this May turned out to be a harbinger of bad news for George W. Bush-a series of bad news-not only in the context of Iraq but also in reference, in general, to U.S. relations with the Islamic world and its Muslim inhabitants.

The Iraqi situation seems to be going from bad to worse, despite the best effort of the Bush administration and a helpful and obliging establishment media to keep the bad news off the general American view. The formation of a government, at long last, by Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaffari in Iraq has led to a major intensification of the insurgency against the continued American occupation. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in cold blood in the upsurge of violence; so has the casualty toll of U.S. servicemen climbed steeply in this period, adding to the discomfort of Bush, notwithstanding his bravado that democracy was taking roots in Iraq as a model for the rest of the Arab world.

Along side with the deteriorating security environment in the U.S.-occupied Iraq, more and more conscientious 'veterans' of Iraq have started unraveling a plethora of sordid details about the massive violations of prisoner rights in the infamous Abu Ghuraib prison. These revelations, making their way into the American press, point to a massive cover-up effort by the Pentagon and the White House as far as the apportioning of blame for prisoner abuse is concerned. All fingers point to responsibility traveling upward to the man presiding over the Pentagon: Donald Rumsfeld, who still seems to take pride in being a principal, if not the principal, architect of the invasion of Iraq. However, neither Rumsfeld is showing much grain of integrity to accept responsibility for what were clearly crimes against the human rights of the Iraqi prisoners of Abu Ghuraib, nor Bush seems to fancy any notion of firing one of his biggest hawks.

But an even greater embarrassment to the Bush administration's efforts to paint itself Muslim-friendly was caused by none other than an establishment media icon, the News Week, that reported wanton desecration of the Holy Quran at Bush's 'Gulag', the prisoner camp at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, in Cuba.

The News Week story spoke of the Holy Quran flushed down a toilet by American guards at the prison camp. The barbaric practice of dishonouring the Quran, reminiscent of what the Mongol hordes did in the Muslim cities vanquished by them-like Baghdad, Balkh and Bokara-in the 12th and 13th centuries sent shock waves traveling to far corners of the Islamic world. It also triggered bloody protests in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, leading to the death of scores of protestors in these countries ruled by American cronies and loyalists.

But the News Week, quickly lampooned by the White House and the State Department for showing scant journalistic ethics, also swiftly tried to save further embarrassment to Bush by retracting its story a week later. Obviously the retraction was engineered to present the administration as the innocent party in the uproar unleashed by the News Week's story. The magazine's editor also had the cheek to suggest that innocent lives of protestors were lost, not because of the story-that the magazine effetely claimed couldn't be substantiated-but because some politicians had used it as the catalyst to unleash popular protest. Pakistan's celebrated cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, was named, for instance, as one of the instigators, in a bizarre twist of American journalistic ethics.

However, the damage had been done as far as public opinion across the Islamic world was concerned. Few were prepared to accept News Week's retraction at its face value; most believed that the Bush administration, known for its strong-arming of opponents, must have leaned hard on the magazine's editors and managers to don the mantle of a 'fall guy' and absolve Bush & company of any part of guilt. The anger that engulfed a huge swath of the Muslim world over the incident was so strong and vibrant that loyalists and front-line soldiers in the war on terror, such as Pakistan's General Musharraf, had little choice but 'request' their mentor, Bush, for a thorough investigation of the incident of Quran's willful desecration. Even the Saudis couldn't stay out of the line of protest.

While the Bush administration may have taken shelter behind the News Week retraction, a subsequent investigation, forced on the Pentagon by the sheer weight of the Muslim protest, speaks of not one but several incidents of Quran's desecration and criminal violation by the guards and soldiers at the Guantanamo prison where more than five hundred Muslim prisoners from across the Islamic world are still incarcerated. 

The investigation, headed by Brig. General Jay Hood, is just making the headlines in the U.S. press, grudgingly, as well as in independent press elsewhere in the world. According to it, the Quran was deliberately kicked in front of the prisoners and in another incident it was splashed with urine " through an air vent."

Other wanton acts of Quran's desecration, according to the findings by Hood, included water balloons thrown by prison guards that caused an unspecified number of copies of Quran to get wet. In another confirmed incident, a two-word obscenity was written in English on the inside cover of a copy of the Quran.

But Hood has also tried to lessen the impact of the crimes committed by the prison guards against their Muslim detainees and their Holy book by stating that he also came across incidents of the prisoners themselves desecrating the Quran. He provides no explanation why the prisoners would do so. But there have been other accounts aplenty to paint a horrendous picture of prisoners being tortured and humiliated, psychologically as well as physically, thus putting them under enormous, and at times unbearable, stress. 

Swift on the tail of the Guantanamo revelations, sensational and disconcerting in the extreme as they were to Muslims all over the world, came the gory details of the torture and murder of at least two Afghan prisoners at the American detention camps at the Bagram Air base, outside Kabul, and at the base outside Kandahar.

So gruesome and hair-raising were the details of how innocent Afghan prisoners were brutally tortured and then killed in cold blood by their American torturers-including some female soldiers for whom torturing their victims was like a sport-that a model loyalist and puppet like President Hamid Karzai was moved to rage. He reacted angrily to the systematic torture of his people at a news conference in Kabul, just before departing for Washington to confab with his mentor George W. Bush.

But the most damning indictment of the wholesale abuse and torture of prisoners at the American prison camps, particularly the one at Guantanamo, has come in the annual report on violation of human rights, globally, by Amnesty International.

The annual report of Amnesty for 2004 calls the Guantanamo prison camp "the gulag of our times."

The 308- page report, made public on May 25, traces human rights violations throughout the globe, from Sudan to Haiti to Pakistan to Afghanistan and last, but not least, the U.S. It describes the U.S. violations of human rights its biggest disappointment " after evidence came to light that the U.S. administration had sanctioned interrogation techniques that violated the U.N. Convention against Torture."

The Amnesty report castigates the Bush administration for not only sanctioning techniques of torture but also for not treating the detainees at Guantanamo as POWs under the Geneva Conventions. Instead, these hapless victims of U.S. justice are being kept in a legal limbo by having been branded as 'enemy combatant', a terminology coined and minted for the administration's convenience.

Amnesty decries the Bush administration for not even honouring the justice system of U.S. Several detainees of Guantanamo have challenged their detention through the U.S. system of justice. However, according to Amnesty, " Not a single case from some 500 men has reached the courts." It accuses the American administration of attempts to "sanitize" the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo and refusing to provide them any access to courts of law.

Amnesty also alluded to reports frequently cited by the International Committee of the Red Cross ( ICRC) that the detainees were not being treated well at Guantanamo and other American detention centers. ICRC is the only international vigilance body allowed access to American detention camps; Amnesty has been regularly shut out of these places.

Incidentally, ICRC also told the Bush administration, close on the heels of the Amnesty report, of prisoner allegations that the Quran had been desecrated at Guantanamo. ICRC was the first international organization that had recorded cases of abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghuraib in Iraq.

Amnesty's denunciation of U.S. violations of international law and conventions had been preceded, a week earlier, by declassified FBI reports that cited the Guantanamo prisoners' complaints to their American interrogators, as early as April, 2002-just four months after the first detainees from Afghanistan were transported to Guantanamo-that guards at the prison had tortured them and also desecrated the Quran.

The Bush administration was so peeved at the Amnesty report that the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, described the report as " ridiculous and unsupported by facts." 

However, the fact of the matter is that the Islamic world-wide impact of the reports of Quran's desecration was so strong and powerful that long before the Amnesty report hit the Bush administration like a ton of bricks it had already embarked on a salvage operation to make amends. Bush deployed his better-half, the 'first lady' Laura Bush, to shore up his administration's tattered image amongst the Muslims. Laura Bush traveled as a goodwill ambassador of her husband to important Muslim states, like Turkey and Egypt, as also to Jordan and the Palestinian West Bank to put up the softer image of Washington. It is, however, hard to assess what meaningful impact, if any, Laura Bush had in assuaging the Muslim feeling of hurt on such a sensitive issue as the desecration of the Quran.

While it may deem it sufficient to send softer emissaries and ambassadors to the Muslim world to attempt watering down the anger its exuberance in the war on terror-of which the desecration of the Quran is an inevitable consequence-has evoked amongst the Muslims throughout the world, the Bush administration is still not prepared to accept that such practices are the result of a policy sanctioned at the very top. Those executing the policy of repression and torture of Muslim prisoners at the functional level may have been consumed by their own passion and petty prejudices against Muslims but there has been a pattern of consistency about the ill-treatment of prisoners in their charge that points to policy guidelines clearly set for them. 

Obviously, guidelines on a subject of such global sensitivity as torture can only be set at the level of a committed warmonger like Donald Rumsfeld. The fact that Bush has retained Rumsfeld for his second term in office and has refused to discipline him, much less fire him, speaks volumes of Bush's own tacit endorsement of whatever policy Rumsfeld may have sanctioned for the treatment, or lack of it, of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo or, for that matter, at Abu Ghuraib.

Incidentally, these two prison camps have become household names because of the media coverage accorded to them. But there are scores of American detention and prison camps which have not come under the media limelight, yet, and whose reports are still hard to come by. But one can easily infer how the hapless prisoners at those camps may be faring.

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